For too long—way too long—Hollywood has been giving us kids movies with an increasingly threadbare theme: “follow your heart” (sometimes rehashed as “follow your dreams,” or the even more vapid “be yourself”).
These themes were meant to carry an intentionally inoffensive pseudo-moral message, boiled down in its essentials to something like, “do the thing you really want to do a whole lot even though others—especially your parents—will be obstacles to your self-defined, self-fulfillment.”
If we scratch down a bit, we realize the reason for continually recycling this kind of a message. We live in a culture that has rejected the understanding that human life has a definite goal that we, as human beings, should be trying to achieve. We therefore believe that we are goal-less creatures who are free to define ourselves in whatever way happens to please us, blank slates upon which we can scribble anything we want.
This view—stretching all the way back to the atheist Machiavelli in the early 16th century, through the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche in the late 19th century, and all the way down to today’s secular invent-yourself culture—assumes that there is no God, so we can therefore manipulate nature, including our own human nature, in any way we desire. All that matters is that we each get whatever we want.
The Machiavellian-Nietzschean-secular view—we can call it the modern secular view for short—purposely rejected the natural law, Judeo-Christian understanding that assumed that the human moral good was defined by God in creating our human nature as rational animals, male and female, made in the divine image.
We see the clash of these two rival worldviews in the debates about marriage. On one side we have the natural law, Judeo-Christian understanding of marriage which is defined by our given sexually complementary nature as male and female. On the other side, we have the claim that marriage is defined in any way any one happens to please. In other words, as far as marriage goes, “follow your heart,” “follow your dreams,” “be yourself,” “do the thing you really want to do a whole lot even though others—especially your parents—will be obstacles to your self-defined, self-fulfillment.”
The “follow your dreams” approach to kid film-making is not, then, so very innocuous in its pedigree. It’s the result of the secular dominance of the culture, which grounds itself on an endless plurality of ever-shifting, endless desires, a culture where there is no right or wrong but only getting what you really want or not getting it.
Even more, it creates boring kids movies because there is no definite moral aim that can give a real backbone to the drama. Such movies teach children that the moral life consists in getting whatever you happen to desire—which is an exceedingly effective way to form children into adults who act like spoiled children, and turn our political life into a contest of tantrums.
Enter Pixar’s new movie Inside Out. Not once do viewers hear the hackneyed “follow your heart/dreams.” Instead, we find out why following what one happens to feel strongly about at any given time can be self-destructive, or even better, family-destructive.
The focus of the movie is the drama of the passions that human beings, as human beings, have “inside” them—joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust—the passions which determine what comes “out” in our thoughts, words, and actions as they are formed within the natural family structure: a man/husband/father, a woman/wife/mother, and a child of one very definite gender, in this case a girl (Riley).
What children learn—and even more, adults who’ve not heard the moral message—is that our feelings are actually quite complex. There isn’t some amorphous inner blob called “heart” which we can follow. We have, in fact, distinct feelings of joy, of sadness, of anger, of fear, and of disgust. They are part of our standard equipment; they are all good, each having its own purpose (including fear, sadness, and even disgust).
But we can’t just follow our passions because they can also mislead us if we take them as guides to what we should think, what we should say, and what we should do. The passions are instruments that help us think and act well, not guides. We need (to quote Aristotle) to learn to fear the right things, in the right way, and the right time, and for the right reason. In this way, fear helps us do the right thing.
Sadness is proper—we should be saddened by things that are bad or evil, or even disgusted by them. While anger is one of our most misleading passions, it is also a proper response to actual injustice, and even a spur to good action. And joy is our controlling passion insofar as our proper moral goal is (again, to quote Aristotle) happiness.
Inside Out personifies each of the passions, making them a kind of team (led by Joy) that helps to control the human being from inside—most of the film focusing on the increasingly complex inner life of Riley as she grows from a baby to a teenager.
As abstract as this all sounds (and I’m leaving out a lot of thoughtful and entertaining details), Pixar has done an intelligently delightful job of presenting the passions jostling inside people as having real personalities (or we might say, real and sharp qualities). They are not cardboard, preachy-teachy cutouts that make such morbidly dull reading in the worst of contrived and moralistic allegories. They are funny, insightful, and true to life, and carry the drama forward with the usual Pixar excellence.
The overarching drama on the outside is quite ordinary. A loving father and mother move with their much-loved daughter Riley from Minnesota to San Francisco because of the father’s job change. The little girl, predictably, has trouble adjusting, and gets both sad and angry enough to run away. But in the end, because she misses her parents, Riley gets off the bus taking her back to Minnesota, and returns to her loving father and mother.
All very ordinary. The real drama occurs inside, where Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger try to coordinate their respective passions for the sake of the little girl’s good. The problems come when the wrong passions dominate Riley’s actions—when she gets disgusted and then angry as a baby when her father tries to make her eat broccoli, or when she gets unduly sad and then angry at her parents for moving to San Francisco and therefore tries to run away.
The long-term, big-picture message is that, young or old, we must learn to control our passions rather than be controlled by them.
Even more amazing and ambitious for a kids movie, Inside Out explores the connections between the various distinct passions and memories, dreams, thoughts, and judgments. It does it all in a way that both appeals to and instructs children, and provides enough food for thought that Inside Out could be used as a kind of introductory philosophical “text” in college—something which, as a college professor, I might very well do!
Having some doubts about a college professor assigning a Pixar movie? Well then, perhaps you are not aware that Plato, in his Republic, argued that the utmost attention must be paid by philosophers to children’s stories in any political regime because the first years of moral formation are the most important. If Plato were here with us today, one of his first questions would be, “What kind of stories do you tell your children?”
I am sure he would be quite happy with Inside Out, especially if he would compare it with the dreary march of soul-distorting “follow your hearts” films that have plagued us for so long.