Courtesy of Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures

Pixar’s done it again. They’ve crafted another modern animated classic that hits all the zones: gorgeous animation, spot-on voice casting, an emotional story that doesn’t run itself into excessive sentimentality, jokes for both kids and adults and a nostalgic return to what it means to be human in a Pixar film. Following the plain-bad “Cars 2” and the corporate blandness of “Monsters University,” this is Pixar’s much-needed return to form.

“Inside Out’s” premise is an odd one. It looks pretty experimental upon first glance, like something straight out of Jodorowsky. There are two worlds in “Inside Out.” One is inhabited by Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an 11-year-old girl from Minnesota. She and her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) seem like a typical, pizza-and-hockey-loving American family. But drama seeps into Riley’s life when she moves from good ol’ Minnesota to San Francisco. For Riley, the move is disastrous — the moving truck holding most of the family belongings (including her bed) is delayed, her first day of school ends in disappointment and tears and her favorite food, pizza, has been completely vegetized in San Francisco. This new chapter of her life starts off pretty rough.

The real action, though, takes place inside of Riley’s mind, where five anthropomorphized emotions exist within a control room (think The Bridge from Star Trek). Joy (Amy Poehler) serves as the de facto leader of the gang, followed by Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). The cast does great work throughout the whole movie, but Poehler, Smith and Black are absolutely perfect for their roles. Poehler’s well-known for her work in “Parks and Recreation,” and her giddy, excitable voice is spot-on for the pixie cut-clad, quirky Joy. Smith’s character from “The Office” and “Inside Out” are seamless, which isn’t a bad thing. Her droning voice matches Sadness’ grungy hair and despairing attitude as she’s constantly told what to do, whether she’s moping around the control room or being dragged by Joy in the recesses of Riley’s mind. And Anger — short, red and prone to literal volcanic eruptions — is just perfection with Black, like he was born for this role.

Each of Riley’s memories are marble-like spheres, and Riley’s external drama coincides with the internal, when Joy and Sadness accidentally get sucked away through a tube into the outer reaches of Riley’s mind, leaving Anger, Disgust and Fear control of the helm for Riley’s emotional well-being. This is where much of the film’s magic takes hold, because there’s so much to work with whenever the inner mind is depicted. An inexperienced director would draw plenty of yawns if they depicted the mind either too textbook-literal or experimental. Fortunately, director Pete Docter holds experience through directing “Monster’s Inc.” and “Up,” and that shines here. Joy and Sadness venture through the millions of marbles held like library books in the tall, twisting halls of Long-Term Memory, and make numerous stops through Imagination Land, Abstract Thought and Dream Productions studio.

Each scene in those locations presents itself as a part of the action romp, but they also hold clever little gags for both kids and adults, from explanations on how TV jingles get stuck in our heads to how people are quick to mix facts and opinions, to a bit more Freudian levels of clever when Joy and Sadness journey down into the Subconscious (“where they take all the troublemakers”). Our heros even attempt to ride a literal Train of Thought to get back to the control center. It’s this gentle yet sophisticated way in which a point-A-to-point-B adventure and pop psychology perfectly mix to generate laughs for everybody across the age spectrum.

The lessons learned, however, always take center stage for a Pixar movie. The best Pixar movies teach us valuable insights about family and relationships, and how to deal with the bare thought of existing. Docter’s two previous films “Monsters Inc.” and “Up” deal with characters who learn to let go of their selfishness in order to connect with others. “Inside Out” takes the same route but adds a twist: Riley has been living her entire life behind rose-tinted glasses (thanks to Joy bossing everybody around in the control room). Moving affects her to the point where she doesn’t exactly know how to feel about it, and Joy and Sadness temporarily leaving mirrors the fear, disgust and anger that would naturally hit an 11-year-old. Riley’s emotions are her own worst enemies, yet the tear-inducing climax comes when the returned Joy lets Sadness take the helm, which again mirrors Riley learning that sometimes, life hits us a little unfairly, and it’s ok to cry over it.

This emotional honesty is pure and unadulterated Pixar, and it’s why this movie works.

“Inside Out” is the family movie that’ll have you returning to the theater for a second or third time, or thrilled whenever you catch it running again on a TV channel late at night. It’s another modern classic to add to the Pixar canon.

See it now. Savor the emotions.

Rating: 4.5 stars