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The Theology of Pete Docter

By July 7, 2015 One Comment


A couple of years ago at the Fuller Seminary conference “Preaching in a Visual Age,” I had the great opportunity to meet and chat briefly with Oscar-winning Pixar director Pete Docter. Docter is not only a brilliant writer and director of movies like “Up” and “Monsters, Inc.” but he is also a fellow Christian. I am not sure how conscious he is about weaving insights from his faith into his writing but having seen his newest modern masterpiece “Inside Out,” I think I detect more than a few wonderful pieces of theology seeping through.
But, of course, Spoiler Alert: If you have not seen “Inside Out” yet, I will likely reveal below a few latter plot details that you may want to see for yourself before reading this. So Caveat Lector: let the reader beware!
As many people know by now, the premise of the delightful Pixar film “Inside Out” (as co-written and directed by Pete Docter) is that each of us has an emotional Control Room inside our brains where emotions like Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger are in constant conversation (if not competition) with each other to help each individual navigate his or her way through life. In the film it is the Control Room of the 11-year-old girl Riley that is front and center as we watch—in flashbacks—highlights of Riley’s growing-up years. Riley loves her family, adores playing hockey, revels in being a bit of a goofball, and likes hanging out with her friends. And as she grows up, each of these favorite areas of life not only builds up wonderful memories but even whole sections of her brain called “islands” in the film. So “Goofball Island” becomes active when Riley is clowning around with her dad and “Hockey Island” lights up when she is enthused about her favorite sport.
The individual emotions are characters in their own right in the film, each voiced by some well-known Hollywood actors and comedians like Amy Poehler (who voices “Joy”), Phyllis Smith (who sonorously voices “Sadness”), and Lewis Black (who voices “Anger”). As she grows up, Riley is known to her parents as a particularly “happy girl” such that even if she shows slight signs of being sad or upset, her mother or father will say “Come on, where’s our happy girl?” and Riley then usually responds with a smile.
Thus Joy feels it is her duty to keep Riley happy, to make each day’s worth of memories happy ones, and therefore to do all in her power to keep especially Sadness at bay. It turns out that if Sadness so much as touches a memory (depicted in the film as basketball-size spheres) the memory begins (literally and figuratively) to turn blue. Thus Joy makes sure Sadness knows her place and keeps her distance from Riley’s memories. Each memory must glow golden with joy. Joy must win the day. Every day.
But, of course, life doesn’t work that way. After Riley is uprooted at the age of 11 from a lovely life in the countryside of Minnesota to a smelly and cramped apartment in San Francisco, events conspire to make her world fall apart. Sadness can no longer be held at bay. And through a series of events I cannot explain in short compass (see the movie!), Joy even comes to understand that she cannot rule the roost or be the bottom line of all Riley’s past memories. Sadness, it turns out, is utterly necessary. And so in one of the latter scenes in the movie, Joy takes Riley’s so-called “core memories”—the golden orbs that Joy had been zealously keeping as far away from Sadness as possible—and hands them over to Sadness, turning each core memory a shade of blue.
And though children delight in this film, we adults understand this part in ways kids cannot yet grasp: this is the introduction of nostalgia, of “the pain of the past” (which “nostalgia” means). Our past memories—even the joyful ones—will always be hued with a bit of longing, a bit of sadness because the times those memories represent are irretrievable. People come and go, stages of life pass and do not return, loved ones even die, and once-vibrant opportunities are gone forever. We cannot remember even the happiest of past times without also a measure of pain.
But that all seems psychological and I said I wanted to talk about Pete Docter’s theological insight. So here it is: Christians who are rooted in the Gospel know the truth of what John Henry Cardinal Newman once wrote: “Joy is a last feeling, not a first.” At Easter, Newman wrote, we do not just whoop it up over the resurrection—no one in the Bible does either. Because the cross came first, suffering came first, death came to defeat death because there was no other way. And so we greet our resurrected Lord with deep Joy but not without recognizing what made the Joy possible. We are not merely “happy” at Easter. We are joyful. There’s a difference. “Only the heart that hurts has a right to joy” Lewis Smedes once wrote.
Joy is a last feeling not a first. Amy Poehler’s Joy might at first respond to this with a loud “Whaaaaaaaaat!!?” but it is so and “Inside Out” reminds us of this deep truth. Yes, we’d all love it in one sense if Joy could rule every day, if every memory in our storehouse glowed in the golden hues of happiness and goodness. But the truth is they all catch a blue hue eventually. Of course, this does not eliminate joy—far from it! Rather it makes true joy deeper, richer, and for this very reason more lasting. “The pain now is part of the joy later” C.S. Lewis’s dying wife Joy tells him as depicted in the movie “Shadowlands.” That’s right.
“In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus said in John 16, “but take heart: I have overcome the world.” True Joy lies there. Thanks to Pete Docter for reminding us of this precious truth in deeply indelible—and highly entertaining!—ways.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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