Can movies think? This is a longstanding critical question, usually answered in the negative. Literature, the thinking goes, is uniquely able to show us the flow of thought and feeling from within, but the camera’s eye and the two-dimensional screen can’t take us past the external signs of consciousness. We can look at faces in various configurations of pleasure or distress, but minds remain invisible, mysterious, beyond the reach of cinema.
One of the many accomplishments of “Inside Out” — a thrilling return to form for Pixar Animation Studios after a few years of commercially successful submasterpieces — is that it demolishes this assumption. The movie, directed by Pete Docter, solves a thorny philosophical problem with the characteristically Pixaresque tools of whimsy, sincerity and ingenious literal-mindedness.
The story takes place mostly in the head of an 11-year-old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), who has just moved with her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) from Minnesota to San Francisco. What happens to Riley on the outside is pretty standard: a dinner-table argument with Mom and Dad; a rough day at school; a disappointing hockey tryout. But anyone who has been or known a child Riley’s age will understand that such mundane happenings can be the stuff of major interior drama.
The real action — the art, the comedy, the music and the poetry — unfolds among Riley’s personified feelings. There is an old literary tradition of turning what used to be called the Passions into characters, and “Inside Out” updates this tradition with brilliant casting. Riley’s brain is controlled by five busy, contentious emotions: Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness and Joy. Each one has a necessary role to play, and they all carry out their duties in Riley’s neurological command center with the bickering bonhomie of workplace sitcom colleagues.
Their voices, aptly enough, belong to a television-comedy dream team. Anger, a squat, inverted trapezoid of bright red bluster, is the “Daily Show” ranter Lewis Black. Disgust, a green mean girl, is the great Mindy Kaling. Fear, an elastic-limbed goofball, is the former “Saturday Night Live” rubber man Bill Hader. Sadness speaks in the sighing monotone of Phyllis Smith, the most reliable killjoy on “The Office.” She is blue and slow-moving, and the others sometimes wonder what exactly her job is supposed to be.
But Joy reigns supreme. Even without an organizational chart, you can tell she’s the boss. She’s a sparkling whirlwind of positive energy and friendly micro-management. You might say she’s the Leslie Knope of the cerebral cortex, and not only because her peppy vocalizations belong to Amy Poehler.
In her long run as Leslie on “Parks and Recreation,” Ms. Poehler was frequently and hilariously annoying without ever ceasing to be likable. She performs a similar feat here, to a wonderfully subversive end. We start out rooting for Joy, primed by the Disney logo before the opening titles and the presence of young children in the neighboring seats. We want them — and Riley, and everyone — to be happy.
But the insistence on happiness has its discontents. As a manager, Joy is focused above all on controlling and containing Sadness. She thinks she needs to keep her gloomy co-worker’s hands off Riley’s core memories. These golden, shiny orbs will be ruined if they turn blue. At one point, Joy draws a small chalk circle on the floor and instructs Sadness to stand inside it, not touching anything lest she wreck the upbeat mood.
That’s a pretty powerful metaphor for repression, of course, and “Inside Out” turns a critical eye on the way the duty to be cheerful is imposed on children, by well-intentioned adults and by the psychological mechanisms those grown-up authorities help to install. “Where’s my happy girl?” Riley’s parents are fond of saying when she seems down, and the forced smile that results is quietly heartbreaking. Not that Riley’s mother and father are bad people. We see that their own heads are just as crowded as hers They also have their own external worries and stresses, including a new house, a fledgling business and a child on the brink of momentous changes.
Those unfold in a mental landscape that ranks among Pixar’s grandest visual triumphs, up there with the coral reef in “Finding Nemo,” the post-apocalyptic garbage dump in “Wall-E” and the sinister day care center in “Toy Story 3.” The studio’s earlier features have often served as demonstrations of technical breakthroughs. Pixar animators conquered water and piscine movement in “Nemo,” metal in “Cars,” fur in “Monsters, Inc.” and flight in “Up.”
The achievement of “Inside Out” is at once subtler and more impressive. This is a movie almost entirely populated by abstract concepts moving through theoretical space. This world is both radically new — you’ve never seen anything like it — and instantly recognizable, as familiar aspects of consciousness are given shape and voice. Remember your imaginary childhood friend? Your earliest phobias? Your strangest dreams? You will, and you will also have a newly inspired understanding of how and why you remember those things. You will look at the screen and know yourself.
I would gladly catalog the movie’s wittiest inventions and sharpest insights, or try to draw a word map of Riley’s brain. Nothing would be spoiled. But I’ll leave you the pleasure of discovery, noting only that you should keep an ear out for Michael Giacchino’s music and Richard Kind’s voice, and your eye peeled for sly philosophical sight gags.
“Inside Out” is an absolute delight — funny and charming, fast-moving and full of surprises. It is also a defense of sorrow, an argument for the necessity of melancholy dressed in the bright colors of entertainment. The youngest viewers will have a blast, while those older than Riley are likely to find themselves in tears. Not of grief, but of gratitude and recognition. Sadness, it turns out, is not Joy’s rival but her partner. Our ability to feel sad is what stirs compassion in others and empathy in ourselves. There is no growth without loss, and no art without longing.
“Inside Out” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). Young children may be mildly alarmed in places, especially at the sight of their parents weeping through the last 20 minutes.