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The Awkward Synthesis That Is 'Inside Out'

Lewis Black, who voices "Anger," attends the Los Angeles premiere of "Inside Out" at the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles.
Dan Steinberg
Lewis Black, who voices "Anger," attends the Los Angeles premiere of "Inside Out" at the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles.

The new Pixar animation Inside Out, directed by Pete Docter (Monster's Inc., Up), is the playful and ambitious story of the emotional life of a young girl, Riley, who is uprooted when her parents move to a new city so that her father can take up a job. Like a lot of science fiction, however, the fiction drags because the science never really makes any sense.

Riley herself never comes into focus as a person; her parents, teacher, school mates, past life and new environment, are sketched in the most simple, generic terms.

In a way, that's the movie's real point. Life's true dramas, it is implied, are internal and there's little more to dad or mom or place than the role these play in triggering events inside of Riley — or inside each of us. And that, finally, is where the movie falls flat. It purports to the be the story of a girl, but in fact there is no girl character in the film. Riley is not a person, she is a robot, a complicated vessel whose actions and intentions are controlled by persons — emotions and memory workers — inside of her. Riley is no more an agent in her own right than is, say, a ship an agent in its own right. Or, to change the image, she is like a puppet controlled by the team working in headquarters: She is empty.

Descartes (1596-1650) offered, but did not endorse, the idea that the body is a ship and the self resides in the body the way a pilot resides in the ship. Hume (1711-1776) advanced the idea that there is no self, that what we call the self is in fact just a bundle of perceptions, feelings and ideas. Contemporary cognitive science combines these two ideas in a most awkward synthesis: We are the brain, which in turn is modeled not as a self, but as a vast army of little selves, or agencies, whose collective operations give rise to what looks, from the outside, like a single person or animal; but, so the "Awkward Synthesis" would have it, some of the events happening inside of us really are ours, they really are experienced, and this is because they happen in a special way or in a special place — in what Dennett has called the Cartesian Theater.

Inside Out begins with a question, posed by the movie's narrator, Joy, who is an emotion living inside of Riley: Did you ever look at a baby or a person and ask yourself what's going on in there? A good question, but the movie's playful answer unfolds more like a textbook presentation of the Awkward Synthesis than by providing any insight into what it is like to be Riley or any other person. Headquarters is staffed by five Emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust). These compete among themselves to operate the joysticks and dashboard that control the person whose emotions they make up. They handle, store, protect and disregard memories and experiences. At night they do "dream duty," projecting film clips (memories) onto the screen of Riley's consciousness. Each of them, driven by their own dominant disposition — Sadness tends to be sad, Joy tends to be optimistic and happy — participates in a kind of give and take, a negotiated peace in which they manage Riley's states and cause her to react to events in the world around her.

My 10-year-old son turned to me during the movie and asked whether the brain people in Riley's head had brain people inside their heads, too. And later on, showing even more insight, he suggested that the problem with the movie was that nothing much happened.


The homuncular model of the brain or mind is something we've dreamed up to help us make sense of the fact that we, ourselves, feel and think and value; we perceive and we act. The fact that our ability to do all this depends on what is inside us shouldn't be taken as an excuse for believing that we, and the things we love and value, loath and fear, are really just inside us. Or that our engagement with the world around us is nothing more than the upshot of actions undertaken by puppeteers or emotional engineers within.

I'm surprised that Docter and the brilliant creators at Pixar don't seem to appreciate that that there is something downright terrifying about this nihilistic conception of ourselves as zombie puppets living in a confabulated universe.

I don't mean to be humorless about this. I get the joke. It's an old joke. Recall the sperm people in Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex who live and die by the motto "Fertilize an ovum or die trying!" — or The Taste Buds in the 1979 Budweiser commercial who complain about the dry mouth that accompanies the munchies.

My complaint, really, is the humorlessness of Docter's treatment of the idea in Inside Out. It's as if he doesn't realize this is a joke. The story is told as if we are really getting inside a person. At best, we are getting inside a cartoon — not of the person but of her brain.

A final note on gender: Pixar, like Disney, has tended to be a boys' world. The films are made by men (mostly) and they have tended to feature male characters. From that point of view, it might seem that Inside Out marks a new beginning. One might also think there is something politically correct about the decision to make the heroine an ice hockey player; girls play ice hockey, too, after all.

At the same time, in so far as Riley never comes into focus as a true flesh and blood girl (she is just a vessel), there is something odd about the fact that Riley (isn't Riley a boys name?) plays a stereotypical male sport (ice hockey). It's as if the film's creators resist really dealing with a female character — even though, reportedly, Doctor drew on his experience parenting a young girl. Riley and her mother are certainly called on to play the stereotypically feminine role of supporting Dad as he settles into the new job for which they accompany him to San Francisco.

And, then, it's hard to know what to make of the fact that Riley's Emotion Controllers are made of three females in dresses (Joy, Sadness, Disgust) and two men in male garb (Fear and Anger). Are fear and anger male emotions? Are disgust, joy and sadness female? And then there's the fact that Riley is the only character we meet whose internal chorus is made up of male and female characters. Mom is all female within. And Dad is all male. Is Riley bi-sexual (in the relevant sense) because she's pre-pubescent? Is there a biological theory of gender at work here? (Another interesting question: Why is there no racial variation in our internal population?)

If you measure the success of a movie not so much by how entertaining and truthful it is, but rather by the opportunity for energetic critical thinking that it affords, then Inside Out is a successful movie indeed. I fear — and the critical reception so far seems to back this up — that audiences will fall for the movie's uncritical ideology of the self as made up of little selves who are pulling the strings inside and, also, the wool over our eyes.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.

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