What was the last movie I watched in such a sustained state of breathless, astonished discovery? I can’t think. Inside Out takes a simple if daring premise — a story about the world inside a child’s mind, with personifications of her emotions as characters — and proceeds to probe, test and explore the implications and limits of this premise with relentless curiosity, invention and insight.

Writer-director Pete Docter’s last film, Up, was Pixar’s most recent genuinely great feature film; it was also the last of a trio of audacious films, along with Ratatouille and especially Wall-E, that stretched the limits of what a Hollywood animated film was allowed to be.

After years of more conventional fare, including a string of uneven sequels, Inside Out marks the triumphant return of groundbreaking Pixar. They may never equal the consistent excellence and invention of their pre-Disney days (there are already at least four more sequels in the pipeline, including Cars 3), but Inside Out at least offers hope that Pixar greatness may still visit us from time to time, if not every year.

Inside Out is a rare family film for so many reasons: a story with no villain, for one thing, centering on an imperfect but basically happy intact family going through a tough time. It is a wise and wounding depiction of growing up, a story of growth and loss, with real stakes and real consequences.

It follows Brave as only the second Pixar film with a female protagonist — more than one, in fact, since the story is told with a kind of double vision. It’s the story of 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), but also of a quintet of emotions inside her head: above all, Joy (Amy Poehler at her perkiest), next Sadness (deliciously morose Phyllis Smith), then Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling).

In one sense the movie is most centrally about Riley’s defining relationship with her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan). But how it is about that relationship turns less on the actual interactions we see between Riley and her parents than on the interactions and experiences of the emotions in her head.

On the outside, Riley’s experiences are sometimes sharply observed and sometimes broad, but what gives them their emotional power is the portrait of her inner world. In short, it is an emotional journey depicted primarily through metaphor — and in that respect it’s one of the most potent, multilayered characterizations I’ve ever seen in an animated film.

It’s no surprise that things are changing for Riley, and nothing ever will be the same. The catch here is that where the young protagonists of animated family films are normally supplied with domestic issues to be resolved, here things are initially idyllic, and proceed to go south.

Look at Nemo and Marlin, Dash and Violet and their parents, Merida and Elinor, etc. Basically sound families all, but you can see the fault lines from the outset. Now look at Riley and her parents in the prologue of Inside Out. There’s no issue; nothing needs fixing. Riley is everything any parent wants their kid to be: happy, loving, well-adjusted, honest, active, silly … the total package.

And then…

Inside Out is a journey of discovery for the characters as well as the audience, and the right way to make those discoveries is by watching the movie. I don’t think all spoilers are equal, but I was dismayed by how many reviews of Brave revealed that the mother turns into a bear (and I was possibly the only critic to review Up without using the word “balloons”). Perhaps you are reading this wondering whether you want to see Inside Out. The answer is yes. Yes you do. Trust me. I’ll continue in non-spoiler mode as best I can, but really, the less you know, the happier I think you’ll be.

The outward crisis is only the occasion of an upheaval that quite possibly would have occurred in some form anyway. Riley and her family move from the wide-open expanses of Minnesota (where Docter is from) to San Francisco. Riley tries to look on the bright side, though pretty much everything about her experience in the Golden Gate City is a lot less golden than she was hoping. (It’s a much less flattering version of San Fran than Big Hero 6’s.)

Riley has always been a naturally sunny kid. Radiant, effervescent Joy is her dominant emotion, setting the tone in “Headquarters” and working hard to ensure that the memories Riley accumulates every day (encapsulated in bowling ball-like orbs) are mostly happy ones. And they are, particularly the defining “core memories” that power Riley’s “islands of personality” — complex structures that include Family, Honesty, Friendship and, um, Hockey and Goofball. (You’ll understand when you see it.)

Joy allows that the other emotions have their place — for the most part. Fear, Disgust and Anger all play roles in helping to protect Riley in various ways, though even Joy can’t quite see the point of blue, homely Sadness. She’s such a downer, and both for Riley’s sake and for her parents Joy must stay in the driver’s seat. Even the other emotions recognize this, and everyone pulls together for Team Happy.

And then, well. A tiny meltdown with deceptively shattering consequences rips through Riley’s inner and outer worlds, and Riley is suddenly adrift. Joy is shocked to discover unguessed vulnerabilities in her hard-won accomplishments, and a journey begins through previously unexplored regions of Riley’s mind: long-term memory, imagination, abstract thought and the shadowy realm of the subconscious, with the alarming vast darkness of the memory dump yawning below everything.

