Disney Pixar’s Inside Out from a Theological Perspective

(spoilers ahead)

What’s Inside Out about?

There’s a few levels to this question. 1, what’s this movie about. 2, how do the movie’s themes challenges societal norms. 3, how does this line up with the counter-culture that scripture calls for.

Before reading, I suggest you scroll through my About and Framework pages on the side bar to see the way I’m approaching this discussion. Both are works in progress, but will give you a better picture of what I want to articulate. Thanks for reading.

These are the biggest themes for me:

a) Self awareness through the personification of emotions.

Even beyond the fact that Inside Out is a kid’s movie, having an emotional vocabulary is important. I’d liken it to Myers-Briggs tests: it’s not the end all be all of your personality, but it’s a great introduction to the kind of language you need to talk about yourself with respect to all the nuances of a personality. Similarly, having the personified emotions of Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, and Disgust gives us the language to zoom out and assess ourselves.

We feel empathy for Riley’s emotions because they all want the same thing in their own way. They want what’s best for Riley, and are trying to work through their individual nuances and biases. Yes, Joy always wants Riley to be happy, but sometimes that’s not what’s best for her. Rather, sometimes Sadness needs to have control.

The control panel at the end is a really cool aspect. As people grow up, from children capable of only one emotion at a time, to teenagers that have multiple, conflicting feelings that they don’t understand, and finally to adults that can assess for themselves what’s going on internally, the range of emotions in control at the same time increases.

b) Identity and growth.

Think about the Personality Islands the movie presents: they transform too. At the beginning, the four or five that Riley has are based on simple core memories (I had a happy experience with hockey therefore I like it!) Later, especially when Joy sees the sad part of that hockey memory of Riley losing because she missed, the movie makes a case that these memories that set your identity are based on your emotional growth too. As you see the “good” part of sadness (in the way it creates bonding moments, for example), these islands of your identity grow and incorporate.

The movie puts it well: at the end, Riley’s Personality Islands expand beyond the five she had as a child. The family island becomes both the happy memories of playing around, but also the sad experiences of moving and having to support each other. Your personality and identity continues to change while new previous experiences, emotions, and memories to old ones.

c) Intimacy through vulnerability.

It takes Riley sharing her true feelings about moving to San Francisco for the family to really start to understand each other. Using the personified emotions, Joy isn’t always in the driver’s seat. Sadness needed to take over and share that, even if it meant Riley wasn’t always happy.

But that’s an absolutely terrifying thing! Maybe for Riley it wasn’t, because her identity was based on her family relationships. But for college students, whose identity might be set in, say, school success, or friend relationships, who wants to admit to anyone that you’re struggling in school, or feel constantly lonely? Fear can easily take over. It’s vulnerable – maybe too vulnerable.

The movie is a little unclear about this because it’s very family focused. But within that context, wanting to be closer to your family is natural. When we’re older, there’s more barriers, more built up tensions, but as an 11 year old (and really everyone) you just want to be loved. So taking that risk to share something that might be critical to how people view you (Riley didn’t want to let her parents down by showing her sadness) is difficult – but it has to be done for the sake of intimacy.

This intimacy can look different. It could be learning about how to communicate, it could be learning how to share emotions (like the movie), it could be realizing the person you’re trying to get closer to has more behind what you see (Riley’s parents had never seen her that sad before!).

Why that’s important.

The key takeaway is that being happy isn’t always the best thing for someone.

In the real world, I think this helps address the stigma of mental health. There’s this tension between not wanting to admit that something is wrong (and seeking help), and not wanting to draw attention to something that might be wrong because it could be nothing. How do you self-assess clinical depression and a temporary sadness in the moment? It’s difficult. But when you can see that you’re down, and know that it’s only part of the process, you can have a little more hope. Otherwise, when you’re stuck there and apathetic (like when Riley ran away), there might be a little more that you need to dig into.

What is the end goal of life? It’s a meta-question, sure, but it’s important to take a look at. There’s no singular solution, but the movie provides a little facet of what’s important.  Relationships and intimacy with those people are core to being a person. It’s absolutely important that you don’t go through life alone. Inside Out provides a compelling case for what that looks like, through self assessment, external action, and eventually personal and relational growth.

