‘Inside Out 2’ Review: New Feelings Propel a Pixar Sequel Enchanting Enough to Second That Emotion

In “Inside Out 2,” Riley, the displaced tween from “Inside Out,” is now 13 years old (the voice role is taken over, with vivid nuance, by Kensington Tallman), which means that she’s on the verge of a whole new set of emotions. In the Headquarters of her brain, a siren flashes (it’s the one we saw in the earlier film marked Puberty), which means it’s time for renovation workers to bust into the place, tear down the walls, and install a new console that can accommodate Riley’s budding adolescent feelings. The original quintet of Anger (Lewis Black), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Tony Hale), Disgust (Liza Lapira), and the beloved Joy (Amy Poehler) are still around, but they’re now “suppressed emotions,” shoved to the back of her mind. (Over the course of the film, they’ll literally travel there).

“Inside Out,” I would argue, was the last great Pixar movie. I loved “Toy Story 4” (2019), and “Finding Dory” (2016) was irresistible in a way that evoked the magic of “Finding Nemo,” but “Inside Out,” released in 2015, was arguably the last film to be worthy of the Pixar name at its visionary, eyeball-tickling, head-spinning peak. It had the audacity to build an entire world inside the mind of Riley, and to turn that world — the warring emotions, the good and bad memories stored in collectible marbles — into a kind of enchanted philosophical amusement park. “Inside Out” was bedazzling entertainment, yet the movie went deeper than that. In deconstructing how the human personality works, it told a tale that was moving and profound. The film wasn’t just about lifting Riley out of her depressed homesick funk. It was about what happens to all of us as we leave childhood behind — the way the illusions and innocence, the beautiful garden of who we were, must fall away.

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“Inside Out 2” can’t shock us with its out-of-the-box imaginative daring the way “Inside Out” did. But the film’s director, Pixar animation veteran Kelsey Mann (making his feature filmmaking debut), and the screenwriters, Meg LeFauve and Dave Holstein, build on the earlier film’s playful brilliance and come about as close as we could have hoped for to matching it.

The new emotions on the block are a deliriously fun crew, from the catty Envy (Ayo Edebiri) to the no-thanks-we’re-bored Ennui, voiced by Adèle Exarchopoulos as if she were the Nico of teen angst. But the key newcomer — as pivotal to “Inside Out 2” as Joy was to the first film — is Anxiety (Maya Hawke). At first it’s no surprise to see that she’s visualized as a walking nervous wreck, with a feather-duster sprout of orange hair and a face that’s all popping eyes, eyebrows that twitch in the air, and an elongated stretch of toothy mouth — she looks like Emma Stone animated as a rubber space alien out of a Wallace and Gromit cartoon. But Anxiety, it turns out, is not a nervous wreck. She’s certainly a bundle of raw nerves, but the whole thing she’s about is using anxiety to get things done.

It’s the summer before high school, and Riley, who has just led her middle-school hockey team to the championship, is about to spend three days at hockey camp. She’s thrown for a loop when she learns that her two best friends, Bree (Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green) and Grace (Grae Lu), won’t be attending the same high school she is. But the real factor that’s about to take over Riley is her desire to make the Firehawks, the high-school hockey team. (The team’s coach runs the camp, so it’s like an audition.) Riley idolizes the Firehawks’ leader, Valentina “Val” Ortiz (Lilimar), with her rock-star attitude and fire streak of hair, and she’ll do anything to get in her good graces.

At hockey camp, Riley’s need to impress Val and the team’s other cool kids, at the expense of anything else (like hanging out with the good friends she mistakenly thinks are abandoning her), becomes the defining drive of her existence. And that’s where Anxiety comes in. The character, voiced with antic flair by Maya Hawke, might just as well have been named Caffeinated Calculation or Desire To Belong or Obsessive-Compulsive Social-Climbing FMO. In “Inside Out 2,” the form that Anxiety takes — the things she pushes Riley to do — amounts to a state of existence based entirely on getting ahead, on saying the things you think others want to hear, on replacing the joy of the moment with the fear of the future (or what it might turn into if you don’t heed your Anxiety and plan for it).

As all this transpires, what’s happening in Riley’s brain is that Anxiety, facing off against Joy and the other four primal emotions, is engaged in nothing less than a war over Riley’s Sense of Self. As a teenager, Riley doesn’t just have emotions or islands of identity (Family Island has grown notably smaller) but an entire Belief System, consisting of mostly reverent thoughts (“I’m a really good friend,” “I’m a winner”) that are pictured as beams of light shooting up to the sky. These beliefs are who Riley is. That’s why Anxiety, to mount her hostile takeover of Riley’s personality, has to do more than just guide her actions. She has to replace one Sense of Self with another. Her beliefs now have to be things like “If I’m a Firehawk, I’ve won!” or “As long as we like what they like, we’ll have all the friends we need!” The film’s drama of emotional battle spins around a question at once topical and metaphysical: Does Riley want to be herself, or does she want herself to be who others want her to be?

“Inside Out 2” is a transporting fable about the desire to fit in, to be validated by the Cool Culture that’s, more and more, our collective seal of approval and success. And while the movie is an enchanting animated ride of the spirit (be prepared for it to help save summer at the box office), it may also be the most poignantly perceptive tale of the conundrums of early adolescence since “Eighth Grade.”

The movie isn’t always as uproariously funny as the first “Inside Out,” because it lacks that primal surprise factor. Yet it’s full of moments of delirious effrontery. There’s a great scene where Val asks Riley what her favorite band is, and after she makes the mistake of mentioning the unhip boy band Get Up and Glow, Ennui steps up to Riley’s console to create a new geological brain feature: a Sar-chasm. There’s a wacked TV character from Riley’s youth, the hand-drawn Bloofy (Ron Funches), who has a crowd-pleasing fanny pack named Pouchy (James Austin Johnson) who saves the day, and there’s the droll occasional appearance of an emotion that Riley is too young for: Nostalgia (June Squibb), hilariously envisioned as a dainty dowager with a teacup.

“Inside Out 2” marks a triumphant creative return for Pixar, bringing off the thing that this studio, at its best, has done better than anyone: finding the sweet spot that merges the gaze of children and adults. The movie is really about the micro choices we all make to sculpt our personalities. Will we allow our anxiety to be greater than our joy? Will we let our desire to fit in overwhelm who we are? The film answers that in a way that’s heady enough to leave you already eager for another sequel, one that charts the storm inside Riley as she grows up.

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