Credit: Disney/Pixar
Blockbuster Beat by Michael Scoular Featured Film

Inside Out 2 — Kelsey Mann

June 14, 2024

The dominant perspective in Pixar’s films about childhood — most significantly, the Toy Story entries and Inside Out — is that of the parent trying to understand an absent child. In the former, toys are surveillance tools deployed inside the private life of a blank American boy, while in Pete Docter’s aggressively morals-bound universe of the latter, Riley isn’t Riley; her emotional avatars instead act upon her, the scenario bringing to mind a group of aliens trying to reverse-engineer a normal adolescence.

Docter didn’t stick around to direct the sequel. Like most of Pixar’s projects in the past decade, the heavy task of equaling past successes falls to a generation of directors who have idolized the studio too long to know how to exceed its limitations. (In this case, it’s Kelsey Mann in his first feature, having graduated to the studio’s “senior creative team” from story supervising roles.) Inside Out 2’s ambitions, then, are to merely portray another chapter in Riley’s life with an updated attitude, one that still allows for the film to hit the same beats of its predecessor. The premise plays like an extended joke about the common sequel addition of new, unwanted characters: to the color-coded cast of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust is added Envy, Anxiety, Ennui, and Embarrassment. Each group views the other as worthless. In the end, they hug.

The true legacy of Inside Out might have less to do with its characters than their ready-made application to social-emotional learning concepts in classrooms. Even if viewers have never seen a worksheet influenced by the Pixar hit, the films, with their high-concept take on brain activity, can still feel like long lessons interspersed with gags to break up the bullet points. This outcome suggests there is something a bit unusual about the construction of the Inside Out movies. While they can be easily knocked for the baggage of their cultural reference points — the ghost of Leslie Knope hangs heavy over the films, and this sequel reaches new heights in panic-attack depiction — the Inside Out films, for all their broad, sweeping paeans to anodyne beliefs, has a very specific vision of how to cinematically render child psychology that overrides any of the usual engines found in Pixar films: namely, parodies and classic adventure plots that culminate in a chase.

Riley, we are told via metaphor, is entering puberty. It’s only then that the second group of emotions exhibit themselves — as a sequel promises new additions, so Inside Out 2 relies on the lie of linear development for the growing mind. We are shown and hear explained that every emotion wields its influence in clear, measurable outputs, and the eventual balance of these emotions must be allowed to reach their natural balance. This metaphorical rendering of emotional activity must be advanced to such an extent that the plot involving Riley (who we glimpse competing at a weekend hockey camp) must be obscured, nearly to the point of incoherence — the film’s escape hatch is its idea that adolescence is itself an incoherent state. If The Magic School Bus relied on an episodic concept that the body always ends up resembling a textbook diagram of itself, Inside Out and its sequel advance the idea that the mind must follow a similar set of rules — only one informed by neuroscience.

The film’s endpoint, though, isn’t anything that can be seen. Like most American animated films, Inside Out 2’s platitudes are given center stage. Here, it’s the idea that rather than be stuck with the mantra of self-delusion or self-loathing, Riley should experiment with being open to a variety of self-evaluations. As in Pixar’s house animation style of fuzzy, phosphorescent, and physically coherent surfaces, this summation is a safely hedged bet, and suggests any route toward the varieties of experience that children actually remember will remain safely not taken.

DIRECTOR: Kelsey Mann;  CAST: (voices) Maya Hawke, Amy Poehler, Lewis Black, Ayo Edibiri;  DISTRIBUTOR: Disney/Pixar;  IN THEATERS: June 14;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 40 min.