What does Christianity say (about identity, emotions, vulnerability, and intimacy)

Consider the film as the interpretation and crystallization of the screenwriter’s thoughts and observations about the world. By taking these observations in, we as viewers gain a way to articulate a shared experience and understand the world through another’s eyes. Our question is, does what scripture says make sense with what we observe? For this, we have to start with an examination of what scripture says about identity, emotion, and intimacy.

Without pulling everything I could, here are a few key things I’ve discovered about identity, intimacy, and relationships. I’ll do my best to exposit this systematically, but of course I’m limited to using only a few passages and not the entire story of the bible, which would take far too long to explain in a post. I also strongly believe that’s a topic best discussed in person, through real relationships rather than an online post.

Gen 2.18  The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

This, along with Gen.1.26 “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” which, depending on your expositor of choice, implies the trinity of Father/Son/Spirit (John 1.1-2,  John 14.26). More so, it gives a key insight into creation: nothing was meant to be isolation, rather relationships were the intention and part of the design. Specifically, there is intimacy between person-God, person-person, and, though not mentioned here (is incredibly present in the movie!), person-self.

Gen 3.12-13 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

This shows, importantly, what barriers to intimacy looks like. Intimacy is “close familiarity” according to our dictionary, though I think that scripture has more to say on it. When there are barriers to intimacy (in the bible, it’s sin), there is blaming, misunderstanding, and dishonesty.

Ex 4.14, 20.5 Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses…, …for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…

How can a God that claims to be good also feel angry and jealous? This requires looking at from a perspective outside the way we’re cultured. There’s something about our society that says these emotions are childish – I’ve heard more than a few times that they can’t take a god that’s so childish seriously. But if you entertain the thought that this is the God that created everything, including emotions, and that everything this God created originally was good, then for the creator to have these emotions must be for a good reason. The reciprocal: for us (who are not holy) to have these emotions means that they are not good. The point I’m making here is that these are natural emotions! Anger for someone that isn’t listening or believing what you know is true, and jealousy for something that is yours, is a natural, good thing. Especially in the context of an omniscient God who is telling you that it’ll be fine (because you know so), and is claiming a people for Himself (even if they don’t want to listen).

Ex 33.18-23 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

Context for this: Exodus is a story about God claiming His people and teaching them how to be different from the rest of the nations. Moses fully buys in, he wants to know how to be God’s people. So he actively chases after intimacy. The important point here is that even though he wants it, there is something stopping him. Contrast this to Gen 3.8, where the “Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day” was something Adam and Eve were physically present for.

Ex 40.38 So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels.

Even when God forgives the Israelites of their mistakes (the golden calm incident), there still has to be a proxy.

Ps 119.10-12 With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you O Lord, teach me your statutes!

Here’s what it looks like for a person that desperately wants to have a relationship with God to seek it! But even then, especially when you read the whole Psalm, there’s a sense of pleading and desperation, as if the Psalmist doesn’t have what he is singing about. 

Ps. 139.2-4 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my rogue, behold O Lord, you know it altogether. 

And this is what intimacy with God looks like: someone who knows your every thought, who understands you before you realize it. Another way to word it, I suppose, is that this was the original intention! But not only from God -> person, but person -> person, and person -> self. 

Forgive me if I missed pieces of this, but all I can do is show an outline. It would take a far longer, more comprehensive bible study to follow this theme through the entire old testament. But my point is this: according to the bible, God created people to be His people, in full intimacy (including vulnerability) with Him, themselves, and each other, but in reality, we don’t have this intimacy we were meant to have.

The importance of Jesus

This absolutely demands its own section. We went into it a little bit with how the movie would look different, but now we can take from scripture and piece them together. So far we’ve looked an ideal: a situation in the Garden that didn’t last very long, barriers to this intimacy, and this longing for the people of God to have it.

There’s still a link missing, though. We’ve talked about an ideal, but what about the reality we face right now?

Scripture offers the person of Jesus is the answer. I won’t go into the whole “Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2.20) theology; just take it as face value (I’m certainly not the right person for that discussion – talk to a friend face to face). The bible simply offers that the character of the person of Jesus, depicted in four gospels, will be present within us (and therefore affect our actions and make us like him outwardly). Perhaps that’s not the best way to explain, but it’s beyond me and the context of a blog post to have discussions about supernatural, metaphysical (well not really here), or “mystical” things. Ask a friend :).

Here’s a more interesting framing of the same concept: What would the movie look like with Jesus in the picture?

I imagine a sixth person at headquarters, there to guide the growth of the emotions that operate Riley.

