‘Inside Out 2’ Defies Expectations, Nearly Living Up to the Almost Universally Beloved Original

The first film, released in 2015, was an instant Pixar classic, grossing close to a billion dollars. One emotion that’s not evident during ‘2’ is Disappointment.

Joy and Anxiety in 'Inside Out 2.' Pixar

One great strength of Pixar movies is the concept; the creative team almost never fails to come up with a great idea and the characters to go with it. The plot — something to drive the concept and the characters forward — then usually derives out of that. 

Pixar never seems to run out of these amazing ideas for stories that can only be told in the medium of animation, whether it’s the inner lives of toys, bugs, fish, cars, or scary monsters that emerge from your closet. In 2020’s “Onward,” a movie not enough people saw because of the pandemic, it was fantastically mythological creatures who live in a contrastingly pedestrian, ho-hum suburban world of malls and mortgages.

“Inside Out,” which with a sequel now released officially becomes Pixar’s latest franchise, is all about the inner world of human beings, or, more precisely, those anthropomorphic entities who run the worlds within our heads. The first film, released in 2015, was an instant Pixar classic, grossing close to a billion dollars.

For those few remaining people here in the outer world who haven’t seen the original “Inside Out,” the basic concept is this: Inside our heads, our every move and decision is controlled by a team of characters comprising our emotions: the generally agreed upon team leader is Joy and the second most prominent emotion is Sadness, followed by Anger; they are voiced by, respectively, Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, and Lewis Black. The original ensemble is completed by Tony Hale as Fear and Liza Lapira as Disgust.  

The visual depictions of these emotion characters is brilliant, especially Anger, who looks like a stumpy, bright red Willie Loman, a business guy with rolled-up sleeves and a tie — like a kind of caricature of a 1950s father who’s continually getting ticked off at someone or something.

These are all emotions in the head of a girl named Riley; she’s 11 in the 2015 film, and these feelings help her get through the experience of adjusting to school after her family moves to a new part of the country. In the sequel, she’s 13, and now the big issue is dealing with the first signs of puberty and preparing herself for high school and beyond.  

The central relationship in the first film is with her parents; in the new film, it’s with her friends and her peers. The “Personality Islands,” so vividly depicted in the original, are barely seen here, but you might say the Family Island is vastly overshadowed by the Friendship Island.

Early in the story, the original core emotions are disturbed to learn that they’re being joined by four newcomers, Envy, Ennui, Embarrassment, and the leader, Anxiety, voiced by Maya Hawke. Well-meaning as she might be, Anxiety quickly sucks all the oxygen out of the room and suppresses all five of the core emotions, literally bottling them up — one of dozens of brilliant visual metaphors that give the story its zing. 

The 2015 “Inside Out” is so universally beloved that many will not doubt feel the sequel can’t live up to it. Viewed objectively, though, “2” is very nearly as good; my own expectations were more than exceeded. 

The major advantage of the original is the presence of an imaginary friend known as Bing Bong, played vocally by the matchless Richard Kind. Not only is there no sentimental character like that in the sequel, but the filmmakers seem to be discouraging that kind of thinking when yet another emotion, identified as Nostalgia and taking the form of a little old lady, tries to take her place in the control room but is repeatedly rebuffed.

Both stories have Joy and some of the others banished to the back of Riley’s cognitive space; in the original, Joy and Sadness try to catch the Train of Thought back to headquarters; here, Joy, Disgust, Fear, and Anger float down a Stream of Consciousness. 

There’s a brilliant sequence in the original where they pass through a Hollywood-style Dream Factory. Here they must escape in a vault where they encounter memories Riley wants to hide or is ashamed of, which take the form of a 2-D anthropomorphic dog character from an old kiddie cartoon show and a manga-like warrior from a video game who, despite his leading-man looks, has a rather lame fighting style.

Much more than the original, the whole shebang of “Inside Out 2” is driven by the contrast between the outer world, which is depicted so vividly that it might as well be live-action and the completely cartoony inner world where most of the action takes place. 

In addition to the voice talents, the director, the writer, animators, and designers, there’s the score of Pixar’s most reliable maestro, Michael Giacchino. He has a gift for underscoring the most intense moments with the most surprisingly minimal sounds, just a few key keyboard notes here and there to emphasize the emotional starkness. 

“Inside Out 2” won’t replace the original in anyone’s estimation, but Joy was at the console in my head during all 96 fast-moving minutes of running time. Disappointment was one emotion that did not make an appearance.

The New York Sun

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