Inside Out – Christian Movie Review & Why I’m Torn About It

Kevin Ott - Editor and Writer for Rocking God's House (small)[Note: after you read my review for “Inside Out” below, if you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis, please check out my new blog Stabs of Joy or my podcast Aslan’s Paw. Both seek to crack open the surprising treasures of Christian belief — the things that Western society has forgotten, ignored, or never encountered — with the help of logic, literature, film, music, and one very unsafe Lion.]

I’m torn. This movie — about the emotions of a girl named Riley when she and her parents have to move away from where she grew up in Minnesota and start a new life in San Francisco — has me conflicted. There is a very specific modern psychological theory (a Darwin-influenced one), published in the 1960s, that informs the entire world of “Inside Out.” I’ll dive into all of that in detail in the “Worldviews” section, but first let’s talk about the movie in general for a moment.

(WARNING: I’m going to dive deep into this film’s themes, and you might be wondering, “Isn’t this a bit too much for just a Pixar movie?” Well, it’s not just a Pixar movie. Pixar never makes just kid’s movies. It is actually a very deep thinking movie that presents a complex mix of beliefs and assumptions about truth beneath all of that stunning animation and adorable hilarity.)

Inside of the character Riley are the Emotions — which are sentient beings, the primary characters of the film — and they completely control Riley. They pull every string that makes her tick (including controlling what she thinks about, apparently), and they also exert total control, like a band of dictators who happen to be a cute little comedy troop, over the moviegoer. I’ll explain why in a moment. (By the way, does each Emotion character also have little emotion characters in their heads, and do those Emotions have smaller emotion characters in their heads, and…it’s like a crazy room of mirrors in a fun house that never ends!)

Kicking Puppies and Pixar Predestination vs. Pixar Freewill

Writing a bad review of “Inside Out” would be like kicking a puppy, stealing a baby’s candy, and then clicking on the “thumbs down” icon on every overly cute dancing, singing, juggling cat/baby/dog YouTube video ever made.

“Inside Out” is so perfectly calculated with its cuteness and emotional provocation (and manipulation) that you have no choice but to like it. And I am not exaggerating. You truly have no free will once the movie begins. Every laugh (a couple of which are hysterical, rolling out of your seat laughs), sniffle, gasp, and smile has already been prepared for you in advance like a pre-packaged bag lunch, and it’s there waiting for you when you sit down.

And the filmmakers are so skilled in knowing exactly how/what/who/when to trigger facial expressions, sounds, and punch lines that every person in the theater moves with ease down the same track together like a ride at Disneyland. Everyone hits their pre-programmed emotional reactions like the coded cues of animatronic robots in the Small World ride.

It’s Pixar predestination.

In fact, forget about the free will vs. predestination debate. Pixar has settled it: you will laugh, cry, and gasp exactly when Pixar orders you to, whether you like it or not — and whether you know it or not.

The Secret Is Out

Of course, every movie is trying to do that. It’s just that “Inside Out” does it so well (and with so little subtlety because of its subject matter) that it lays bare with perfect visibility the true intent of every big money movie ever made: Hollywood tent pole movies — the big blockbusters in which shareholders are investing fortunes — are carefully engineered to force you to feel and think exactly what it wants you to feel and think to ensure that you love the film, tell your friends about it, and cause others to buy tickets to it. Cinema is culturally accepted dictatorship.

And “Inside Out” is one of the most colorful, engaging, imaginative, and well-crafted emotional dictatorships that has ever been made by all of those presumptuous, high and mighty tyrants of Hollywood who gaze with condescension down at all of us sheeples, I mean, ahem, moviegoers.

I think I just kicked a puppy.

Okay, on to the parental guidance before I talk more about why this movie is so aggressive (and effective) about being perfect that it’s distracting…

Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance for this PG-rated film

Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality and Romance: A married woman, as we see inside her head, fantasizes about a handsome Brazilian pilot that she met on vacation, which is used for laughs.

Violence/Gore: Slapstick cartoony bangs, crashes, slaps, and kabooms. Though I suppose there are two murders…of…cloud people…in Imagination Land. (I’m not making that up. That’s really in the movie.) So be warned. If you’re sensitive to seeing cloud people being mercilessly terminated, you might want to cover your eyes during those scenes.

Language: The “Angry” character talks fondly about wanting to say curse words that Riley has learned. This is done for laughs, of course. In one scene, he is about to say one (and in the context of the sentence, we know it’s an s-word), but there’s a convenient “beep” sound that covers the swear word up.

Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: None.

Intense/Frightening Content: There’s a really big creepy cartoon clown. A cartoon dog gets chopped in half in a dream, and it’s severed back half runs around without the front half. It has a weird surrealism feel to it, but it’s in a comical context (and is actually a funny scene).

