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14 June 2024

Inside Out 2 can’t live up to the triumphant original

The first film was funny, touching and universally relatable. The sequel is unwieldy and narrow.

By David Sexton

The original Inside Out of 2015 was a triumph: so funny, so touching, so incredibly inventive. Pete Docter, now chief creative officer at Pixar, had been inspired by seeing the changes his own daughter went through as she grew up and had the brilliant idea of representing the emotions as animated characters at the controls inside a kid’s head. It wasn’t a wholly original concept – remember the Numskulls in the Beano, little critters called Brainy, Blinky, Luggy, Nosey and Cruncher? – but it was developed and executed to perfection.

Docter and his collaborators went through a protracted, complex process, lasting some six years, to arrive at the film, both an instant delight and infinitely re-watchable, never failing to raise laughs, as Anger explodes, and spring tears, as the protagonist Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong sacrifices himself. The scriptwriters had considered some 27 different emotions for inclusion but eventually cut it down to just five for simplicity, led by the radiant Joy, so sparkily voiced by Amy Poehler. The final selection was a bit approximate perhaps – Disgust had to cover for nastier feelings like envy and jealousy; pride didn’t make the cut – but their interactions are irresistible. Moreover, the film-makers structured the mental world they had devised with admirable clarity too. Those coloured orbs of experience going into long-term memory each night, those five islands of personality, imagination land, the memory dump: all were so brilliantly realised as animations that they immediately made sense.  

Inside Out gave kids helpful ways of thinking about the turmoil inside. Freud’s terms are all imaginary too, after all. And the film, which took us from Riley’s infancy up to the age of 12, was quite universally relatable, its themes of moving on and leaving childhood behind, acknowledging that sometimes sadness is the emotion we need most, accessible to all.

Now, nine years later, here’s Inside Out 2, which Pixar hopes will be the biggest theatrical release of the year, trumping Dune: Part Two and Godzilla x Kong. The company has had a difficult few years: some of its films since Covid have gone straight to Disney Plus, and there have been lay-off announcements in 2024. Docter has acknowledged that Pixar’s plan is to focus more on sequels than originals, saying: “It’s hard. Everybody says, ‘Why don’t they do more original stuff?’ And then when we do, people don’t see it because they’re not familiar with it. With sequels, people think, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that. I know that I like it.’ Sequels are very valuable that way.” Alas.

Riley is now 13 and the puberty button has been pressed. She’s had a growth spurt, she has a spot on her chin and braces on her teeth. Her mental world is now dominated by a belief system, represented by glowing strings shooting up from memory orbs floating in water far below that culminate in a luminous, tangled sense of self, shining on a pillar in the control room. When plucked, these strings speak in Riley’s voice, pronouncing “I’m a winner!” and the like. Although given a lot of pizzazz and intricate coloration by the animators, this structure feels oddly unwieldy in comparison with the simpler concepts of the first film.

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At first, the five familiar emotions, Joy (still Amy Poehler, for a reported $5m fee), Anger (still the marvellous 75-year-old Lewis Black), Disgust, Fear and Sadness, remain in charge, as we see Riley (now voiced by 16-year-old Kensington Tallman) joyfully score at an ice hockey match. But that night the whole control room is smashed up and newcomers arrive – the emotions of adolescence, led by manic, orange, frizzy-haired Anxiety (Maya Hawke). She is accompanied by a huge, bright pink, inarticulate blob, Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser), hiding in his hoodie; tiny, angsty Envy (Ayo Edebiri); and droopy, grey-blue Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos).

In no time, they’ve told the other Emotions they’re not what Riley needs right now, bottled them up and confined them to the Vault. Luckily, there they find friends from Riley’s past: a vintage video game hero, Lance Slashblade, whose superpower unfortunately is rolling himself up into a ball, Bloofy, a 2-D cartoon canine, and Pouchy, a characterful bag of variety items. Although none are as touching as Bing Bong, these inventions are all brilliantly done, as are the novel situations the Emotions meet, trying to make it back to headquarters to save Riley from the troubles she’s got into with her new controllers. So their epic journey home quite closely emulates that of Joy and Sadness in the first film. All well and good.

Not so good at all is what happens to Riley in the real world. The film is set almost entirely in a three-day ice hockey camp for girls. Ice hockey! To non-American viewers, this is about as exciting and significant as competitive calligraphy. Riley, ditching her old friends who are not going to the same high school as her, is desperate to impress the older girls and make the team. This is yet another American film that assumes that what happens at American high schools matters more than any other field of human endeavour. Perhaps the film’s producers are assuming that the global audience is now so Americanised that it’s not a problem. Perhaps they are right.

Still a problem, though, is the fact that at this hockey camp and throughout the film, not a single man or boy appears in the real world, save Riley’s dad. Its preoccupations are alien to boys in a way they were not in the original film. Despite Riley officially hitting puberty, there’s not the slightest allusion to sexuality of any kind either, let alone to the arrival of Lust. Maybe the politics of including that were too tricky, or maybe there’s a franchise strategy reserving romance for Inside Out 3? Not just more but better sequels to come, let’s hope.

Inside Out 2 is in cinemas now

[See also: Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is the franchise’s grandest, most expensive yet]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation