REVIEW – ‘Inside Out 2’ does everything a great sequel should

With a global box office of $858 million, an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, and the generally held opinion that it is one of the best (many would say it’s the best) Pixar films of all time, Inside Out remains a sparkling achievement in Pixar’s crowded back catalogue. A sequel to the 2015 masterpiece has felt inevitable for close to a decade now. Following up such a critical and commercial success is a staggering task. But this is the same studio that somehow delivered four Toy Story films that only got better with each chapter, so they’ve faced this challenge before.

Perhaps it’s this kind of pressure that Pixar thrives on. And I say that because, with Inside Out 2, they’ve achieved the seemingly impossible and delivered a follow-up that does everything a great sequel should. It’s somehow both familiar and fresh. It celebrates the original yet stands on its own two feet. It takes its core narrative to insightful, bold new places while still remaining faithful to its heart. It’s hilarious, heartwarming, and hugely entertaining. And it delivers a host of hugely loveable new characters who organically fit within the existing cast. Is it “better” than its predecessor? Well, let’s not go there just yet.

Picking up relatively recently after the events of the previous film, we rejoin 13-year-old Riley (Kensington Tallman) to find the newly minted teenager in a decidedly happy place. She’s top of the class and the best player on her middle school ice hockey team. She’s got her two BFFs, Bree (Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green) and Grace (Grace Lu) constantly by her side. And the three have all scored an exclusive invite to a three-day hockey camp attended by players of their future high school team, the Fire Hawks.

Inside the Headquarters of Riley’s mind, Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Tony Hale), and Disgust (Liza Lapira) seem to have found the right balance to keep Riley from too many emotional meltdowns. They’ve even established a new central mechanic known as the Sense of Self i.e. Riley’s core beliefs that keep her calm and grounded. But the pressure to succeed at camp and impress her potential future teammates (especially the effortlessly cool captain Val Ortiz) suddenly causes all sorts of complex feelings to start flowing.

Late one night, the unexpected ringing of the “Puberty Alarm” announces the arrival of “more sophisticated” emotions to Riley’s already complicated psyche. Now on deck at the control panel are the frazzled bundle of energy Anxiety (Maya Hawke); the painfully shy Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser); the wide-eyed and jealous Envy (Ayo Edebiri), and the endlessly apathetic Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos). While Joy and the gang are initially optimistic about the arrival of new compatriots, it seems they’re emotions that serve Riley more effectively than her core five original gang.

Naturally, there’s plenty more plot within Meg LeFauve and Dave Holstein‘s intelligent screenplay than listed above, but it’s best left for you to discover. Without entering spoiler territory, what follows is a poignant and pertinent journey that finds Joy questioning her purpose and relevance amongst the many changes puberty innately brings. As childhood fades into the distance and the many difficulties of young adulthood arrive, does an ostensibly playful and slightly frivolous emotion like pure joy need to take a backseat too? As we mature, do we possibly lose touch with the emotions that once drove our every action?

It’s typical Pixar brilliance to tackle such existential topics within a film inherently targeted at young children. They’re really aiming for a more mature crowd here, especially those who were kindergarten-age when the original was released and now find themselves in the midst of their teenage years. If the first film was ultimately centred on why Joy and Sadness are both vital to a balanced mind, Inside Out 2 focuses on how our core beliefs are essential in remaining authentic to our true selves.

In trying to protect Riley from every potential negative outcome, Anxiety is entirely well-intentioned and empathetic. A little anxiety can be a very healthy and natural response to life’s challenges. But when her dominance of the control console starts to meddle with Riley’s core values in the form of a new fractured Sense of Self, she begins to seek validation and acceptance from others rather than find it within. It’s here where the true message of Inside Out 2 becomes obvious, harkening back to classic Pixar films that sought to entertain as much as enlighten.

And this sequel is indeed ridiculously entertaining and genuinely hilarious. As Joy and co. journey to the back of Riley’s mind, it’s another humourous adventure filled with puns, plays-on-words, slapstick humour, and a few uproarious surprise characters that will remain unspoiled, particularly those found within “The Vault.” LeFauve and Holstein play on the strengths of their terrific ensemble voice cast to offer numerous jokes tailor-made to fit their unique characters perfectly. Naturally, there are several big set pieces that explode with colour and thrills that will delight younger viewers who may not quite grasp the screenplay’s deeper intentions.

Leading everything with total ease is the ever-reliable Poehler whose energetic voice work continues to bless Joy with the effervescent spirit audiences fell in love with back in 2015. This sequel gives Poehler more layers to work with, particularly as Joy struggles to find her place in Riley’s new world of puberty. Sadness takes somewhat of a backseat this time around, but Smith’s tragicomic performance remains as gorgeous as ever. Likewise with Black providing Anger’s splashes of tempestuous fury at just the right moments, while the amusing Hale and Lapira seamlessly take over from Bill Hader and Mindy Kaling, respectively.

Unsurprisingly, the real star of the show is Hawke whose Anxiety is the chaotic ball of manic energy and stressful dread we all have deep down inside us. For those of us who tend to overthink pretty much everything, Hawke’s pitch-perfect and ultimately terribly moving performance hits extremely close to home. There’s a slight antagonistic quality to Anxiety but never to the degree you’d call her the film’s “villain.” Director Kelsey Mann is wise enough to highlight why Anxiety is the way she is and how her methods might actually be beneficial to a teenager facing many new decisions and problems. Edebiri, Exarchopoulos, and Hauser aren’t given all that much to do (the latter only utters one single line), but they’re a delightful addition to the crew, particularly Ennui whose deadpan French wit is an absolute riot.

By this point in their illustrious history, it almost feels pointless to mention the staggeringly beautiful achievements of the Pixar animators. They make it all look so effortless, even though we know this kind of stunning animation still takes years to accomplish. It’s another cornucopia of sparklingly designed characters and beautiful world-building, especially the gloriously fluorescent world beneath Headquarters where Riley’s Sense of Self forms into the air as long luminescent strands. As for Andrea Datzman‘s new score, well, it can’t hold a candle to Michael Giacchino’s iconic work for the original film, but it’s a valiant effort just the same.

Given Inside Out stands as one of Pixar’s finest achievements, the bar was set tremendously high for any Pixar films that followed. It’s a level a sequel could only hope to achieve. Its predecessor had the luxury of zero expectations and the element of surprise. A sequel competes against its own brand without such blessings. While it may lack the emotional wallop of the first film’s gut-punch moments, Inside Out 2 is delving into deeper territory and seeks to tackle more mature introspections. In that regard, it’s absolutely a tremendous success and one that will still bring plenty of tears to your eyes for entirely different reasons than in 2015.

Arguing over whether this sequel is “better” than the original seems moot when the filmmakers were obviously looking to make a second film that stands as a complementary piece to its predecessor rather than something that just goes bigger and louder or lazily rehashes everything from the first film in a shiny new package. These two films now work harmoniously to expertly capture one young girl’s complex journey into young adulthood with the universal message to listen to your emotions rather than suppress them. Inside Out 2 exceeds the expectations of most sequels and stands tall alongside the masterwork that preceded it. Pixar well and truly have their groove back.

Distributor: Disney
Cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Tony Hale, Liza Lapira, Maya Hawke, Ayo Edebiri, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Paul Walter Hauser, Kensington Tallman, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Director: Kelsey Mann
Producer: Mark Nielsen
Screenplay: Meg LeFauve, Dave Holstein
Cinematography: Adam Habib, Jonathan Pytko
Production Design: Jason Deamer
Editor: Maurissa Horwitz
Music: Andrea Datzman

Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Date: 13th June 2024 (Australia)

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