Is Inside Out 2 Pixar’s Anxiety Meltdown?

Inside Out 2 has no space to be what it is – an acceptable Pixar film which expends most of its charm and energy in the first third of the film and then dips drastically before rallying again. It’s not awful at all – it’s fine, but it isn’t just a sequel it’s a bellwether.

“With Inside Out 2 at least we’ll get to see if a dyed-in-the-wool Pixar film with known intellectual property still works.” – Pixar President Jim Morris.

“Known intellectual property” immediately sounds cynical because it reeks of business speak. Accountants controlling ‘product’ and caring little for whether anything exists beyond fiscal value to a company. Bottom line talk. It seems particularly antithetical for a studio whose bread and butter have been creating animated experiences which, for the most part, resonate with multiple audiences and age groups. However, two ‘flops’ in cinemas means that Pixar need a safe bet and what could be safer than making a sequel to one of the ‘properties’ they still have?

Safe is the key word for Inside Out 2. Originally a stand-alone film directed by Pete Docter in 2015 (and a short) based on his experiences with his eleven-year-old daughter, another father is taking the reins, Kelsey Mann – drawing on his relationship with his teen. Other than the tangled web of keeping Pixar people in the Pixar family or brain trust; the connective creative thread is writer Meg LeFauvre who worked on the script of Inside Out. Safe means taking out ‘puberty’ in the film in any particularly meaningful way.

Joy (Amy Poehler) is still in command of Riley’s (Kensington Tallman) emotional landscape. Riley is doing well – she has a couple of close friends, generally getting good grades, and she’s getting on with the folks. She’s growing core beliefs. Core beliefs which are aided by Joy quietly repressing anything where Riley has failed or embarrassed herself. At least Joy, Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Liza Lapira), Fear (Tony Hale), and Anger (Lewis Black) are managing an even keel in Riley’s control centre.

When the Puberty alarm bell sounds, and Riley awakens as teenager, none of the emotions can touch the console without being unnaturally heightened. Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust cause rapid meltdowns and Joy can barely get a look in. Things are getting messy quickly, and on the eve of a summer hockey camp she’s attending with besties Grace (Grace Lu) and Bree (Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green). A camp which could see Junior Riley get put on a prestigious team helmed by the very cool and legendary Val Ortiz (Lilimar).

In the control centre there are changes afoot. Four new emotions move in. Anxiety (Maya Hawke), Envy (Ayo Edebiri), Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser), and Ennui (Adele Exarchopoulos). It isn’t long before the eager to please, but hypervigilant Anxiety decides that the original emotions are not up to the task of dealing with all that puberty brings. The OG emotions are bottled up and sent to the vault of the subconscious until… forever really. What is worse is Anxiety has decided that Riley’s core beliefs about herself are getting in the way of planning for everything that impending teenager-hood has coming.

Inside Out 2 starts out brilliantly. The set up where Riley goes from well adjusted kid to suddenly fighting with versions of herself is rendered well with the introduction of the four new emotions (and June Squibb’s Nostalgia getting a bit ahead of herself). Ennui and Embarrassment are terrific. Anxiety is relatable for most age groups (perhaps not the very young) because of course at some stage anxiety does trump almost every emotion when dealing with new situations. That much the script understands. However, once the set up is set up, the movie retreads the original film with minimal changes in the Rileyverse. The goal is much the same. Get back to control before something disastrous and permanent happens to Riley’s sense of self.

The problem with the film is it is trying to blend across age groups and never settles on the people it’s representing. Tweenage girls actually going through puberty. Riley is crossing into nearing the end of middle school and being in the junior high section of life (there is a subtle difference). The bang crash of puberty arrives not with the metaphor used in Turning Red (menstruation) but with a bit of body odour and a new cringe factor. The “everything matters so much” aspect is more social than internal because none of the emotions sell that it does beyond Anxiety and Embarrassment. In trying to keep everything upbeat (several emotions were dropped because they were considered too dour) there isn’t much of a sense that Riley is going through anything more challenging than she did the first time around. Fitting into a new situation, facing change, and making mistakes while trying to work things out.

