INSIDE OUT 2 is Pixar’s Rewarding Return to Form

Inside Out’s self-reflective sequel improves upon the first film in intimate, exhilarating new ways

Stills courtesy of Disney & Pixar.

At its debut in 2015, Pixar’s original Inside Out was heralded as a hilarious, heartfelt new tool to teach their child audience heady concepts of emotional literacy. By personifying their feelings, kids could give new voices to their inner lives–while still having a great time at the movies. Nearly a decade later, those original kids have long become teenagers and young adults–and their emotional complexity has likely compounded in frantic, overwhelming ways.

In the nine years since Inside Out, it’s been an equally emotional journey for Pixar as a studio. They’ve reached new creative peaks with Turning Red, Onward, Coco, and Luca, retaining their signature universality through exploring the diverse experiences of their artistic team. At the same time, though, less-than-satisfying explorations of returning IP like Lightyear, Incredibles II, and Finding Dory and didactic retreads of basic tales like Elemental have made it seem like Pixar–possibly at the behest of a larger corporate mandate–have coasted on their reputation rather than build upon their reputations as animation trailblazers. As such, I went into Inside Out 2 with as much anticipation as reservation. 

Set a few short years after her inner reconciliation between emotions Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), young Riley (Kensington Tallman) has jumped headlong into teenager-dom. The onset of puberty, though, has chaotically introduced a new crew of feelings vying for dominance over Riley’s emotional headspace. There’s Anxiety (Maya Hawke), driven like Joy to do what’s best for Riley at all costs, along with wide-eyed Envy (Ayo Edibiri), hoodie-cloaked Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser), and endlessly done Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos). Before too long, the new emotions cast out our old crew into the vast reaches of Riley’s mind; as the emotions fight to re-establish Riley’s sense of self, her inner turmoil finds unexpected ways of lashing out in the world beyond her.

Before I get deeper into Inside Out 2, it’s time for some confessions regarding the series’ first installment. While I loved what Inside Out accomplished as far as giving kids more tactile approaches at grasping their emotions, the film at large wasn’t really for me. As much as Inside Out ventured into new psychological territory for Pixar, these concepts felt more like evocative window dressing on Pixar’s tried-and-true tropes, like odd-couple pairings and ill-fated supporting characters (don’t come at me, Bing Bong hive). It also felt like Inside Out took its concept a bit too literally–spending so much time exploring the inner mind of Riley while taking too much of a reserved approach at how this twelve-year-old’s emotional conflicts manifested outwards. While Joy and Sadness were our leads, it was strange to see the person they inhabited relegated to less than a supporting role.

I’m overjoyed to say that Inside Out 2 doesn’t just effectively address these criticisms of the original film, it beautifully and confidently builds upon the rich world created to cinematically deconstruct these complex emotions. Key new concepts are introduced, namely the “belief system” that forges core ideological concepts from core memories, crystallizing into an all-powerful “sense of self.” Turning the latter into an ever-elusive MacGuffin (and boy, is it ever), director Kelsey Mann and writers Meg LeFauve and Dave Holstein rivetingly dramatize how these warring emotions consequently translate our experiences into stronger yet wholly malleable concepts than Inside Out’s original concept of “core memories.”

Most importantly, the hilariously valid decisions made by Riley’s conflicting feelings directly translate into Riley’s outward actions, all of which spur on further joy or danger for the world inside her. Where the first film got lost in exploring Riley’s interiority at the cost of the character herself, Inside Out 2 reveals just how consequential some snap impulses can be–and how difficult it can be to wrangle those feelings under control at any age. As a result, Riley’s inner and outer world (and, crucially, Riley herself) achieve a remarkable complexity without sacrificing any of the franchise’s ability to relate to a younger audience as much as it does to its older original one.

Having such a solid original foundation also allows for its actors greater room to give life to both established characters as well as ingenious new ones. Poehler and Smith in particular are wonderful as the film’s returning players, with Smith’s Sadness tentatively exploring a newfound assertiveness while Poehler’s Joy truly faces the limitations of her once central position as Riley’s primary emotion. Each of the new emotions makes an indelible impact on viewers–Edibiri’s unrestrained wonder and Exarchopoulos’ perfect deadpan notably slay with each appearance. Brief appearances by the legendary June Squibb are also wonderful treats, as are fun callbacks to some of my favorite Inside Out moments. One standout sequence featuring a video-game crush of Riley’s is a gut-buster that should feel all too familiar to audience members with similar first loves, mined for all the loving cringe it’s worth.

The film’s standouts, however, are Hawke as Anxiety and Tallman as Riley herself. With a Troll doll-like appearance and endlessly frenzied mania, Anxiety risks being a one-note character. However, Hawke finds a delicate nuance and drive to Anxiety, deeply believing in their altruistic motivations while cluing audiences into the inner doubt that personifies them. Tallman crucially depicts just how much these feelings take a fitting emotional toll on her, while also making those emotions and actions her own as she lashes out at old and new friends vying for her attention. While so much is taking place inside Riley like any conflicted teenager, it’s the first time this character feels like she has ownership over these feelings, for better or worse. This Riley has a richly developed arc that hits staples of teenage angst without feeling too generic or derivative–it recognizes the validity of these earth-shaking first conflicts, and addresses them with the keen respect and emotional intelligence that was heaped upon the series’ first film. 

Inside Out 2 is a hell of a return to form for Pixar, building upon the foundations of its previous installment with insightful and creative world-building, richly developed characters, and no shortage of wonder and self-reflection.

Inside Out 2 hits theaters on June 14th courtesy of Disney.

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