Film review: Pixar's Inside Out - watch out, it's teaching your kids to behave like animals!

Inside outIn this animation by Pixar we see how a little girl called Riley copes with a family move from the Midwest to the San Francisco when her father starts a new job. Initially she finds the move difficult and through the film gradually comes to terms with it. The process by which she does so is portrayed as one of conflicting emotions. We look into her mind and see five personifications, of Joy, Fear, Sadness, Disgust and Anger which respond events happening to her as she perceives them, and information fed to her by the subconscious memory. Each battles to be the dominant and so control he mood and actions of Riley. The film seems to have been universally well received with most reviewers I have seen give it four or five stars. Although there are some great, funny lines in it, as with all the Pixar offerings I have seen, I did not share this view unreservedly. I thought the story was dull and the imaginary rules by which the competing elements of each emotion responded to the influence of the information seemed inconsistent and so it was unconvincing as an imaginary world inside the mind. You may feel different about that and side with the mainstream reviewers. In the little crowd with whom saw it I was probably the least entertained.

However, I would say that for other reasons, going beyond entertainment, that this is not a film to show your children. I thought it portrayed a flawed anthropology. Read this sentence from the Rotton Tomatoes summary: 'Like all of us, Riley is guided by her emotions - Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). The emotions live in Headquarters, the control center inside Riley's mind, where they help advise her through everyday life.'


And therein lies the problem for me. This is a portrayal of the modern obsession with passion and emotion that has been handed on to us from the Romantics of the 19th century and Rousseau in the 18th. In my understanding (supported by my own experience, even as an eleven year old), we are not all subject to our emotions in the way that the reviewer supposes and film makers want us to believe. We have reason, we have a will. We assess all the information and although we might choose to do sometimes, we are not bound to follow the dictates whichever emotion is the strongest. That puts us at the level of animals.


There is something important missing in Inside Out. There is a part of the soul that can make judgments and which, in some way, steps back from our instinctive reactions to things and influence of the memories. It observes all the information coming into the mind and then decides what to do. This the spirit. The spirit ican look to others in love and it is by the spirit that we relate to others and to God as a human person, (just as the persons of the Trinity relate to each other). This is what is special to man among creatures: he is able to observe himself. I once heard it put like this. Animals are aware of things, like man; but unlike man they are not aware that they are aware.

Pope Benedict XVI (as Cardinal Ratzinger) wrote about the spirit as the aspect of the soul by which we relate to other in an essay for the journal Communio published in 1990 (p 439, Communio 17, Fall 1990). In reference to the spirit he wrote: 'It is the nature St Francis-Shrewsbury School-1226of the spirit to put itself in relation, the capacity to see itself and the other...the spirit is not merely there, it goes back on itself, as it were; it knows about itself. It constitutes a double existence which not only is, but knows about itself, has itself.' In icons, you often see faces portrayed with a slight lump or dimple in the middle of the forehead just above the bridge of the nose. This can be thought of as a symbol of the spirit. My teacher would refer to it with the Greek term, the nous, (meaning literally 'mind') and call it the the 'spiritual eye'.


This is the spirit which is referred to by St Paul in Thessalonians, and by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews. It is referred to by Our Lady in the Magnificat, which is sung in Vespers every day, when she says: 'My spirit rejoices in God my saviour.' In the Mass, the priest turns to us and says, 'The Lord be with you.' And we reply, 'And with your spirit.' In both cases the spirit is instrumental in being in relationship with God.

Christian commentators can differ on precisely which aspects of soul reside in the spirit, but St Thomas, for example, says that it is the intellect and the will, by which we know and love, constitute the spirit. It is the spirit, he says, that separates man from 'brute animals' and likens us to angels. (I wrote a longer article on this anthropology, here.)


This is the great problem with Inside Out, in the child Riley there is no sixth personification. This sixth aspect of the soul should have been there, detached from the emotions and able to reason and to  love and be open to the promptings of grace and the Holy Spirit.

No wonder Riley was struggling with life, she was living in miserable isolation! May the Lord be with your spirit.

— ♦—

My book the Way of Beauty is available from Angelico Press and Amazon.

JAY W. RICHARDS, Editor of the Stream and Lecturer at the Business School fo the Catholic University of America said about it: “In The Way of Beauty, David Clayton offers us a mini-liberal arts education. The book is a counter-offensive against a culture that so often seems to have capitulated to a ‘will to ugliness.’ He shows us the power in beauty not just where we might expect it — in the visual arts and music — but in domains as diverse as math, theology, morality, physics, astronomy, cosmology, and liturgy. But more than that, his study of beauty makes clear the connection between liturgy, culture, and evangelization, and offers a way to reinvigorate our commitment to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the twenty-first century. I am grateful for this book and hope many will take its lessons to heart.”