Inside Out 2 revives the old Pixar magic

A new emotion, the aquamarine-skinned Envy (Ayo Edebiri), takes the console in Riley’s head and responds to something off screen with huge eyes and a beaming smile in Pixar Animation Studios’ Inside Out 2
Image: Disney/Pixar

Inside Out didn’t call for a sequel, but this movie hits all the right emotions

The problem with iterating on a movie as perfectly complete as Pete Docter’s 2015 Pixar feature Inside Out is that a neatly closed narrative loop doesn’t leave a lot of obvious next steps for the story. Inside Out is half a world-building exercise in establishing an elaborate visual metaphor and testing its flexibility, half a coming-of-age story about an 11-year-old navigating a big life change. But its real point is confirming to the audience that sadness — an element that’s core to Pixar’s best movies — isn’t just an inescapable part of life, it has an important purpose. So what’s left for a sequel? Reiterating that sadness still isn’t all bad? Moving down the list of characters to express the importance of anger and fear?

Inside Out 2’s initial trailers suggested that the answer was “introduce a whole lot of new characters,” a historically risky gambit that seemed likely to complicate the setting without necessarily adding anything it needed. And with Docter not leading the project, all the usual questions about whether the original movie needed a sequel were compounded by reasonable concerns over whether a new director would really get what makes Inside Out one of Pixar’s most touching and memorable features.

But Inside Out 2 doesn’t fall into the usual sequel traps of piling on more of the same thing the original was doing, just bigger, louder, and with extra emphasis on whatever fans loved most vocally the first time out. It authentically forwards the story of Inside Out’s Riley Andersen, giving her new problems to face both internally and externally, and finding clever ways to expand the innovative metaphorical language from the original movie.

There are new emotions, new mental-landscape puns, and new parts of Riley’s head to explore, but the most important element is that her story feels believable — not just on the fantasy level, but as a moving and occasionally heartbreaking narrative about being a teenager. Director Kelsey Mann (Onward writer and Party Central helmer) and his filmmaking team pull that off with surprising deftness, making this sequel Pixar’s most emotionally powerful movie of the past 15 years.

The legacy emotions from Pixar’s Inside Out all gather around a new arrival, the orange-skinned, Muppety-looking Anxiety, in Pixar Animation Studios’ Inside Out 2
Image: Disney/Pixar

Inside Out 2 reunites with Riley (Kensington Tallman) at age 13, about to move on from middle school with her best friends and hockey teammates Grace (Grace Lu) and Bree (Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green). Riley hopes they’ll all make the high school team so they can continue playing together. The initial five emotions from the first movie — Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Liza Lapira, replacing Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Tony Hale, replacing Bill Hader) — have found a solid, cooperative balance in Riley’s head. Bossy, controlling Joy has learned to give space to Sadness and the others, and all of them work collegiately to express Riley’s response to the world.

But when Riley finds out she’s been assigned to a different high school than Grace and Bree — and hits puberty at the same time — a new set of emotions arrives and starts taking over: Anxiety (Maya Hawke), Envy (Ayo Edebiri), Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos), and Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser).

The original five emotions from Inside Out — Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear — all scream in horror and recoil as a red alarm light goes off on their shared operational console in Pixar Animation Studios’ Inside Out 2
Image: Disney/Pixar

The fact that Joy absorbed the lessons of Inside Out so thoroughly that she initially welcomes these unpleasant-sounding newbies is just one of countless tiny grace notes that makes the transition from original to sequel feel seamless — and wryly funny at the same time. The writers (Mann, Inside Out co-writer Meg LeFauve, and Dave Holstein) know exactly what audiences expect the arrival of Anxiety in a teenage girl’s brain to do to her equilibrium, and keeping Joy and the others cheerfully naive about the threat sets up some early tension, at least for adult viewers.

The ensuing mayhem follows a common path for recent Disney and Pixar movies: There isn’t exactly a villain here, just self-serving intentions, fear disguised as love, and Anxiety living up to her name. But that’s plenty enough to launch a fairly frantic action movie full of big conflicts and small comic elements.

Inside Out 2 raises the exact same questions the first movie raised, and skims past them in the exact same ways: Are all these emotion characters driving Riley, or are they responding to and reflecting her experiences and needs? Just as in the first movie, the metaphor falls apart if you look at it too closely, or if you read it as literal text, where a floppy orange Muppet-creature living in this teenager’s brain can drive her into an otherwise unjustified panic attack just by pressing too many buttons on a console. The broad message, that emotions can be messy, conflicted, complicated, and contradictory, comes across clearly enough, but it reads most convincingly if you accept the reality of Riley’s external experience rather than demanding a close read on the details of how her internal architecture operates.

Inside Out’s Riley, now at age 13, stands in hockey gear on the ice of a rink, looking worried, in Pixar Animation Studio’s Inside Out 2
Image: Disney/Pixar via Everett Collection

But Inside Out 2 makes that easy enough for anyone but the most determined sticklers. It’s a manic film, constantly rushing from one visual pun and one dramatic face-off to the next, but the architecture, where Riley has to decide what’s important to her and who she wants to be, is not only sound and thoughtful, it’s constructed with real empathy. Much like Turning Red, another recent Pixar film that puts a symbolic face on a teenage girl’s physical and emotional experience, Inside Out 2 is full of passion and empathy, letting the audience in on Riley’s inner struggle without always painting her as the hero, even in her own story.

The specifics of that conflict will land better for some viewers than others. Riley’s attempts to navigate whether to stick with her best friends or cling to a thread of friendliness from the cool-girl hockey champ at her new school do raise some logistic questions that have nothing to do with the body-mind interface. (Why is hockey team captain Val Ortiz [Lilimar] so endlessly supportive to one random awkward middle schooler that she’s willing to alienate her own besties just to hang out with Riley during every moment of hockey camp?)

But like the best Pixar films, Inside Out 2 makes the actual emotions palpable and painful, in ways that go beyond most kid-friendly animated movies. Riley’s anxiety and desire to be liked, her guilt over her interactions with her friends, her fear of the future and of not being good enough for the team — they all play out vividly on her face, not just in the complicated, character-packed, symbolic world in her head. If anything, she feels more like a real, developed person in this sequel than she did throughout most of Inside Out, up to the film’s memorable finale. As her inner world gets more complicated, her outer world does too. (And vice versa.)

Pixar purists are certainly justified in feeling some anxiety about the way the studio has been committing to sequels and franchises lately, and how many of its more recent originals have lacked the old emotional magic that gave the studio its reputation and produced a stream of indelible, memorable hits. But Inside Out 2 is a good sign that the company is moving back toward its core strengths. It’s a sequel to a movie that didn’t call for one, and an expansion of a setting that took a lot of its initial power from the simplicity of its setup: five emotions, locked in conflict over an unprecedented new challenge. But the new movie earns its place in the Pixar pantheon with its creativity, its craft, and its heartfelt writing. It’s almost enough to make Inside Out 3: The College Years seem like a promising pitch.

Inside Out 2 is in theaters now.

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