Another Look at Disney Pixar’s Inside Out

The latest work of Disney’s Pixar Animation Studio is Inside Out, a movie which focuses on our emotions and how they interact with our daily lives, set inside the mind of a growing pre-teenage girl named Riley.

[Spoiler Alert]  To catch those of you who haven’t seen this movie up to speed, the movie takes place between Riley’s birth and a time when Riley’s family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco; Riley is 11 years old at this later point. However, the other main characters in the movie are her emotions, known to us as Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger. In the beginning of the movie, Joy starts out by herself in “headquarters” (assumed to be the brain), enjoying making only joyful memories by herself. Slowly, the other four emotions come into the picture as Riley grows older, creating their own memories in the lens of the emotions they represent.

Now, we need to understand that the entire movie is a sort of metaphor, an allegory really, which attempts to explain how we interact with our emotions. Some have praised the movie as a new explanation of contemporary psychology, helping people understand how they function and go about daily life. Because this movie is an allegory, I think it is fair to treat it and dissect it as such, pointing out the issues Disney has glossed over, as well as the more overt fallacies which they showcase. It’s time to take a second look at the movie from a Biblical perspective and solidify our own convictions, especially as the world continues to change around us.

Note: Some other wonderful posts have been written about Inside Out, including one at Desiring God, as well as one on this blog! (Shout-out to thebeardedone) While these posts focus mainly on Disney’s perspective on joy and true joy in the Lord Jesus, I’ll be focusing on a slightly different but equally important issue. I encourage you to read these posts as well, as they give a healthy perspective on the character Joy.


So what’s wrong with the movie anyway?

I mean come on, it’s a Disney movie, they’ve always been a little bit over-hopeful and happy-go-lucky about things.  What’s wrong with a movie about emotions?

A lot of things actually. Most of Disney’s previous movies have had a bit too happy a story-line, and some obvious plot holes in character development and such (maybe that’s another post to come). This by itself isn’t really a bad thing; usually God hasn’t been in the picture. However, when Disney decided to tap into the inner being of mankind, some major questions are brought to light, which, I’m sad to say, simply weren’t answered.


The First Problem

The first issue we have is one of what our emotions actually are. According to the movie, they are—we don’t really know actually. They’re just little people who happen to have their own thoughts, and can’t really see anything in any perspective other than their own. For example, joy is always happy, sadness always sad, etc. As far as a metaphor goes, I think we’re still safe. What is their purpose though? This is where the metaphor gets a little shaky: in the movie, they are shown at some sort of magical control panel with which they each try to control Riley. Wait…what? Yes, in the movie they actually have control over what Riley does in a sort of creepy, robotic way. As I see it, this is similar to Tony Stark and his Iron Man suit; Tony is definitely not the suit (Hold on Marvel fans, yes he’s still “Iron Man”, I know…). However, the suit doesn’t have control over what it is doing, nor can it have any regard for what Tony tells it to do or go through. It would have been a bit awkward if the suit decided it didn’t really want to go into the portal with Tony at the end of The Avengers to destroy the Chitauri. For non-nerds, what I’m getting at is that at no point in the movie do the emotions start putting in commands which Riley herself, the human, decides to contradict or overrule. There is a point at which the emotions lose control over the keyboard itself, but I’ll get to that issue later.

Anyway, the problem with this part of the metaphor is that the emotions are in control of Riley. What does that say for Riley’s actions? It means Riley isn’t really in control of her actions, including both “good” things and “bad” things. This completely ignores the possibility of sin in our own lives, and our accountability for it. The Bible teaches something completely different though—first, we all have turned away from God (Romans 3:10-12), actively choosing sin. Adam and Eve actively chose to eat of the fruit and rebel against God (Genesis 3:6). There is no wiggle room in here to say that our emotions made us do anything, that we are not in control of ourselves, or that we have not ourselves chosen to sin.

Likewise, we ourselves must choose to accept God and believe that he has sent His Son to save us from our sins (Acts 16:31, John 3:16).

