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All The Feels

Like the MCU, Pixar has been in a bit of a tough spot as of late. Initially, they were arguably the gold standard in family entertainment, perhaps even more so than Disney Animation itself. Whether you saw Toy Story, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Up, or Inside Out, you were virtually guaranteed a film that was clever, funny, and profoundly humanistic.

Then, things began to change. Pixar’s film Onward was released in early February of 2020, and unless you’ve been severely memoryholed, you’ll remember that there was a spot of unpleasantness during that year. Along with killing around one million people and severely damaging the frayed bonds of society, COVID-19 caused Onward to underperform. The next year, Soul did okay theatrically and better streaming, Luca did less well theatrically, and fairly okay streaming. Turning Red was shoved onto streaming and lost money. Lightyear was an outright bomb, while Elemental slowly became a sleeper hit.

Fairly or not, the Pixar brand is tarnished. The good news is, they still have a huge number of smart and talented creatives. The bad news is, Hollywood is now almost exclusively run by either bloodless business school graduates or acolytes of the tech industry. The end result is a belief that a film can no longer be just a success. It must be a massive financial success, and if not, the entire film and/or franchise it’s attached to should be dismantled.* It all means that Inside Out 2, Pixar’s latest animated feature, needs to succeed. But should it?

We’re reintroduced to Riley (Kensington Tallman), who’s just turned thirteen. She’s navigated a move from Minnesota to San Francisco, nursed a love of hockey that her Mom (Diane Lane) and Dad (Kyle MacLachlan) support, and has made new friends. That’s only what’s happening on the outside.

Inside is Headquarters, the command center run by Riley’s emotions. The dominant one is Joy (Amy Poehler), and she leads a tight team including Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Liza Lapira), and Fear (Tony Hale). So far, things are chugging along smoothly, mostly due to Joy’s policy of ejecting any memories that feel sad, shameful, or just icky right into Riley’s subconscious.

Things become at least one hundred percent less smooth when Riley experiences the opening attack of puberty. For the emotions, that means the team suddenly has a number of new co-workers. They are Envy (Ayo Edibiri), Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser), Ennui (Adele Exarchopoulos), and their leader Anxiety (Maya Hawke). 

On the outside, Riley is spending a weekend at a hockey camp, and she’s desperate to impress the coach (Yvette Nicole Brown), join the best high school team around, and befriend the cool girls. On the inside, Anxiety is taking control of headquarters. Not out of malice, but Anxiety knows that her guidance is what Riley needs. When comparing herself to Fear, she tells Joy, “He keeps Riley safe from things she can see. My job is to keep her safe from things she can’t see.” As a result, Joy gets exiled. She and her crew must journey through Riley’s brainspace to help her be her best self, or at least her most real self.

If I’m being honest with you, I approached Inside Out 2 with trepidation. As much respect as I have for Pixar in general, they’re owned by Disney, and Disney will milk anything for a buck. The concern was that the sequel would be Inside Out but more. The reality is that it’s somewhat true, yet the sequel is made by dedicated professionals who know their stuff. This is Kelsey Mann’s feature debut, and as someone who’s worked his way up the Pixar ladder, he’s internalized a great deal of the studio’s storytelling and design ethos. He’s made a film that looks fantastic** and moves along at a sprightly pace. Since the original was released in 2015, this film’s cutting edge as of 2024 animation feels a little fuller, yet it still feels connected to the same world.

Speaking of similarities, the screenplay by Meg LeFauve and Dave Holstein is thoughtful, frequently funny, but feels like a retread of the first film. I should first mention that I had a good time with it. The storytelling aspects, such as the structure and characterization were rock solid. In a way, the screenplay is a victim of the success of Inside Out. That film took a few years to develop with the assistance of neuroscientists and mental health professionals. The end result was something hilarious, intelligent, and profoundly moving.*** This script seems to be just as thoughtful, yet it doesn’t quite have the power of its predecessor. I recognize that’s an unfair criticism, but consider this point. Both The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II are unimpeachable mob movie classics. If The Godfather: Part III were an unconnected crime movie, we’d look at it as a fairly decent film. But when it carries a title that’s so loaded with legacy and meaning, you can’t help but feel the disappointment more acutely.**** So it goes with Inside Out 2. 

The cast is stuck in a real good news/bad news scenario. The good news is that the vocal performances are bright, energetic, and nuanced. Returning as Joy, Amy Poehler plays a character who genuinely means well when it comes to Riley’s welfare. And if you squint a little, Joy has been doing a pretty good job up to now. Consider that Riley has a good core group of friends, she’s a hard worker, and most importantly, she’s a good person. Where it gets interesting is that Maya Hawke’s Anxiety also genuinely means well. Riley desperately wants to get in with the cool kids at her hockey camp, and Anxiety figures the best way to do that is for Riley to remake who she is. Why, if she doesn’t, she’ll end up a social leper for the rest of her days! That take is a smart one, and it means that Anxiety isn’t a villain, but she is a damn good antagonist for Joy.

Like I said, that’s the good news. The bad news is that the cast is way, way too big. We’ve got five returning emotions, four new emotions, a main human character, her two friends, and a new group of kids at hockey camp. Oh, and there are also a number of side characters that are amusing, but further clutter things up. All of that was positively exhausting for me to type, so just imagine what it’s like being an actor who has to stand out in that crowd? To give a single example, Ayo Edibiri absolutely annihilated last year in Bottoms, as well as on The Bear. As Envy, Edibiri is fine, but has very little to do. I don’t love that, since it feels like a strong up and coming performer was hired to boost the film’s cool factor, rather than being given a chance to bring a new feeling (Sorry!) to the proceedings.

As I type this, Inside Out 2 is on track to make $85 million on its opening weekend. By the time you read this, we’ll know if that actually happened. Whether or not it “deserves” the box office is irrelevant. What matters is that the filmmakers made a good film following in the footsteps of a great one. That’s fine, I only  wish these creatives had been given the chance to strike out in a new direction. But as I think about that, I’m reminded that an awful lot of people don’t want something that’s new or daring. Of all the emotions I’m capable of feeling, that knowledge makes me a little sad.

 

*Check out this interview with Pete Docter, Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer.

**Considering the budget was reportedly between $185-200 million, I’d kind of hope that the film looks fantastic. 

***I put the Bing-Bong sequence as one of the most emotionally shattering moments ever put to film. It’s just as strong as the marriage sequence from Up. 

***To clarify, in every way I judge a movie, Inside Out 2 is a better film than The Godfather: Part III.

Tim Brennan Movie Critic

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.

 

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