5 Valuational

Have you ever seen the Pixar movie Inside Out?

What’s it like? Is it good? That’s what we call a valuational question.

What did this reviewer from The Tampa Bay Times think of Inside Out? What did they think made it a good or bad movie?

Inside Out combines the best elements of Docter's previous Pixar hits: the emotional tug of Up, and the way Monsters Inc. invented fantasy details explaining noises in the closet. 

The surprises are plentiful and seamlessly connected.

Kind's line readings and Bing Bong's character arc are among the most endearing in Pixar's canon.

Inside Out is the animation leaders' most ambitiously original project since Up, [and it] ranks among their finest, certainly the most intellectually challenging in the way it makes abstracts so relatable to anyone, young and old.

When we decide something is good or bad, we’re comparing features to criteria (whether or not we're aware that's what we're doing).

The Tampa Bay reviewer highlights features like emotional tug, invented fantasy details, surprises, endearing characters, and ambitious originality—which all match their criteria for a "good" movie.

Inside Out Review Observer

Here's a review from The Seattle Times.

What features of the movie does this reviewer highlight?

Don’t tell your kids, but the latest Pixar film, “Inside Out,” is really for adults. It’s not that children won’t love it, with its balloon-bright colors, silly voices and zippy action sequences, but to fully appreciate its message, you may need to be a former kid. Like “Up” — also directed by the brilliant Pete Docter — “Inside Out” movingly but casually plays with our emotions, like a baby walking her fingers across a parent’s face; it leaves you changed, entertained, nostalgic, dazzled.

Sounds like an earnest “Afterschool Special,” but “Inside Out” is anything but. Most of it takes place, literally, inside Riley’s mind (“Headquarters”), where five emotions hilariously struggle for dominance. The story becomes a zoomy roller-coaster ride through Riley’s consciousness.

“Inside Out,” ultimately, is about Riley learning to find happiness again (and gives a hint about the future in a funny, quick kicker). Along the way, it brings more joy than any movie I’ve seen this year, along with a happy tear or two.

This reviewer also highlights a range of features that seem to match their criteria for a "good" movie.

But what are those criteria? The reviewer doesn't explicitly say—they only highlight the matching features.

Let's write the criteria explicitly and show which features of Inside Out match them:

Seattle Times reviewer's criteria for a good animated kids' movie:

1. Interesting for adults (Matching feature: Inside Out has a message that adults will appreciate.)

2. Entertaining for kids (Matching feature: Inside Out has balloon-bright colors, silly voices and zippy action sequences.)

3. Emotional impact (Matching feature: Inside Out movingly but casually plays with our emotions, leaves you changed, entertained, nostalgic, dazzled, etc.)

4. Not too earnest (Matching feature: Inside Out is a hilarious, zoomy rollercoaster.)


Some animated kids movies might not match these criteria!

If they didn't, would the Seattle Times reviewer think they were bad?

When it was released, most film critics gave Inside Out glowing reviews, which suggests that most of the mainstream critics had similar criteria for "good" animated kids' movie.

But not everyone liked it. For example, here's a viewer leaving a review on Common Sense Media.

Why didn't they like the movie? Did they have the same criteria as the other reviewers, but didn't find features of Inside Out that matched? Or did they have completely different criteria?

Not every person is emotional — at least, not every person feels or expresses emotions in the same way. That is one reason why I am reacting the way that I am to Doctor’s recent film, Inside Out. I am not writing this because I hate emotions. I value emotions.

Problem with the film: the film conflates joy with happiness and joy with love. These are not the same thing. Every experience may be an opportunity for either joy or sadness. 

But the film makes it look as if we are controlled by emotions, and it is circumstances which control us through our emotional responses to them. 

And therein lies a major flaw in the central message of the film—it is on the centrality of circumstance, not emotions, that our final focus is placed. The film ends convincing us less of the validity of emotions than of the pressures of circumstance. Joy does not win; Sadness does. In this sense the film is not a comedy. Nor is it an accurate representation of reality, inside or out.

Why doesn’t this viewer like the movie? What criteria aren't being matched?

We could say that it was important to this viewer that the movie made a realistic portrayal of emotions and psychology—and they think the movie failed on this point.

But did the movie actually fail on that criterion?

Psychologists at Colorado University used Inside Out to make an app to teach children about their emotions. They also value the criterion of “make a realistic portrayal of emotions and psychology”—but they obviously feel the movie meets that standard:

InsideU is a core project at the Renée Crown Wellness Institute whose mission is to help youth, families and educators cultivate inner resources needed for a lifetime of wellness. InsideU is inspired by the Disney/Pixar film Inside Out and includes a series of episodes that are interactive, choose your-own-adventure stories. InsideU is designed to be fun with film clips from Inside Out, interactions with a “Mind Worker” who guides users through the app, and an interactive console to explore different intensities of emotion like Anger, Sadness, and Joy.

Who's right? It all depends on your criteria!

Do you remember how we said the objective and measurable criteria for legal blindness were helpful because everyone could agree if a person met them?

Is it possible to have objective, measurable criteria for a good movie?

For example, could you define "emotional impact" or "realism" in a way that everyone could agree?

It's a real problem! And it's probably why valuational arguments work better when the category is narrowly defined.

For example, which of these is easier to answer?

  • Broad: "Is this a good movie?"
  • Narrow: "Is this a good movie for families who want entertainment that works for adults and young kids?"

The broad category is so vague that everyone will argue about criteria more than matches.

But the narrow category makes it more likely that people can agree on criteria and instead focus on evaluating matches.

When being "bad" is "good"

Before we move on, we need to highlight a really important point about valuational arguments:

  • Valuational arguments are about whether something is a good or bad member of a category.
  • That's not the same as whether something is morally or ethically good or bad.

This is important because one of the main challenges with any valuational argument is agreeing on the criteria. By whose (or what) standards is this thing being valued?

A good way to understand the difference is to consider the computer game Plague Inc

In this game, you're a plague and your goal is to infect and kill everyone in the world.

Plague Inc gameplay

  • Now, from a genuine human value standpoint, a deadly virus that can cause a global pandemic is bad.
  • But for the virus, being able to spread around the world is good.

So to play Plague Inc., you have to create a "good" deadly virus by the standards of the game. Criteria for a good virus can include:

  • Airborne
  • Easily transmitted
  • Deadly BUT ALSO doesn't kill hosts before it has time to spread
  • Undetectable (produces no symptoms)
  • Mutates rapidly (to outpace vaccines and immunity)

This distinction helps us clarify whether we are arguing whether a thing is good in absolute terms or whether it is a good member of the category by the standards of that category.

It's the difference between:

  • Is a deadly virus "good" (for the hosts)? No.
  • Is covid a "good" example of a deadly virus? Yes.

To recap

Valuational arguments are about value, worth, and quality.

  • "What is this worth?"
  • "How do we value this?"
  • "Is this a good or bad example of...?"

At the end of the day, always matching to features to criteria to determine if a subject belongs in a category. The questions you have to ask yourself are always:

  • What is the category?
  • What are the criteria?
  • What is the subject?
  • What features are we considering?

Those are not always easy questions to answer, and you might find people disagree before you even get to matching the features to criteria!

Because valuational arguments are often subjective, it helps to narrow the category so that criteria become more specific.

What's something where you have an opinion about the difference between good or bad quality? (It could be entertainment, sport, food, craft...) Briefly explain what makes something good or bad.