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New emotions emerge in 'Inside Out 2' — including nostalgia for the original film

Joy and Anxiety (voiced by Amy Poehler and Maya Hawke) meet in Riley's head in <em>Inside Out 2.</em>
Joy and Anxiety (voiced by Amy Poehler and Maya Hawke) meet in Riley's head in Inside Out 2.

As Inside Out 2 gets under way, things are looking up for Riley, the hockey-loving kid who moved with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco in the first Inside Out. She’s adjusted to her new life, school and friends, and her five personified emotions — who share the high-tech headquarters of her brain — have learned to work together in relative harmony. Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, is still mostly in charge, but now she and Sadness — the incomparable Phyllis Smith — make a great team, along with the other key emotions, Anger, Fear and Disgust.

But now Riley is 13, which means pimples, growth spurts and a much more complicated emotional life. The director Kelsey Mann, taking over for the first film’s Pete Docter, cleverly dramatizes the onset of puberty as a huge disruption for Joy and Company, who don’t know why their usual routine is suddenly causing Riley to undergo wild mood swings. It turns out, a new emotion has joined headquarters: Anxiety, voiced by a terrific Maya Hawke.

Anxiety has brought along her own team of emotions. They’re basically the three E’s: Envy, Ennui and Embarrassment, voiced by Ayo Edebiri, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Paul Walter Hauser. Some of this stretches conceptual credibility: Surely this isn’t the first time in her life that Riley has experienced some of those feelings. But that’s part of the whimsical pleasure of the Inside Out films: It’s fun to feel your own brain arguing with how it’s represented. It’s also fun to see new regions of Riley’s mental landscape, like the giant ravine that fuels her contemptuous side — naturally, it’s called the Sar-chasm.

The story kicks into gear when Riley is sent to an elite three-day hockey camp, where she’s forced to make some tough decisions, like whether to stick with her two closest friends or hang out with the cool older kids. As the pressure on Riley mounts and the competition gets more cutthroat, it’s Anxiety who emerges as the movie’s villain.

Hawke does a great job of making the character’s polite bundle-of-nerves routine a little more annoying — and sinister — in every scene. Anxiety basically engineers a hostile takeover of Riley’s mind, banishing Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust to the outskirts of consciousness, and setting out to mold Riley into a more successful version of herself. What she’s unwittingly doing is making Riley more ambitious and conniving.

Inside Out 2, in other words, is something of an anti-stress movie, where unchecked drivenness can destroy a person’s true sense of self. It’s hard to argue with that, but it’s also hard not to push back a little. This isn’t the first Pixar movie that’s tried to teach us to lighten up and let things go, a lesson that dates as far back as the first Toy Story. But it’s always struck me as a bit rich coming from Pixar, given the hyper-ambition and perfectionism that have long defined the studio’s brand.

Fortunately, there is a better, deeper message at the heart of Inside Out 2, that encourages us to take a more expansive view of ourselves — to acknowledge that we all have the capacity for good and bad. As in the first movie, the goal is to strive for balance, embrace complexity and learn to be OK with imperfection.

I’m trying to do that myself with Inside Out 2, which, despite its many pleasures, is a pretty imperfect movie. It isn’t nearly as emotionally overwhelming as its predecessor, but how could it be? The first Inside Out was a piercing lament for childhood’s end, with Joy and Sadness’ frenemy dynamic as its irresistible core.

Now, Riley’s older and maturing, and it’s natural that her latest adventure should hit us differently. But there are also some bewildering choices here that suggest the story could have used, well, a rethink. There’s one overlong sequence, in which Joy and her friends encounter memories of old cartoon and video-game characters buried deep in Riley’s mind; it’s a cheap gag, and it almost pulled me out of the movie entirely. And there’s a recurring joke, involving Riley’s sense of Nostalgia, that strikes a weirdly sour note. Ironically, it made me feel a little nostalgic myself — for the days when Pixar would have known to leave a bit like that on the cutting-room floor.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.