If we were not in control of our own actions, it would not make sense for God to condemn us to an eternity of hell, because we would not be guilty of sin. Conversely, Christ would not have any power to save us from our sins, as he would not have chosen to not sin and to bear the cross for us. As you can see, there are a lot of issues wrapped up in this concept of human responsibility.

Sadly, this point of contention has come up legally as well, as today we see cases where defendants plead insanity or mental disability for terrible and serious crimes, and as a result face no legal guilt.


The Second Problem

Another major issue is the status of the emotions in the movie: Disney shows no favor to any of the emotions in their role in influence over Riley, but rather that they all work as a sort of council over Riley, deciding together what is best for her to do. While showing favor to any of the emotions is not really the issue, the main problem lies in the fact that we know that to have Anger is sinful for anybody but God, because we are incapable of having righteous anger. God loves perfectly, and also hates perfectly.  Because we are not perfect, we will never in this life be capable of hating perfectly as God does. However, Anger is portrayed as just another emotion in the film, and just another part of Riley and how she operates. As Christians, we should think completely differently of anger in our lives.  We should try to kill our sinful anger, allowing only anger directed at sin itself to endure.

This idea also applies to Disgust, but a bit differently, as this “emotion” could probably involve several different sins, depending on the situation. Most likely to occur would be pride and greed, though general unkindness and unlovingness are accurate directions. For both Anger and Disgust, we need to remember that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18). Though God originally made us in his image with pure anger and disgust, they have been corrupted since our fall, and will always be tainted with sin.

Fear also applies differently, as we know that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7) and that we were ultimately never meant to fear things other than God (cf. Matthew 10:28). Also, we as Christians have our comfort in the Lord and know that he is our provider, and that we should never fear anything other than the Lord by nature of His being, and our assurance of salvation.  God’s perfect love casts out our fear (1 John 4:18).


The Third Problem

The last problem with the extensive metaphor is that the conscience and soul are completely ignored. While different “islands of personality” are discussed, and long term and short term memory are seen, there is not a single mention of Riley having any soul or conscience. This is heavily linked to the first problem as our soul is most related to our sin and righteousness. The conscience is what bears the weight of sin though—the reason we feel guilt, our warning system against sin, and how we keep ourselves in line with what we know to be true. Without the conscience in the question at all, we don’t see any remorse for times when Riley does wrong, including the climax of the movie as she decides to run back to her parents. We see her run back to her parents because she is sad that she misses them, not because of any guilt or remorse. While we may not see many people act according to conscience nowadays, we can certainly remember being children and crying because we had done something our parents said not to do, or had otherwise done what we knew was wrong. This is how our conscience operates, and what its purpose is in our lives. It brings us to see where we have gone wrong and stirs up emotions which help us realize how we have been wrong. Ultimately this is meant to bring us to repentance, that we might be humbled and realize our need for a savior.


What the Movie Got Right

At the height of the development in Inside Out, we see that the emotions lose power on their control panel in headquarters and Riley is in a sort of auto-pilot mode where she continues to run away from her parents with no way of being stopped. This is very similar to John MacArthur’s description of how the conscience is silenced in his book The Vanishing Conscience. While the conscience is not brought up in the movie to the slightest extent, it still very clearly shows the danger of a person whose conscience is dead and cannot serve them properly. To understand more about the conscience, its death in our society and the devastating consequences on culture, I highly recommend reading MacArthur’s book, where he delves into this topic extensively.

Unfortunately, this ignorance of the conscience is prevalent (and only increasingly so) in our society today, and I’m grieved to see Disney Pixar create a fun and imaginative work of film which only prods our culture farther in the wrong direction. This movie encourages our society to blame their actions on emotions (which are a God-given part of us by the way), ignore guilt and our conscience, and mistake our emotions as our ruler instead of God himself. I pray for the church as we see this film and enjoy its lovable characters that we might see through the fallacies of this depiction of the human psyche and continue to turn to God’s word for truth regarding our emotions and how we operate.