‘Inside Out 2’ Review: Anxiety Attacks in a Mature, Sensitive Pixar Sequel

Kelsey Mann’s “Inside Out 2” should remind us of something we’ve all learned over the last few decades: The best Pixar sequels are the ones that grow up with the kids who watched the originals. (And the worst ones are about tow trucks who become super spies.)

The “Toy Story” sequels took a tale about accepting new friends and family and spun that out into films about processing abandonment, accepting death and acknowledging when it’s time to move on with your life. “Monsters University” took an original story about how to cope with unexpected parenthood and childhood fears, and modified it into a prequel about how to accept personal failure in a healthy way. Simple, beautiful allegories little kids could understand became slightly more complicated stories with messages that older kids — and many adults — have yet to learn.

“Inside Out” is one of Pixar’s crown jewels, shrewdly anthropomorphizing a child’s emotions to dramatize their first bout of serious inner conflict. It’s a film about learning that sadness, though hardly the most pleasant emotion, is invaluable to human experience and that expressing all of our emotions is vital to our well-being and our relationships. (Also it’s about why Bing Bong had to die. Sorry, Bing Bong. You were the best of us.)

“Inside Out 2” catches up with Riley (Kensington Tallman), the human, three years later. She’s an extremely good kid, kind to others, generous to stray cats, top of her class and a fledgling hockey star to boot. Her emotions Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Liza Lapira) and Fear (Tony Hale) are cultivating Riley’s core beliefs — like morality and friendliness — into her growing sense of self. And when an unpleasant memory doesn’t fit the identity they’re trying to build, Joy catapults it into the back of Riley’s mind.

We’ll get back to that. Anyway, one night Riley’s emotions wake up to an alarm going off on Riley’s control panel. It’s marked “Puberty.” When they press it, Riley’s mind immediately falls apart. Her usual emotions are heightened to the point of angsty teen melodrama and suddenly she’s got brand-new emotions vying for control of her personality: Anxiety (Maya Hawke), Envy (Ayo Adebiri), Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser).

These are not emotions that exclusively develop during puberty, and that’s just one of many inconsistencies between “Inside Out 2,” the original film and life in general that we’re going to have to live with. “Inside Out” doesn’t seem to have been written with any of these developments in mind, since we saw the inside of adult brains in that movie and none of those other feelings were there. Also, the Joy-conceived practice of picking which memories to cling to and which to jettison doesn’t match the original, where deciding which experiences should become long-term memories and which should be forgotten was merely a neutral part of their day job.

Pixar has never let logic get in the way of a fun allegory before (see: literally all the “Cars” movies) and they haven’t started now. Come to think of it, it’s weird that there’s no personification of Logic in this universe, right? And if the reason Riley is so mentally healthy is because her emotions love her, what does it say about those of us who have serious mental health issues? Do our emotions just not love us as much as Riley’s do? Why did Riley’s emotions try so hard to protect her and mine didn’t? What’s wrong with me?

And that little rabbit hole I just went through leads us to Anxiety, who quickly takes control of Riley’s mind while she’s at a weekend hockey camp. Riley just hit puberty. She also just found out her best friends are going to different high schools. Also she’s trying to fit in with older teenagers. So she’s basically a wreck, and Anxiety wants to protect her by predicting every possible thing that could go wrong in her future. So she tosses out all the old emotions and dedicates every part of Riley’s mind to planning for worst-case scenarios instead of living in the present, pushing Riley closer and closer to a debilitating panic attack.

As someone who has generalized anxiety disorder, I am both impressed and annoyed with “Inside Out 2.” The screenplay by Meg LaFauve and Dave Holstein (Kelsey Mann has a co-story credit) understands that anxiety has an intended function, to make us mindful of the future and help avoid possible obstacles. It isn’t nearly as thoughtful about Riley’s other new emotions, who have very little to contribute to this story, but it understands where anxiety comes from and how dangerous it is to let it completely control your life.

What ticks me off a little is that thanks to “Inside Out 2” I now have sympathy for my own anxiety. Great, just what my anxiety needed — a boost.

But that’s the beauty of these “Inside Out” movies. They actively engage with difficult psychological concepts and, at their best, find a way to dramatize them that makes thematic sense and encourages us all to think about them differently. It’s a powerful story told intelligently and with great wit. Kelsey Mann was able to expand on what seemed like a complete story in the original film and tell a new and potent one, and that’s impressive and commendable even though — like many Pixar films — it falls apart in the details.

“Inside Out 2” isn’t nearly as funny as the original, which isn’t to say that it’s a slog, only that the jokes aren’t all zingers this time. (But it must be said, as belabored puns go, the “sar-chasm” is stultifyingly brilliant.) Mann’s film also doesn’t have that one Pixar moment that scars kids for life by making them cry harder than they’ve ever cried before, which is either a major letdown or a massive relief depending on who you talk to. But it’s still a meaningful experience.

The new “Inside Out” makes our Logic hurt — or it would, if Logic existed in this universe — but more importantly it connects on a personal level, with dazzling animation and memorable characters, and valuable ideas that need to be explained sometime but rarely are, especially in film for younger audiences. It doesn’t quite stack up to the original, which was funnier and sadder and made slightly more sense, but it’s not a sequel’s job to be better than the original. It’s a sequel’s job to tell another story worth telling, and no doubt about it, “Inside Out 2” gets that job done.

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