It’s a point of tension. I certainly don’t want to claim that following Jesus forgoes the entire journey of Joy and Sadness, and their self-realization and intimacy building. I don’t want to claim that Jesus will simply take the control panel and make everything okay.

A the same time, I don’t want to under-emphasize the “peace of God, which transcends all understanding” that’s offered to those that follow Jesus (Phil 4.7).

I imagine the film’s landscape changing prominently. There would be a personality island larger than the rest that represents faith. This would be stable: even without the core memories (maybe one would be unmovable, but I don’t think that’s consistent with what we experience in real life) the bridge that leads back to Headquarters wouldn’t collapse.

Joy and Sadness continue to go about their adventure with the same sense of urgency, frustration, and understanding that Riley was dependent on Joy to function. But as they reach the faith island, something transformative happens. I can’t begin to describe it and the movie’s imagery is insufficient (really its not built for it) to describe this either. But in that part of their journey, they gain an understanding that that everything was going to be fine. Yes, it’s a catastrophic thing, and no, it won’t be an easy process. But simultaneously, a sense of peace knowing that there is no need to “worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matt 6.25-26)

That security comes from the person of Jesus, who is the bridge between the ideal and the reality. This idea is exposited in Galatians, Romans, and probably at your local church, and is beyond the context of this blog post to really go on a tangent on (because it would probably take another thousand words!).

Where do the two agree, or disagree.

There’s a few points (I’ll organize by theme) where the two don’t agree.

a) Self awareness through the personification of emotions.

Remarkably consistent. The movie’s point is that emotions are good, and the lack of emotions (apathy) is what causes problems with identity. Scripture offers us a picture of an angry, jealous God, who, by being good and holy, implies that even these “negative” emotions have capacity for good. Look at Anger in the movie – he has his place and is an important part of Riley, especially in situations where anyone would be angry. Not to say that he’s perfect, but with his limited world view, justified in putting the run-away lightbulb into the console.

b) Identity and growth.

The model changes here. Instead of continued addition, Christianity offers that you were created a certain way, for a certain purpose (Gen 1.28). The experiences along the way give you a better understanding and expand your idea of what that is and how exactly you fit into the Kingdom (another theology that’s better explain through a full book…). It’s a guided sense of growth to follow Christ, rather than, I think, the random reaching out that the film offers. In the film’s context, you reach out, you take experiences as they are, and see how they fit into your personal framework. It’s much more limited, because it’s dependent on your understanding of yourself and the world around you.

c) Intimacy through vulnerability.

I think that last point is where the movie is extremely applicable. Riley and her parents build a sense of intimacy when Riley shares her sadness about moving, because it’s not something that her parents saw before. Now, they realize that sadness is something she can feel (she is no longer a child capable of only one emotion!), and can adapt for that reality. Riley, internally, understands that sadness is a part of her that’s good, and grows in intimacy with herself (through the metaphor of Joy understanding Sadness’ role at the control panel).

Within the context of Christianity, it’s the same thing. Except before other people, even before yourself, there’s a continual development of intimacy and vulnerability with God. That is first, and gives you the framework, skills, and example for how to grow in intimacy with your friends, family, yourself. There’s an assurance that those things are meant for you, and so the feelings of loneliness and not fitting in become lost in the promise that we are meant to be in community.

d) Catastrophe

I think this is a point that comes up only when Jesus is considered. In the film, the possibility for catastrophe is endless. What if Joy had fallen into the pit without the rocket-wagon being there? (Ignore for a moment that children’s movies have happy endings). What if they hadn’t made it, or if a core memory had fallen, if Sadness had turned them all blue, or if Joy had made it through the tube without realizing that Sadness was absolutely necessary? (My favorite scene, by the way, because by the end of the movie you realize that being happy isn’t the solution all the time).

Christianity offers that there is no catastrophe. Rather, that you are in the hands of the omnipotent, loving God who is jealous for your attention.

Why that matters.

This is a question of world view. Can you understand and defend your own world view, can you see through the lens that others do, and do they hold up when compared? Are those things valuable to you? I won’t make the argument that one is more correct than the other. I’m obviously biased in that conversation.

Faith is a beautiful thing. It’s changed my life, the way I view the things around me, and the things that I want. I’ve tried to make sense of a film here, but even my words are limited. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done and ever will do, but it’s absolutely worth it.

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