Inside Out 2 review: Cynicism-free sequel might just save Pixar

A film about the ruinous stranglehold anxiety can have on the psyche? That might be a little too apt a subject for Pixar’s latest release. It’s been declared, by some, that the studio is on its last legs. The last few years saw three tentpole originals funnelled squanderously onto Disney+ during the height of the pandemic. Conceptually confusing Toy Story spin-off Lightyear died in cinemas – but Elemental, an original story about a culture-clash romance, was a sleeper hit. The studio’s inexplicable takeaway: more sequels, fewer personal stories.

It’s another gloomy reminder that the people who hold the purse strings all share a single brain cell, and it’s put the incoming Inside Out 2 in an uncomfortable position: if it flounders, Pixar, already recently hit by a devastating round of layoffs, may be toast. If it succeeds, the studio will be forever committed to churning out Toy Story sequels. (Brace yourself for a barrell-scraping spin-off exploring the inner turmoil of John Ratzenburger’s talking piggy bank.) And yet, the reality of Inside Out 2 doesn’t comfortably fit either of those narratives. It’s a lovely sequel, without a trace of cynicism to it, that also by necessity lacks a little of the freshness and originality of 2022’s Turning Red or 2021’s Luca.

Out of all of Pixar’s films, Inside Out is admittedly the most primed for a revisit. Set within the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, it follows a gang of anthropomorphised emotions that control her life. As kids get older, puberty sets in and emotions complicate, so it’s a natural place for screenwriters Meg LeFauve and Dave Holstein to introduce an new set of characters: Anxiety (Maya Hawke), Envy (Ayo Edebiri), Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos), and Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser).

Riley (Kensington Tallman) is two years older, and about to head off to a hockey-themed summer camp ahead of her first year of high school. Anxiety barges in, arms bundled with (literal) baggage, and vows to protect Riley from all “the scary stuff she can’t see”. She’s a well-intentioned despot who soon sends the core emotions – Joy (Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Tony Hale, replacing Bill Hader), and Disgust (Liza Lapira, replacing Mindy Kaling) – to the repressed back of the brain, where all secrets live, so that she can focus on the work of social success.

The imaginary landscape of the mind, first created for Pete Docter’s 2015 film (Kelsey Mann here takes on directing duties), felt mildly revolutionary at the time. Suddenly, we’d been handed a new vocabulary for how parents could talk to kids, and how emotionally stunted adults could talk to themselves in the mirror. Inside Out 2 is interested more in expanding than redefining its predecessor, but it’s impressive how well even the film’s more familiar elements still work. What was once a lesson in the necessity of negative emotions, such as sadness, has now matured into its second stage: a bittersweet, tearjerking reminder that we’re better, more rounded people when we embrace our flaws and insecurities.

This is the stuff Pixar excels at, the fantastical speaking directly to the emotional. Hawke is an ingenious pick for the voice of Anxiety. Her scratchy, but gentle tone and rapid-fire delivery makes it easier to forget that this little muppet-mouthed, culotte-clothed disaster is the one actively ruining Riley’s life.

Emotion sickness: Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Joy (Amy Poehler), Disgust (Liza Lapira), Fear (Tony Hale) and Anger (Lewis Black) in ‘Inside Out 2' (Pixar)
Emotion sickness: Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Joy (Amy Poehler), Disgust (Liza Lapira), Fear (Tony Hale) and Anger (Lewis Black) in ‘Inside Out 2' (Pixar)

It’s a painfully relatable character, in a film that’s been packed to the rafters with silly, witty observations, from the appearance of Riley’s former crush – a low-res, old school video game character called Lance Slashblade (Yong Yea) – to the depiction of a catastrophising thought spiral being made to look like Apple’s famous Nineteen Eighty-Four-inspired ad, where the woman throws a sledgehammer into the giant screen. Sure, there’s nothing in the film that matches the pure heartbreak of the first, when Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) disappears into nothingness. But Inside Out 2 proves that it’s ludicrous, at this point, to accuse the studio of having run out of ideas.

Dir: Kelsey Mann. Starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Tony Hale, Liza Lapira, Maya Hawke, Ayo Edebiri, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Paul Walter Hauser. U, 96 mins