Back in 2010, when “Toy Story 3” came out, it was preceded in theaters by one of the most inspired Pixar shorts ever made: “Day and Night,” in which two blobby characters representing the waking and night-time worlds battled for supremacy in a jealous snit. Conceptually breathtaking and funny as hell, it was just a series of riffs on a metaphor, but that metaphor operated uncannily close to our primal level of consciousness.
“Inside Out,” Pixar’s strongest work in ages, feels like the feature-film version of “Day and Night.” It comes up with a simple yet resonant idea — what if five emotions that govern human behavior were personified as cartoon characters living in the command-central frontal lobes of a young girl named Riley? — and takes it for the kind of spin of which only this animation house is capable. It is a joy for audiences seeking entertainment, an ingenious work of craft for those paying close attention, and a wallop of feeling that’s still too rare coming from a cartoon.
Taking a cue from “Up,” director Pete Docter’s last Pixar feature, “Inside Out” begins with a frisky montage of the life of Riley so far, from infancy to the age of 11 (where she’s voiced by Kaitlyn Dias). Engaging and expository, this sequence is narrated by Joy (Amy Poehler), the spirited first-among-equals of the emotions living in the girl’s cranial headquarters. The others are Fear (a quaking Bill Hader), Disgust (too-cool-for-school Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black, which is just redundant), and Sadness. This last is a forlorn blue lump — the buzzkill at the pizza party — who speaks in the droopy, disconsolate tones of Phyllis Smith, late of “The Office.”
To give you an idea of how insanely multi-leveled “Inside Out” is, events in the outer world — Riley’s parents moving the family from suburban Minnesota to grungy San Francisco — set in motion all sorts of actions within. As the girl confronts new classmates, new hockey tryouts, new social disasters, Sadness finds herself drawn to Riley’s “core memories,” golden spheres that threaten to go all blue when she touches them. Through reasons too complicated to detail, Joy and Sadness are jettisoned from the command post and forced to cross the vast backcountry of the human brain on their way home. And that means Anger, Fear, and Disgust are in charge of Riley.
Which sounds about right for a kid on the verge of middle school, doesn’t it?
“Inside Out” manages to keep the parallels gracefully going, even as Docter and his team of CGI boffins inventively explore the caverns of Riley’s mind. Joy and Sadness become lost in a maze of Long Term Memory Banks, towering walls of color-coded marbles, and they watch as a pair of mental janitors (Paula Poundstone and Bobby Moynihan) sweep unnecessary remembrances into the void of the Memory Dump. (”We don’t need all these phone numbers! They’re on her phone!”) Joined by Riley’s imaginary childhood friend — a sort of sideways snuffleupagus named Bing Bong and voiced by that great wounded nebbish, Richard Kind — Joy and Sadness hash out their differences amid an epic, iconic terrain. At one point they take a shortcut through Abstract Thought and find themselves prey to the kind of mind-bending body morphs that Chuck Jones used to put Daffy Duck through over at Warner Brothers.
All of this is linked closely to Riley’s emotional states in the real world — her angry shutting down, her foolhardy decision to run away back to Minnesota — and the movie’s visual exuberance backs off here to convey the simple loneliness of a child in unfamiliar surroundings. But then “Inside Out” will zoom into the brain of Riley’s mother (Diane Lane) or father (Kyle MacLachlan) or, during the final credits, half the extras in the movie, and we’ll marvel at Pixar’s endless artistic mojo while pondering how hostage we are to our minds’ many voices. (Including the maddening chewing-gum jingle that becomes the movie’s sharpest running gag; yes, “Inside Out” knows from root-file songs.)
The voice acting is inspired, Poehler fraying with exasperation as Joy is backed bit by bit into doubt and Smith giving lovely comic shadings to what could be a one-note Debbie Downer. Black is hilariously short-tempered, Hader a convincing jellyfish; only Kaling is stuck without much to do. (It’s not easy being green.) After Pixar’s recent bout with meh — “Cars 2,” “Monsters University,” arguably “Brave” — “Inside Out” is a Compleat Work that seems calculated to re-establish the company’s ambition and creative dominance.
If I have a quibble, it’s only that that sense of mission and its nearly fanatical attention to detail occasionally translate into over-thought fussiness, just keeping “Inside Out” from becoming one for the ages. Or maybe any movie set inside a girl’s head and immediate environs can’t help feel a little constricted next to the globe-spanning lushness of “Up” or the eco-apocalypse of “Wall-E” or even the darker concerns of “Toy Story 3,” with its metaphysical crises (does a toy exist if it’s not played with?) and visions of the Abyss.
Instead, “Inside Out” delves into inner space with flair, beating its metaphor to life in a way that will probably jump-start the philosophical proclivities of any kid over the age of 6. (Younger children will be enjoyably dazed and confused, I’m guessing.) Too many family movies insist we check our brains at the door. This one has a mind of its own — and asks a refreshing amount of yours.