The new movie by Pixar Animation Studios star Pete Docter mostly takes place inside an 11 year-old girl’s head. Fortunately for all us, it resembles a Pixar story board.

Here is every permutation and combination of the colour catalogue, yammering characters who are never at a loss for one-liners, and more synthetic cuteness than at a stuffed toy store. Here is the familiar mix of titters and tears and the abiding faith in wholesome family values.

Here is also further evidence of Pixar’s ability to push the boundaries of animation in creating imaginary worlds – the pathways within a girl’s head in this case – that are as convincing as they are enjoyable.

Riley’s pre-teen brain houses five basic emotions (joy, anger, sadness, disgust and fear), various levels of memories, and so-called islands that represent the aspects of her life most important to her – family, friendship, and ice hockey. Most of the plot takes place inside Riley’s head, and follows the crisis that results when Riley literally loses the joy in her life and becomes a sulky and difficult daughter. This is because joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) and her core memories inadvertently leave the main part of Riley’s brain, and have to find their way back. It’s a nifty way to explain pre-puberty jitters and juvenile depression, and will ensure that the movie is long invoked by child psychologists and parenting advice purveyors.

There’s little to complain about in a film that, despite its subject matter, plays out on the surface. Peeks into the minds of other characters, such as Riley’s parents, split the sides more than joy’s manic patter. The workings of Riley’s brain are beautifully realised. The “dream production” unit deserves a special shout-out for imagining new ways to fill up Riley’s head every night when she is asleep.

The dream unit, like the movie itself, never veers from the regular Pixar script, whose main principles include the pursuit of happiness over all other quests, and the conquest of obstacles through resourcefulness, valour and repartee. There is another meta-touch in the movie’s big lesson: in order to be effective, joy must be complemented by sadness.

It’s hard to shake off the feeling that we are inside the head of the average member of the Pixar approvals committee rather than a girl on the cusp of puberty. Pixar productions are always fun, but they are rarely profound despite their visible efforts, unlike French and Japanese animated films that do not try to be, and often predictable. That’s why the one emotion missing in Riley’s head is surprise.