Review: Pixar Channels Familiar Emotions (and Several Charming New Ones) for Inside Out 2, the Rare Sequel Success

For many animation fans, the original Inside Out represents not only the best that Pixar has to offer, but also the depths to which animation as an art-form can go when it’s not afraid to let complexity and genuine emotion into the process of creating actual family entertainment—as in, entertainment that appeals to every member of the family and not just children. A big reason for the success of the film was screenwriter Meg LeFauve, who thankfully returns (along with co-screenwriter Dave Holstein) for Inside Out 2, yet another peek into the very active mind of now-13-year-old Riley (voiced by Kensington Tallman). She is just hitting puberty and is about to invite a whole host of new emotions into her already teeming head—ones that may determine the type of person she becomes going into the rest of her life.

Naturally, we see the return of the Emotions from the 2015 original: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Tony Hale, taking over from Bill Hader), and Disgust (Liza Lapira, replacing Mindy Kaling). But as the Emotions navigate their usual duties for Riley while she hangs out with her best friends, Bree and Grace (Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green and Grace Lu, respectively) and continues to play hockey, Riley is also given the rare opportunity to attend a hockey camp with high schoolers, led by Coach Roberts (Yvette Nicole Brown) and featuring an all-star player, Valentina 'Val' Ortiz (Lilimar), whom Riley admires tremendously. With this invitation (which could lead to her attending the school that all of these hockey celebrities attend), Riley begins to think about the future and how this could be her one chance to continue both playing hockey and becoming friends with those who will make her seem cool in the eyes of older kids, and that’s when a slew of new Emotions enter the picture.

Maya Hawke lends her voice to Anxiety, whose manic insistence that contemplating every possible thing that could go wrong ends up making her something of the unintentional villain of this piece. Her intentions are noble, but her methods are diabolical and include Riley ditching her old friends, who also get into the camp and see this as a chance to just have fun together one last time before possibly getting separated in high school. And the other new Emotions don’t make it any easier on Riley or the OG Emotions. One of the loudest in Riley’s head is Envy (Ayo Edebiri), who chimes in just about any time Riley is in the company of Val, representing the coolest person in Riley’s orbit. Paul Walter Hauser voices Embarrassment, who doesn’t speak much but seems to be a very active player in Riley’s mind (and his palms are very sweaty). And finally, one of my favorite new characters is Ennui (French actor Adèle Exarchopoulos), whose droll delivery seems to encapsulate everything I know about today’s teens.

The remarkable thing about all of these emotions is that they are only called upon when their specific quality is required or expressed. Unlike so many other animated works, the characters aren’t brought up in the roster because they haven’t had screen time in a while; they actually serve a function required in that specific moment in the story. Even Ennui’s distant persona comes in handy at one key moment, and it’s glorious; even she seems shocked that her expression of boredom comes in handy. I should also mention June Squibb popping in a couple times as Nostalgia; she doesn’t stay on screen long, but they are some of the funniest moments in a film full of thoughtful sequences.

Joy and her team of Emotions are banished to the furthest reaches of Riley’s mind by Anxiety, so she can take over and rework Riley’s true self, so they spend most of the film attempting to both get back to the control room of her brain and restore the qualities that made Riley so kind and special. Along the way, they visit a vault filled with Riley’s secrets, including her crush on video game character Lance Slashblade (Yong Yea), as well as two characters from a children’s cartoon that she still likes, Bloofy (Ron Funches) and a fanny pack named Pouchy (James Austin Johnson), who will quickly become fan favorites. These particular characters are all animated as they appear in their fictional TV show/video game and don’t resemble the rest of the film, which is such a perfect touch in a film already filled with perfect touches.

Directed by Kelsey Mann (making a feature film debut, although Mann worked in the art department on other Pixar films, such as Lightyear, Onward, and Monsters University), Inside Out 2 is so beautifully realized that one almost can’t believe that someone actually got an animated sequel right. The familiar characters get to express themselves in new ways, and the new ones get to add layers to this world of the mind that only make us appreciate more the way the brains at Pixar function in allowing us to see the inner world of a maturing human. There’s a scene in which Joy loses her cool and lets slip that she’s not always a positive person, that she fakes it sometimes, and the monologue is both hilarious and heartbreaking.

The ideas behind the Inside Out movies feel like they can be revisited every 10 years or so, timed to major events in Riley’s life and shifts in her personality that she can never come back from (hopefully in a good way). This second chapter could never be as good as the first, mostly because the ideas in the first were so original that they could never be topped. But it’s also not a competition. Inside Out 2 is great for some of the same reasons, but mostly new ones that serve to make its characters and concepts grow in meaningful and substantial ways. If you enjoy having your heart grow, check this one out.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.