As much fun as it is to watch Ennui drape herself over a chair and play with her console phone making droll quips or note Embarrassment’s sweaty palms and permanent need to hide in a hoody, Inside Out 2 is less about Riley than the original film was. Anxiety is the catch all emotion for “bad stuff”, so she must encompass both herself which is obsessively trying to control the future by catastrophising everything and somehow embody ‘general baggage’ which is vague enough to mean anything and nothing. Envy is a non-starter because envy isn’t much apart from harmlessly wistful. The journey across ‘sar-chasms’ and Mount Crushmore to get back to control is about putting Anxiety in her place and healing that emotion.

Pixar have put all their eggs in the sequel basket and made sure that basket contains nothing that could upset anyone – no queer characters to cause an international ban, no real puberty ickiness beyond a single pimple and needing deodorant. The stakes are relatively low with the outcome being much as it was in the first film; emotions are complex, competing, and complementary. One emotion can’t rule all of them.

Genuinely winning for the first third – including a brilliant jail break exercised by Riley’s videogame crush Lance Slashblade (Yong Yea) and his not-so-great final attack move. The film languishes for a while and then comes back just near the end. It isn’t a patch on the first film and what makes it more frustrating is that it isn’t a patch on Domee Shi’s excellent Turning Red.

The voicework is solid. Tony Hale slips into Fear easily and Maya Hawke is wonderful as Anxiety. Phyllis Smith is always a joy as Sadness. Adele Exarchopoulos is perfect as ‘ze boredom’ and Lewis Black is ever reliable as Anger. The animation is gorgeous as is to be expected. There isn’t any way one could say Inside Out 2 is a bad film. It’s more than adequate, it’s good – but it isn’t mind-blowingly great, and it has an entire studio’s “future” riding on it. But why is that?

The reality is the cynical fiscal bottom line which has made Disney and Pixar fearful of corporate repercussions. Choosing to release three of its best recent films directly on to streaming was a necessary and a mistake. Yes, there was a pandemic, and yes it attracted people to the Disney+ platform, but Turning Red, Soul, and Luca deserved better. Quietly sweeping under the carpet the previous president and the repercussions of his time at Pixar the ‘brain trust’ (a name for the Pixar movers and shakers) is bending over backwards to get people back to the cinema. So much so that they are repudiating ‘personal stories’ from directors (ironic as Inside Out was inspired by Docter’s daughter) but not looking at how badly Lightyear a spinoff franchise movie did beyond it being confusing to Toy Story fans.

Audiences will likely turn up for Inside Out 2 and they will mostly enjoy it. Reiterating again that it is not a bad movie. What is ‘bad’ is that a studio known for innovation is afraid of innovating. As an aside Disney animation isn’t going great guns lately either with Strange World and Wish both tanking. Universal has its money maker in the Despicable Me and Minions franchise. Critically reviled The Garfield Movie made good box office. It is curious to see a studio so thoroughly second guessing themselves and spinning backwards and forwards to find ‘the thing.’

Inside Out 2 might be the thing Pixar needs even if it isn’t doing a lot. The parts that work do so well. The parts that don’t aren’t unforgivable, they’re simply forgettable. Pixar have put a lot on the line with Inside Out 2 booking cinemas for a longer run than usual and ensuring the streaming window is much further down the line than other recent titles. If it does the trick and connects people with the ‘brand’ again then are audiences going to get the proposed television series as a movie release? Probably. Toy Story 5 is locked. Elio the one original movie on Pixar’s slate was delayed.

Reviewing Inside Out 2 without contemplating its broader implications is what a lot of people will choose to do. And rightly so. The simple review line is Inside Out 2 doesn’t have the heft of the original but follows in its spirit with some relatable poignancy and new emotions that people will appreciate. It is a tough time for cinema exhibition, and this is Pixar’s tentpole for the year. Anxiety is the apt starring emotion with pre-emptive Nostalgia popping in; “Remember when Pixar films were the gold standard?” Yes – like it was every movie but a small handful which either won or was nominated for an Academy Award since the release of Toy Story. Think joyful thoughts Pixar – it’s not that terrible.

Director: Kelsey Mann

Voice Cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black

Writers: Dave Holstein, Meg LeFauve

Producer: Mark Nielsen

Music: Andrea Datzman

Cinematography: Adam Habib, Jonathan Pytko

Editing: Maurissa Horwitz

Streaming Availability:

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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