In recent years Pixar has stumbled, or at least coasted, more often than not. In a string of less-than-amazing films from “Cars 2” to “Finding Dory,” only last year’s extraordinary “Inside Out” towered above the pack, reminding us of what Pixar at its best could achieve.
But the film hasn’t been made that is exempt from criticism. Even “Inside Out” is not without its critics — some sour and parsimonious, but others insightful and worth taking seriously.
I’d been meaning to revisit some of the criticisms for awhile, when a reader sent me a link to a recent essay by C.R. Wiley of The Imaginative Conservative, which recaps a number of them.
The nub of Wiley’s complaint is that “Inside Out” offers an imaginative portrayal of its protagonist Riley’s inner life that is lacking in one key respect: She has emotions, memories, “islands of personality,” a Train of Thought, a subconscious, imaginary (boy)friends, and more — but nothing corresponding to conscience or moral judgment.
Without a conscience, Wiley says, Riley is a slave to her emotions.
This exaltation of emotions suggests, for Wiley, a philosophy akin to that of the Romantic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Wiley puts it this way:
“We possess a pure and inner goodness, yet it is fragile. And the worst thing that could possibly happen to someone is rejection. It deforms him; and that’s where evil comes from…We’re not judged because we go bad; we go bad because we’re judged.”
Wiley sees this as characteristic of what he calls “a typical Pixar story arch [sic].” Thus, Buddy in “The Incredibles” becomes the villainous Syndrome due to Mr. Incredible’s rejection; Lotso Bear in “Toy Story 3” turns evil because he feels rejected by his owner Daisy.
The moral, according to Wiley, is that the community never judge anyone; otherwise, there will be hell to pay. But for that to happen, the conscience must remain submerged — it may be relied upon, but only tacitly, because if its importance is admitted, we could run the risk of judging things we shouldn’t judge.
Going further, Wiley argues that, despite neglecting conscience and judgment, “Inside Out” does have a moral, which he puts this way: “Embrace your sadness.”
Without denying that this could be a significant revelation, Wiley construes it this way: “According to ‘Inside Out,’ the reason you must embrace your sadness is that it will make you an object of pity. If you’re sad, you may find yourself at the center of a group hug.”
What are we to make of all this?
It can’t be denied that the imaginative picture of Riley’s inner life — what Wiley calls Pixar’s “doctrine of man” — is lacking in certain respects. Wiley calls out the non-representation of conscience or moral judgment; what stands out to me is the non-representation of free will or volition as well as any kind of critical judgment or rationality, not just moral judgment.
(Contrast this with an important precedent to “Inside Out,” an 8-minute 1943 Disney propaganda short called “Reason and Emotion,” which emphasizes that our actions must be governed by reason rather than emotion.)
Another missing aspect of human experience is appetite or desire, and with it pleasure and frustration. To borrow an observation from a friend at ArtsandFaith.com, appropriating Plato’s theory of the three parts of the soul, we could say that “Inside Out” focuses on the “spirited” part of the soul (emotion) while neglecting the “rational” and “appetitive” parts.
The absence of reason, conscience, and free will or volition in the portrait of Riley’s inner life is certainly a limitation, and must be called a flaw or defect — if we read the film, in Wiley’s repeated phrase, as a more or less comprehensive “doctrine of man” or imaginative anthropology.
But must it be read that way?
Despite excursions into memory, the subconscious, imagination, and so forth, “Inside Out” is centrally about emotions, particularly Joy and Sadness. Taken as a complete doctrine of mankind, this would suggest a Rousseauian exaltation of emotion, but that may be pressing the film’s network of metaphors further than necessary.
There are indications of something at work in Riley’s decisions other than emotions. At a key turning point, Anger proposes to Riley an idea, visualized as a light bulb (the idea is running away from home). As the light bulb sinks into a recess in the control panel, Anger says, “She took it.”
Apparently Riley was able to accept the idea or not — an indication of free will or volition.
There are problems with Wiley’s attempt to contextualize his argument in a larger Romantic or Rousseauian reading of Pixar generally of a pure but fragile “inner goodness” that can go bad if one is ever judged or rejected (and therefore the community must never judge or reject).
Syndrome’s story can be read this way, but it’s a stretch to apply this narrative to Lotso. Lotso wasn’t “judged” or “rejected” by Daisy; that was his own twisted interpretation of events. (Compare to Jessie in “Toy Story 2,” who wasn’t judged or rejected either, but was deliberately abandoned by her owner, yet didn’t go bad. Stinky Pete does, though, after being passed over by countless children in favor of space toys.)
