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 wantto 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 wantto 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
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)
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