If all that Inside Out had going for it was casting the explosive Lewis Black as the voice of bright red Anger, with his head bursting into flames when he discovers there's no dessert, it would have been enough for us.
But this film, which marks Disney-Pixar's 20th astounding year, has so much more, you wonder how these virtuosos of animation will top themselves.
Most of the action takes place inside the mind of Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), where the leader of her five key emotions, Joy (a cheery Amy Poehler), is determined to keep Riley happy. In addition to Anger, the team features Fear (a nervous Bill Hader), who helps her avert danger; Disgust (a disdainful Mindy Kaling), who helps her sidestep social faux pas - and broccoli; and Sadness (a lugubrious Phyllis Smith), who is pushed aside so she doesn't cause too many problems.
Everything goes out of whack when Riley turns 11 and her parents uproot her from their home in Minneapolis for San Francisco, where she has to start a new school and make new friends. While Joy tries to keep Riley cheery, Sadness touches Riley's memories, which look like the Harry Potter globes stacked on shelves in the Hall of Prophecies. Sadness' hands turn the luminous white orbs an ominous blue. Joy tries to save Riley's memories, and Joy, Sadness and the memories end up being swept through a suction tube into the far reaches of Riley's mind.
That's when Inside Out transitions into an inspiring buddy movie. Joy and Sadness may be opposites, but just as they learn that they need each other during their tough slog back to headquarters, they trot out a brave idea for both parents and kids: It's not only OK to be sad, it's imperative to embrace and share that feeling with those you love and trust.
Director Pete Docter, who dared to be scary in the Academy Award-nominated Monsters, Inc. and delve into the pain of loss in the Academy Award winner Up, once again shows an uncanny ability to enlighten as he entertains. This brilliantly inventive romp through the brain includes a sound stage, where dreams are produced, and abstract thought, where these 3-D characters flatten into 2-D, elongate and, if they don't hurry, can disappear.
Tension mounts as Joy tumbles into the cavernous junkyard of long-term memory and desperately seeks a way to return Sadness and the memories back to Riley before she becomes so disconnected that she takes an action that could harm her.
Buddy films have always been about balancing opposite urges. Here the balance mirrors not only what's needed for great art, but also for mental and spiritual healing.
Be sure to stick around after the main story resolves to see additional emotional control panels for a couple of four-legged friends.
INSIDE OUT (A)
Directed by Pete Docter, co-directed by Ronnie del Carmen. PG (for mild thematic elements and some action). 94 mins. In wide release.
As if a movie about the inside of a child's mind weren't sufficiently challenging, the film is preceded by Lava, a tender, animated short about singing volcanoes in love.
Set to a song written by its director, James Ford Murphy, it features the voices of Kuana Torres Kahele as a yearning volcano and Napua Greig as the one that responds to his call. It may take her millions of years, but when you find the right one, the tale suggests, time flies - in this case in seven minutes.