Categories: Film Reviews

‘Inside Out 2’ Review: Riley is Growing Up but Pixar Plays it a Bit Too Safe in Solid Sequel

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The prospect of a new Pixar film is always an exciting one for audiences and a daunting one for its creators. Before and since moving to the Mouse House, the Oscar-winning animation studio has given us some of the most indelible stories of the last quarter century in films like Up, WALL-E, and the indomitable Toy Story franchise. Through toys, cars, rats, and robots, they’ve defined childhoods using everyday things to get deeper into who we are as people, whether child or adult.

But in 2015 they went really deep, taking us from the outside world to inside the mind, heart, and feelings of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. With Pete Docter’s Inside Out, we ventured into emotional territory, literally, as Riley’s emotions are the film’s characters: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and Fear (Bill Hader). They lived in Riley’s temporal HQ and helped dictate and measure her responses to everyday life, events big and small, with its main story focus on her family’s move from Minnesota to San Francisco.

Directed by Kelsey Mann, who worked on previous Pixar films like The Good Dinosaur, Lightyear and Elemental, Inside Out 2 marks his feature directorial debut (Docter stays on EP), with a script from Inside Out screenwriter Meg LeFauve and Dave Holstein. We jump two years, with a pimple and braces-clad 13-year-old Riley and her two besties Grace and Brie headed to hockey camp in what could be their last summer together, continuing with one of Disney and Pixar’s consistent themes of loss and separation. Riley has what can be seen as a deep crush on varsity hockey captain Valentina ‘Val’ Ortiz (voiced by Lilimar) but superficially is presented more simply as admiration and adoration. As puberty is a major factor in Riley’s life now and of the age when crushes really start to take shape, it’s hard not to look at her feelings as that. Val’s friends and teammates are…let’s just say very butch-coded. All of the clues are there if you’re looking but even if not, it works on a subconscious level. Disney and Pixar have often struggled with how and when to present LGBTQ characters and relationships in their films, with one side feeling they never go quite far enough and the other resisting the very existence of them and as an animation studio with films largely directed to and about younger audiences, striking that balance hasn’t been easy. 

There are two fantastic elements that Inside Out 2 addresses, one of which is introducing us to Riley’s “belief system” and “sense of self.” Spearheaded by Joy, it takes foundational moments in Riley’s life – good and bad – to create what will be the building blocks for her decisions in the future, not simply her reactions to events in the moment that are visually presented as colorful, pluckable guitar-like strings which evoke everything from Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Punch Drunk Love and Avatar’s Tree of Souls. But with this immense power comes great responsibility for Joy, who starts to panic that Riley’s emotions are getting the best of her and begins shuffling away bad experiences to the recesses of her mind and to assert a level of control, a puberty blocker if you will (“I’m sure that decision won’t haunt us for the rest of our lives,” someone says). And oddly, for all of the seemed focus on puberty being such a watershed moment, it’s completely sidestepped as an examination of hormones and physical growth, opting to just give Riley b.o. as a main signifier. For a film about a newly teenage girl, there isn’t much that’s really girl-specific, either. 

Riley isn’t simply at a physical crossroads with her relationships but at an emotional precipice as puberty decides to set in at its most inconvenient time and four brand new emotions enter the fray. At the forefront are Anxiety (a perfect Maya Hawke) with Envy (Ayo Edebiri), Embarrassment (Paul Water Hauser), and Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos). These new voice talents join the returning Poehler, Smith and Black, along with Tony Hale replacing Hader and Liza Lapira in for Kaling. Riley’s HQ is demoed by a harried construction team while Joy and company watch with frazzled bewilderment and begins to create an adversarial situation between Joy and Anxiety, a classic ‘out with the old, in with the new’ scenario. It’s a renovation and a reinvention; what it feels like to be a teenager. And indeed, Anxiety takes over (as it often does), literally bottling up Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust and sending them to The Vault, where Riley keeps her darkest secrets. “We’re suppressed emotions!,” screams Fear. But this sequence is far less scary than it sounds and produces some of the film’s funniest moments, like the reveal of an animated dog named Bloofy (hilariously voiced by Loot’s Ron Funces) from a childhood TV show who talks directly to the audience and his fanny pack sidekick Pouchy as well as Lance Slashblade, an 8-bit video game character with undying love for Riley and terrible fighting move.

It’s here that Inside Out 2 starts to replicate the original film too much, treading in nearly identical material rather than finding a new way to expand to more sections of Riley’s inner thoughts and the introduction of four new characters most definitely gives the short shrift to some, namely Envy and Ennui. It’s too bad, because Edebiri has the perfect tenor for an animated character and really creates something different here and Exarchopoulos’s droll, perfectly laissez-faire delivery of always-on-the-phone teen boredom is an absolute highlight.

While still mining some pitch perfect humor and laughs (the ‘Sarchasm’ is probably the film’s best pun), the film curiously shies away from going too dark. Considering the Bing Bong of it all from the first film it’s a surprising choice. While there are several emotional beats for Joy and Sadness behind the scenes, “Maybe getting older means losing joy” is a gut punch, the focus smartly remains on Riley herself, her struggles to fit in, how she treats her friends and herself and features one of the most realistic presentations of a panic attack I’ve ever seen. 

But something is missing here; not the allure or presentation of a visually spectacular Pixar film, those elements are all in place. The animation studio has a stellar record with their prestige efforts of striking the right balance of universality and specificity, and knowing that the latter is where gold is. Recent comments from Docter have implied that Pixar wants to pull back on more personal films like Luca and Turning Red and instead aim for a more ‘universal’ appeal and Inside Out 2 feels like that; solidly relatable on a broader spectrum but a bit too emotionally safe.

Grade: B

Walt Disney Studios and Pixar Animation will release Inside Out 2 only in theaters on June 14.

Erik Anderson

Erik Anderson is the founder/owner and Editor-in-Chief of AwardsWatch and has always loved all things Oscar, having watched the Academy Awards since he was in single digits; making lists, rankings and predictions throughout the show. This led him down the path to obsessing about awards. Much later, he found himself in film school and the film forums of GoldDerby, and then migrated over to the former Oscarwatch (now AwardsDaily), before breaking off to create AwardsWatch in 2013. He is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, accredited by the Cannes Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and more, is a member of the International Cinephile Society (ICS), The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics (GALECA), Hollywood Critics Association (HCA) and the International Press Academy. Among his many achieved goals with AwardsWatch, he has given a platform to underrepresented writers and critics and supplied them with access to film festivals and the industry and calls the Bay Area his home where he lives with his husband and son.

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