It’s been a difficult stretch for Pixar. In the near-decade since Inside Out became a creative and commercial hit, the animation powerhouse doubled down on a variety of so-so sequels before spiraling into a drought throughout the pandemic. It didn’t help that it used the quarantine period as an excuse to drop two autobiographically inspired and richly conceived tales––Luca and Turning Red––onto Disney+, losing some of its prestige in the process. After Lightyear, which was primed to fuel up the studio’s theatrical prospects again, sputtered on the tarmac two summers ago and last year’s Elemental struggled to make an opening splash, Pixar faced another crossroads. 

In the same way it returned to its bona fide properties after The Good Dinosaur’s disappointment in 2015, the studio has reignited the sequelization after-burners for its sure-fire successes. That’s a nice way of saying Pixar has recommitted to developing broader, universal concepts instead of funding its creators to craft more personal, specific stories. Going forward, Pete Docter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, believes the company’s output will need to reflect a “commonality of experience” rather than be a vessel for its directors’ catharsis. As he detailed in a recent Bloomberg feature, their movies must be more “relatable.”

And what’s more relatable than emotions? That’s the thinking behind Inside Out 2, a perfectly enjoyable, reliably entertaining, if safer and less awe-inspiring second installment in what could be a long-running franchise should Pixar so wish. It’s not a bad bet, considering how easy Docter’s original foundation is to build around. If your tear ducts have recovered, you’ll remember that Inside Out literalized five primary emotions––Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust––taking up residence in the brain of 11-year-old Riley, a friendly and fun-loving hockey enthusiast. When her parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco, however, she falls into despair, forcing her emotions to restore balance and learn some valuable lessons along the way. 

It’s taken nine years for a sequel, but at the start of Inside Out 2, Riley has only grown two years older. Joy (Amy Poehler) is still in charge of headquarters––along with Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Tony Hale), and Disgust (Liza Lapira)––at the center of the vast industrial playground that makes up Riley’s mind. Each emotion takes turns controlling the main console, deciding the way she thinks and reacts while preserving her important memories and chucking the regretful ones. When we last left them, a new red button called “puberty” had materialized on the console. It doesn’t take long into director Kelsey Mann’s sequel for it to start blaring and throwing their harmony into chaos. 

As a 13-year-old, Riley (Kensington Tallman) has done some maturing. She has braces (with rubber bands), she’s at the top of her class, developed some smelly armpits, and has grown an annoying pimple. That’s about the extent of her awkwardness, but it’s much more frantic on the inside. After a demolition team (bringing back memories of Monsters Inc‘s construction crew) expands the command center and installs a more complex console, several new emotions pop into place. They include Anxiety (Maya Hawke), a wide-mouthed, zany-looking carrot-top who quickly boxes out Joy and takes over Riley’s thoughts and feelings with help from companions Envy (Ayo Edebiri), Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser), and Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos), appropriately too bored to bother with the mental overhaul. 

The primary drama––written by Dave Holstein and Meg LeFauve, who conceived the story with Mann––takes place at a girls’ hockey camp, where Riley gets a break from her parents but must navigate old and new friendships as she attempts to make a good impression for the high school team’s varsity coach. The movie deftly skates back and forth between Riley’s external situations and the pandemonium inside her head, where each emotion begins wrestling over her next move. Should she suck up to the team’s senior captain? Should she play it cool? Anxiety’s presence makes those decisions much harder and more volatile, dampening Joy’s influence and sidelining other emotions.

In light of dealing with more serious physical transformations (there’s no periods) and hormones (no romantic interests here), Mann opts to build out more of Riley’s colorful interior world. This time, “family island” has shrunk considerably (she’s a teen after all) and her marbleized memories contribute to her “sense of self,” a glowing, tree-like structure built around her perception as a good person. There’s also a “secret” vault where a kids cartoon character named Bloofie and his pal Pouchie bid to recapture Bing-Bong’s missing presence (one of the few times Mann plays in the abstract animation box), along with plenty of clever wordplay. At one point, Joy and the crew take a ride down the “stream of consciousness” before they hit a major “sar-chasm.”  

Much like the previous movie, Inside Out 2 has a predictably fun time journeying throughout the different corners of Riley’s brain. It also plays it pretty safe, careful not to disrupt too much about what its predecessor established, filtering in Michael Giacchino’s whimsical and soulful score to piano key stroke more of its connective tissue. You could argue it’s a more homogenized version of Turning Red without that movie’s vivid Chinese heritage, cultural details, and more pressing physical metaphors. But the idea that universal emotions––through the perspective of a young, overachieving white girl––provide a more “relatable” watching experience (or better understanding of puberty) is a bit fraught in this context. 

Larger structural storytelling agendas aside, Mann’s biggest achievement is his commitment to Anxiety. Leaning on Hawke’s manic vocal stylings, he’s crafted a character that encapsulates the emotion’s spiraling, brainstorming nature in a way that’s both accessible and clinical without ever feeling didactic. Though he leaves little room to develop Envy, Embarrassment, and Ennui, there’s something breathtaking about watching the inside of a panic attack––the frantic projection of negative outcomes, the betrayal of purer, younger states of being. It’s a wallopping effect. Regardless of Pixar’s intentions moving forward, it seems obvious that infusing these imaginative flourishes are the real keys to its long-term success. 

Inside Out 2 opens on June 14.

Grade: B

No more articles