Inside Out seeks to hide its lack of originality behind clever ingenuity. It tells the story of a young girl through her ‘emotions’, except these are nothing more than instinctual reactions. Instead of depicting the different sides of one person, shaped by her environment, experiences, and people around her, the film reduces personhood to instinctual feelings: anger, sadness, joy, disgust, and fear.
There is no trace of complex emotions (love, hatred, compassion…) and little understanding of the connection between emotions and one’s identity, especially in relation to values. It results in an embarrassing materialistic portrayal of personhood with no personality. What happened to determination, honesty, and mischievousness (to name but a few)? Personality is somehow left to the instinctual feelings, like Joy, who is a bossy and superficial character.
I was hoping Anger would punch her up, but no such luck. Joy is the annoying protagonist. She is condescending to Sadness and confines her into a circle so that she won’t make the girl sad. That makes Joy rather manipulative and shallow. She finally gets that sadness has its uses, although there is no real understanding of suffering. Sadness is useful only because, when the girl is sad, her parents and friends come to the rescue. The only value is some sort of materialistic hedonism (being liked, being successful, having fun); no search for meaning. Inevitably, Riley, the young girl, is a stroppy, spoilt, and selfish teenager.
Inside Out reduces personhood to feelings and memories, with no reflection on how we develop through interactions, how we are with others, how we see ourselves, how we act. Leaving the discussion on the ‘social self’ aside, I shall only mention two theorists on emotions: Martha Nussbaum and Adam Smith.
Nussbaum updates stoicism for our age, where emotions are ‘evaluative judgements’. Emotions develop as we grow up, which means they have a history, they carry a narrative of who (we think) we are. Our experiences shape us. For instance, a child acquires a sense of fairness, which develops over time. Emotions are therefore (also) ‘moral’; they are moral judgements. Emotions reflect our ideas and beliefs about the world. Here’s a comprehensive and critical account of Nussbaum’s thesis by D. F. Cates.
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith grounds human moral sense in “sympathy”, which is our projection of how other people feel (which is not necessarily how they actually feel). Feeling sympathy implies a moral approval on those feelings. For Smith morality requires rules (a la Kant) but also virtues, which the person develops through practice. So morality is not just about adhering to rules or deciding how best to act, but developing attitudes, such as prudence, self-command, and benevolence. Here’s an account of Smith’s theory.
Smith’s approach could easily be part of a film, because the virtuous character is developed through experiences, habits, and practices and the process is wrapped up in emotions. Inside Out doesn’t deliver, except when it puts aside its schmaltz and failed attempt at cleverness and allows itself to be ironic and funny.