What follows is both Pixar’s most madcap, visually extravagant world-building since Wall-E and an often hilarious visualization of the hidden movements of the unconscious mind. Denizens of Riley’s mental architecture mill about doing various jobs: attending to dimming, irrelevant memories, manufacturing dreams from each day’s memories and so forth. There are countless jokes and conceits that will only make sense to owners of brains. Watch the early scenes of Riley’s childhood carefully and you’ll be rewarded in the later journey through her mind.

At the same time, a high-stakes race for Riley’s well-being is under way. I said above that Riley has always been a naturally sunny kid, but how many teenagers are sunny in exactly the same way that they were at 10? Riley’s inner landscape is changing in ways her parents haven’t fully grasped, and there are scenes as devastating, particularly for parents, as anything in Finding Nemo or the Toy Story movies. (For the record, I cried more watching Inside Out than any other Pixar film.)

Riley’s family is not perfect, but they have solid foundations. Dad’s foibles are particularly evident in an unfortunate family dinner, and in a rare glimpse into someone else’s mind we see that Mom has a wistful attachment to a memory of an old boyfriend. (Docter has said that the film grew partly out of efforts to relate to his adolescent daughter; as with Queen Elinor in Brenda Chapman’s Brave, the father’s foibles could be partly self-effacing confession.)

A Pixar film is always a visual feast, but this might be the richest ever, with two contrasting worlds with wholly different looks. The outer world is photorealistic and desaturated; the inner world candy-colored and cartoony. All of Docter’s films (he also wrote and directed Monsters, Inc. as well as Up) have some kind of whimsical, exotic world set alongside the ordinary world, but never before have both worlds, and the relationship between them, been developed to such an extent.

We first meet Riley as a newborn, and the rendering of her perfect little newborn face, with blinking eyes and moist little mouth, is a revelation; she’s the most alive-looking computer-animated character I’ve ever seen. (How far we’ve come from the ghastly baby of “Tin Toy,” or even Jack-Jack in The Incredibles.) When she forms her first nascent memory — one doubtless long since lost down the memory dump — there’s a lovely effect of swirling color and motion similar to Ratatouille’s efforts to visualize taste.

Joy is a literal bundle of energy, her outline fuzzy with tiny bubbles of light percolating around her and streaming in her wake. The other emotions are also composed of packets of energy; Not only does Anger have a slow-boil surface, the air above his head ripples with heat before his head bursts into flame. Wiry Fear looks like a jangling nerve ending, and Disgust vaguely resembles the broccoli she reacts so strongly to.

Whimsy, sentiment, nostalgia, melancholy and silliness come together in a particular way in Docter’s films. Inside Out has some of the silliest conceits in any Pixar film, particularly at the climax, but also some of the most haunting melancholy. Riley’s crisis comes to a head in moments of sharp moral clarity and overwhelming emotional power. The scenes around the memory dump, where lovely, once-precious memories pile up, faded, forgotten, crumbling to dust, have a heartbreaking existential force going beyond even the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3.

I have only one misgiving, really, though it’s not insignificant (and here I might as well issue a spoiler warning). The stakes in Riley’s head are raised so high, and the cost of her crisis is so vividly portrayed, that I wish the resolution had been more gradual. Fundamental areas of one’s personality are built (or rebuilt) over time, and damaged relationships take time to repair. Granted, the actual cost of Riley’s actions probably wouldn’t be as irrevocable as what’s portrayed, but that only raises the issue in another form. Perhaps the cost wasn’t as dramatic as it seemed; perhaps it only felt that way to Riley.

Pixar has long been guided by Walt Disney’s philosophy that for every laugh there should be a tear. Inside Out is Pixar’s definitive statement on this sensibility, for it is literally about the relationship of Joy and Sadness. Watching it made me think differently about my relationships with my own kids; I have even found myself speaking to them differently. Perhaps the highest praise I can pay the film is that I wish I had seen it as a younger parent.

P.S. Inside Out is preceded by Lava, a sweetly pleasant six-minute short with a Hawaiian vibe and a catchy ukelele song narrating the story. Compared to recent shorts like Feast and The Blue Umbrella, Lava somewhat over-promises and under-delivers; the key crisis is pure Pixar, but it lacks a satisfying resolution.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Follow him on Twitter.

 

Caveat Spectator: Mild cartoony action; thematic elements, including restrained domestic conflict and a couple of youthful bad decisions. Fine family viewing.