For folks like myself who have spent the past two decades adoring and analyzing Pixar’s cinematic output, the last few years have been a little worrisome. After the unequivocal triumph that was 2010’s Toy Story 3, the animation studio started to stumble.

They mixed the fine, but underwhelming Brave in with two lucrative but dramatically insignificant sequels (Cars 2 and Monsters University). And on the way in future years, outside of next year’s intriguing The Good Dinosaur are more sequels of sequels and new chapters in stories that didn’t really need to be continued.

Sitting in the middle of those cash cows is the studio’s latest feature Inside Out. Directed by Pete Docter, whose previous film Up was an emotionally wrenching and conceptually brilliant jewel in Pixar’s crown, this thoughtful and funny film is one of the first animated films in some time (since Up, really) that both creates a fantastical universe but also more directly speaks to an essential part of the human condition.

The film is also one of the few animated films overtly written for viewers older than the seven-year-old mean that most seem to aim for. In this case, the baseline seems to be 11, the same age as Inside Out’s protagonist, Riley, a chipper and spirited young lady from Minnesota. As with most of us, she spent the first part of her life in a relative idyll with friends and family helping her along the way. But everything gets turned upside down when her father takes a new job in San Francisco and Riley’s emotional balance is upended.

As you know if you’ve been privy to the barrage of marketing surrounding the film, that imbalance is caused by and affects the control center in Riley’s mind. And in the world of Inside Out, that center is overseen by five anthropomorphized emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith, best known for her role on The Office), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black, doing what he does best).

As the scales of emotion start to tip hard towards the side of the mopey, peevish Sadness, the group’s plucky camp counselor that is Joy turns manic trying to keep Riley’s spirits up. But in her flurry to maintain control, the spritely emotion – and her dour counterpart – get sucked up into the brain’s long term memory and go on an extended journey to try to get back to Headquarters before Riley loses all hope.

This is where Inside Out gets truly great and truly inventive. Without dumbing things down, the film explores some core psychological concepts, from the subconscious to the idea of the mind clearing out unnecessary memories, with lots of silly and smart humor and Pixar’s always reliable visual flair. The long term memory is a jaw-dropping expanse of color, and Riley’s imagination and the movie studio-like space where they produce her dreams are wonders of invention and hilarious illogic.

The film oversteps its intentions a bit here and there, particularly in the much-publicized scene that carries us back-and-forth between Riley’s brain and those of her parents. Fun as it was, those touches reveal Docter and co-screenwriters Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley as trying a little too hard to make sure the grownups are as engaged as their kinds. It’s an unnecessary step as they are sure to see some elements of their own childhood residing in Riley’s story and already have enough to grin at with the fantastic world created by Pixar’s brilliant CGI team and the impressive performances by all the leads. To a person, the voice work is as sharp as ever, but it’s Smith who draws out the most laughs and the most deeply felt shades of sentiment throughout.

Commercially speaking, Inside Out is not going to be the record-breaker that parent company Disney would probably like. The core concepts are sure to alienate the majority of the folks in middle America that came out in droves to see Cars. But artistically, Pixar made huge strides with this, proving there is still creative fuel remaining in their reserves. You’d like to see the studio’s future keep to a “one for them, one for us” type strategy where they stagger the cash cows with more inventive work like this. But from the looks of their lineup for the next few years (Finding Dory, a 4th Toy Story installment, and sequels to Cars and The Incredibles), we’ll have to comfort ourselves with these pockets of pure originality when they arrive.

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