The list of selfish, twisted or monstrous Pixar characters with no back story of judgment or rejection is long: Sid (“Toy Story”); Hopper (“A Bug’s Life”); Al (“Toy Story 2”); Randall (with Waternoose and Fungus, “Monsters, Inc.”); Darla (“Finding Nemo”); Chick Hicks (“Cars”); Chef Skinner (“Ratatouille”); Auto and Shelby Forthright (“Wall-E”); “Monsters University”’s nasty fraternity members; “The Good Dinosaur”’s vicious pterodactyls.
There is no issue in any of these films about “judging” these characters’ bad actions.
Particularly notable among all these is Mor’du of “Brave.” Mor’du, the ancient prince who becomes a demon bear, refuses to share his father’s kingdom equally with his brothers because he wants to rule it all.
Far from being rejected by his family, Mor’du is accepted along with his brothers, but rejects them out of pride. Merida, likewise, must “mend the bond torn by pride.” Pride — not rejection — is the community-breaking original sin here.
Then there are characters who have been rejected, but don’t go bad. In “Monsters University,” the nicest guys on campus are the ostracized members of Oozma Kappa. Others include the misfit Reject Bots in “Wall-E” and Flik in “A Bug’s Life” — not to mention all the supers in “The Incredibles,” who are collectively rejected by the society they served.
Is it fair to say that Riley “doesn’t have a conscience”? True, there’s no representation of conscience or moral judgment in her inner world. On the other hand, the scene in which Riley steals her mother’s credit card is charged with moral awareness.
Her crime is mirrored in her inner landscape by the catastrophic collapse of “Honesty Island,” derailing Riley’s Train of Thought and leaving both Joy and Sadness stranded. That the viewer is meant to be aghast at Riley’s actions is as much an indication as anything of the film’s point of view.
One of Pixar’s defining moves (I’ve argued in the past) is how their protagonists, almost alone among American animated characters, make bad or selfish decisions — with potentially or actually grave consequences — obliging them to face up to their mistakes and try to set things right.
Jealous Woody lashes out at Buzz, knocking him out of the window; Nemo angrily defies his father and winds up kidnapped; Mr. Incredible’s midlife crisis threatens his family’s well-being; etc.
This pattern of yielding to temptation and acting selfishly, followed by coming to one’s senses and attempting to put things right, plays out again and again, and is almost unique to Pixar. This, far more than Wiley’s Rousseauian “pure but fragile inner goodness deformed by rejection,” is characteristic of the “typical Pixar story arc.”
Perhaps Wiley’s silliest claim is that “Inside Out” suggests that “the reason you must embrace your sadness is that it will make you an object of pity.”
The first thing this misses is nothing less than the dramatic climax of the film: Sadness saves Riley when none of the other emotions can, not by making her an “object of pity,” but by allowing her to regret her decision to run away. It is because of sadness that Riley comes to her senses, gets off the bus and goes home to face her parents.
Sadness, no less than Joy, is necessary to respond appropriately to the world, including our own actions and their consequences. The essential insight of “Inside Out” is not “Sadness leads to group hugs” but “Sadness is part of life; sadness and happiness are inseparably intertwined.”
Many young children experience happiness in a simple, transparent way, a way that is a joy to a parent’s heart. We parents can have a hard time accepting that, as our children get older, the uncomplicated joys of childhood don’t last.
We are prone to wonder wistfully, as our happy youngsters become moody adolescents, “what happened” to the sweet children we once knew.
Sadness is important in “Inside Out” in part because loss is part of life. Among the film’s most haunting images is that of Joy weeping in the memory dump over faded, crumbling childhood memories, once cherished, now gone beyond recall.
The paradox of Joy weeping is clarified by recognizing that Joy functions here, as in other scenes, not so much as part of Riley’s psyche as a parental proxy (like Woody in “Toy Story 2,” for instance). The sorrowful tears of Joy are the tears of a mother (or father) for the lost innocence and simple happiness of the kids our children no longer are.
Wiley goes wrong, I think, partly because he is looking for a “moral” rather than insight. Oddly, his dissatisfaction with “Inside Out” leads to a prolonged summary of Disney’s classic “Pinocchio,” a mode of storytelling he much prefers to “Inside Out.”
It’s true that if you come to “Inside Out” wanting “Pinocchio”-style fairy-tale moralizing and redemption, you’ll be disappointed. But fairy-tale moralizing and redemption isn’t the only meaningful kind of story.
None of this is to say that “Inside Out” doesn’t present a lopsided view of the place of emotions in human nature. It does. Most if not all stories, even great ones, are lopsided in some respect or other. “Pinocchio” gives us Jiminy Cricket as conscience personified (if a conscience with an eye for the ladies), but no personification of reason — or emotion.
The right response to the varying strengths and weaknesses of great films is not to pit one film against another, but to be aware of where those strengths and weaknesses are — and to watch as many as possible, and to appreciate each for what it does.