(Review continues below)

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Entertainment Value and Film Craft

As I mentioned already, the execution of the story is flawless. It’s another Pixar masterpiece. There is absolutely no doubt about that. The voice acting is superb across the board, and the animation is so expressively human that it’s almost unsettling.

But still, beneath all of the filmmaking perfection, you feel manipulated. Maybe it’s because it’s a film about our emotions, and while it’s talking about emotions, it’s hitting all of our emotional buttons relentlessly. And you have to hand it to them. They’ve got this whole movie thing down. The moment you sit down in the theater you are no longer in the driver’s seat. Pixar is taking over, and they will ensure that you react exactly how they want you to react.

“Inside Out” will go down as one of the best animated family movies ever made. I will not argue that point. But I suppose I prefer more subtle films. This movie’s constant lunging for my heartstrings with its overwhelming cuteness and awesomeness — and its intense focus in the story itself on those very emotions it was creating in me — had a very strange counter-effect: it didn’t make me feel like I was watching a story being told. At times it made me feel like I was watching a video of myself watching the movie as the movie coached me on how I should feel about watching me watch the movie that was about those feelings that were actual characters in the movie.

It was an odd experience. It was sort of paralyzing. But, yes, it’s still a Pixar masterpiece. It was just slightly too brazen and obvious for my taste with its “Hey, I’m cute and funny and clever! You WILL love me!” and it was just slightly too precocious to the point of being slightly off-putting.

I will say, however, that three segments — the Dream Production scene, the “perfect boyfriend” ladder scene, and the bonus clips in the credits (in which it looks inside the heads of other people besides Riley) — were just HYSTERICAL. Those three segments alone made the movie worth the trip. I would happily watch the film again just for those hilarious scenes.

Worldviews, Subtext, Symbolism, Themes of Redemption, Social Commentary, Etc.

Before I jump into this, let me make a disclaimer: I am very torn about this movie. It has some truly exceptional messages: the power and priceless value of family and having a healthy relationship with your mother and father. And I loved the way it captures the preciousness of one person’s life — all of our memories, triumphs, defeats. The film sees value in every corner of our existence, even in our most painful sorrows. I absolutely loved that. Couldn’t get enough of that aspect of the film, and I’d happily see it again just to ponder those things.

But here is why I’m so torn about this complex, beautiful work of pop art:

1. A Film Built Entirely On the Darwin-Influenced Discrete Emotion Theory

“Inside Out” is built entirely on the modern psychology theory called “discrete emotion theory,” by Silvan Tompkins, whose theory was allegedly influenced by Charles Darwins’s “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” The film’s use of the Tompkins jargon, like “core emotions,” in its central plot points are dead giveaways. Here’s a quick definition of it that I grabbed from Wikipedia:

Discrete emotion theory is the claim that there are a small number of core emotions, typically six to ten or so. For example, Silvan Tomkins (1962) concluded that there are eight: surprise, interest, joy, rage, fear, disgust, shame, and anguish. This theory states that these specific core emotions are biologically determined emotional responses whose expression and recognition is fundamentally the same for all individuals regardless of ethnic or cultural differences…Tomkins’ (1962, 1963) idea was influenced by Darwin’s concept [in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals].

Not every psychologist has bought the Tompkins theory: “James Russell and Lisa Barrett have criticized discrete emotion theory on several points. Those include problems in finding correspondences between discrete emotions and brain activity, variability in facial expressions and behavior, and gradations in emotional responses.”

However, despite it only being a theory, the discrete emotion theory is swallowed whole hog by this film as if it were fact. And I’m just mentioning it as a heads up, in case you’re wondering what presuppositions they’re using for their world-building in Riley’s head.

2. The Film Subtly (Maybe Unintentionally?) Ignores that a Child’s Emotional Development Begins in the Womb, Not After Birth

Psychotherapists have discovered that babies in the womb feel emotions — everything from anger to joy. However, when “Inside Out” depicts the “birth” of a child’s first emotion, it takes place right after the baby is born when she is an infant, when she opens her eyes and sees her parents. Interpret that however you want as far as any deeper social commentary, but the science is not accurate. They could have done some humorous, artistic things if the first appearance of the emotion “characters” happened in the womb (besides being more scientifically accurate). But, I get it, it’s a sweet moment when little Riley opens her eyes and see her mother and father for the first time. I understand why they’d choose that moment for “Joy” to be born too. It emphasizes the powerful, priceless influence that our parents have in our lives.

