Once an ever-reliable source of sneakily mature dramas in kid-friendly cartoon guise, Pixar has stumbled in recent years, with nothing since 2010’s “Toy Story 3” that fully epitomizes the studio’s compelling approach to layered storytelling. Thanks to “Up” director Pete Docter, the company manages an overdue bounceback with “Inside Out,” the most imaginative example of world-building since Docter’s own “Monsters Inc.”
The movie envisions a set of anthropomorphized emotions living inside the head of troubled 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) who collaborate each day on controlling her moods and storing her memories in the complex machine of her memory banks. The most charismatic of these eccentric guardians is Joy (Amy Poehler), who focuses on capturing Riley’s happier times, while staving off the anxiety-riddled effects of Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and especially Sadness (Phyllis Smith).
Outside their cavernous command center, Riley’s kingdom of memories expand to a crop of islands representing various dimensions of her personality. That heavy set up leads to a beguiling workplace adventure in which Joy and Sadness inadvertently get exiled from the driver’s seat, while Riley spirals into pre-teen despair as her family moves to a new town and — devoid of the proper coping mechanisms — lashes out.
It goes without saying that “Inside Out” looks magnificent at every turn, from the bright, storybook colors of Riley’s mind to the credible design of human expressions. But the movie truly engages by holding fast to its allegorical ramifications. Each plot development invites scrutiny for its symbolism: Yes, it’s a vibrant, witty adventure, but what’s really going on here?
While Sadness struggles to deal with her tendency to drag down Riley’s mood, Joy’s relentless commitment to bringing it back up reeks of blind idealism. Through their struggles to traverse the darker recesses of Riley’s mind, this pair — aided by Riley’s long-forgotten imaginary pal Bing Bong (Richard Kind), a goofy whale-dolphin thingamabob — the entire plot forms a single, prolonged metaphor for the fragmented cycle of growing up. The result is some of the most compelling insight into the complexities of human behavior from the Pixar canon since Remy in “Ratatouille” asserted that “change is nature.” This time around, that could be the tagline.
No matter its sophistication, however, “Inside Out” never ceases to play around. Joy’s colleagues are blocky figures whose antics maintain both abstract meaning and slapstick appeal, most substantially with Anger, whose head blasts flames when he’s on a tear. But “Inside Out” also succeeds at extending this conceit to a broader plane. On several occasions, Docter and co-writers Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley shift to the emotion control rooms in the minds of other humans from Riley’s life, most significantly when they go to her parents. At the dinner table, in Riley’s mother’s mind, her emotions complain about her husband’s lack of constructive parenting, while he zones out to a sports game.
These abrupt windows into the forces behind decision-making constantly nail their punchlines. Beyond that, they hint at a grander perspective on the arbitrary nature of passionate outbursts. “Inside Out” cranks up its own emotional pull around the third act, when a series of dramatic circumstances touch on the painful dimensions of abandoning past obsessions in favor of newer ones.
Pull back from the moment-to-moment thrill of “Inside Out” and it gets very deep: The scenario implicitly questions standard definitions of free will by suggesting that we’re all slaves to ghosts in the machine. It’s a heady notion rendered in outwardly silly ingredients, resembling a process of intellectual smuggling that at one point might have been considered vintage Pixar — but “Inside Out” shows that the approach remains vital as ever.
Editor’s note: A version of this review ran during the Cannes Film Festival. “Inside Out” opens nationwide this Friday.