3. The Film Omits Any Exploration of Spiritual Reality

Now, I wouldn’t ever expect Pixar to go in this direction because of who they are and who owns them, but their depiction of a person’s inner world also completely ignores the spiritual/faith side. The film presents a broadly appealing, quasi-naturalist view of what comprises the inner life of a human being.

As mentioned above, the emotions run the entire show inside of Riley, including her thoughts. Don’t get me wrong, we all have moments when our emotions are calling the shots, and there are modern psycho-babble theories that believe our emotional self lies at the base of everything we do (certain popular marketing theories, like “Lovemarks,” base their entire marketing philosophy on that belief), but I don’t think people should mindlessly embrace the film’s vision of our internal world. The depiction of Riley’s inner world sort of deifies emotions, and it quietly suggests that this emotional schematic is “all there is” to us — that nothing else happens inside us: no influence from the “extra-dimensional” plane of spiritual existence (i.e. spiritual warfare Ephesians 6:12, Matthew 12:43), and certainly no indwelling of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26) whose Voice — that still, small voice — can have more influence than a thousand emotions…

4. Searching for a Picture of the Soul That’s Even Brighter Than “Inside Out”

For all the bright colors, dazzling animation, and uproarious comedy that had me laughing and smiling in “Inside Out,” there’s something missing in this film, and it is a significant “something.”

There’s a telling scene: when the character Joy plummets into the great chasm where memories fall, she lands in a wasteland piled up with thousands of memories. And the memories are dying and disintegrating, turning into dust and float
ing away — gone forever. It is a very emotional scene, a very sad one.

But, interestingly, the Bible has a much different view about our internal world.

God sees, preserves, and records everything. Nothing is lost forever.

Jesus taught that Jehovah keeps track of the tiniest detail of our lives — to the point of knowing the number of hairs on our head (Matthew 10:30).

But it goes deeper than the scalp. Psalm 56:8 says this:

You number my wanderings;
Put my tears into Your bottle;
Are they not in Your book?

And Psalm 139:16 says:

Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.

When we open our hearts to Christ and freely accept that precious gift of grace and forgiveness that God is offering to us — that gift of an eternal relationship with our Creator — the implications and blessings that flow from it are monumental.

As shown in the verses above, Jehovah maintains a careful record of every thought, emotion, and memory we experience, and He keeps it forever. Not even Alzheimer’s can permanently destroy those things. (I personally believe that the moment a person with Alzheimer’s steps into Christ’s presence after he or she dies, God restores to their spirits the joy of their lives that they had forgotten.)

But this bright reality is nowhere to be found in “Inside Out.” And that made me sad.

Conclusion: It’s a Cinematic Masterpiece, Yes, But “Inside Out” Could Have Been So Much More

Whether it was intentional or not isn’t the point: by omitting all the spiritual truths mentioned above, “Inside Out” feels oddly contradictory in certain moments — a very subtle melancholy that hovers in the back of your mind like white noise — despite all of its dazzle and adorable hilarity.

I hear you: all of this analysis is too much for just a kid’s movie, right? Well, if Pixar is going to think this deeply about its content, to the point of throwing discrete emotion theory at us for an hour and a half, then I think it’s time that moviegoers start thinking deeply too about what they’re consuming. We shouldn’t check our brains out at the door and pick them up when we leave the theater.

Despite all these caveats, I have to give “Inside Out” a high rating because it is a masterpiece in its craft and genre, and it does do something exceptionally well: it makes you see the priceless value of family and life — how beautiful and precious all of it is, even in the moments of deep sadness.

My rating for “Inside Out”: [usr 8]

[If you’re a fan of U2 or C.S. Lewis, please check out my new blog Stabs of Joy that explores dozens of Lewis books and U2 albums to answer one question: how do we find joy in the midst of extremely difficult circumstances?]


Note about my ratings:

1 star = one of the worst movies ever made (the stuff of bad movie legends), and it usually (not always) has below 10% on Rotten Tomatoes

2-3 stars = a mostly bad movie that has a handful of nice moments; it usually falls between (but not always — as is the case with “Spy”) 10-30% on Rotten Tomatoes

4-6 stars = a decent movie with some flaws, overall. Four stars mean its flaws outweigh the good. Five stars mean equal good, equal bad. Six stars mean it’s a fairly good movie, with some great moments even, that outweigh a few flaws. A 4-6 star rating usually means it falls between 30-59% on Rotten Tomatoes (but not always).

7-9 stars = a rare rating reserved only for the best movies of that year; and a film must have a Fresh Tomato rating (60% or higher) on Rotten Tomatoes to be given 7 stars or higher.

10 stars = one of the best films of all time, right up there with the all-time greats (i.e. Casablanca, The African Queen, Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars Episode IV, Indiana Jones, etc.).

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