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Inside Out 2 Review: Fun Ride

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One question keeps running through my mind while watching Inside Out 2, the sequel to Pixar’s 2015 hit. Are all of the anthropomorphized emotions swirling around in the film’s young heroine’s head an allegory for her evolving consciousness? Or is Riley actually controlled by a cutesy cartoon character who’s taken over the console like a mech in the shape of a 13-year-old girl? When I saw the first part of Inside Out, a beautiful but sometimes silly coming-of-age film about Riley’s struggle to adjust to moving from Minnesota to San Francisco, I would have definitely thought the former. But the sequel, I don’t know. Inside Out 2 builds on the original premise of depicting the mind as a colorful wonderland filled with imaginative depictions of a person’s inner life, and in the process, it starts to get a little weird.

It’s the real world, where Riley (voiced by Kensington Tallman) is going through a stressful time during a three-day hockey summer camp that she attends with her two best friends, Grace (Grace Lu) and Bree (Sumaiya Nuridin-Green). And then there’s the inner world, which feels more and more like a hindrance to Riley’s story than it enriches it. New characters and elements are added, metaphors are overused, and the idea that this world is supposed to reflect a person’s psyche disappears into the sea. I guess that’s what Pixar is like these days. Filmmaker and chief creative officer Pete Doctor made headlines last month thanks to a line in a Bloomberg Businessweek feature about how, going forward, the studios movies should be less a pursuit of any directors catharsis and instead speak to a commonality of experience. That was interpreted, understandably, as a refutation of the companies recent push toward more diverse characters and creators. But watching Inside Out 2, which was directed by Kelsey Mann and written by Meg LeFauve and Dave Holstein, I had to wonder if what’s actually being nixed is the willingness to let emotional truths take the lead over more marketable and kid-friendly elements.

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Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Tony Hale) and Disgust (Liza Lapira) are expressive and silly, with a Muppet personality, which in the new film is shown through the puppet-like, accentuated by the consistency of their hair and the blurred contours. This also applies to the new emotions that suddenly appear and temporarily overwhelm her: Fear (Maya Hawke), who resembles Pepe the giant shrimp, Envy (Ayo Edebiri), her little sidekick, Perplexity (Paul Walter Hauser), Pink’s emotions. She is huge and always tries to disappear into her hoodie, and Boredom (Adele Exarchopoulos), who sits lazily while on the phone. Apart from Anxiety, this new crew, especially the short-changed Envy, are not particularly clear, but they are sweet, colorful and marketable, once again allowing the primitive emotions to move away from headquarters. – The day-to-day running of the business is handled by the role of Riley.

Much of what they go through is merely a void-filler, such as Riley’s escape from the vault where her deepest secrets were banished, or her journey into the corners of her mind to recapture her old sense of self. As we learn what Riley is up to later, it becomes clear that her inner world cannot help what she is going through. Freshman Riley, who has just found out that Grace and Bree are going to different high schools, suffers a mild nervous breakdown and convinces herself that she must impress the coach (Yvette Nicole Brown) and get into her school’s hockey team; otherwise, she risks being socially excluded. In quick succession, she abandons her friends in favor of older girls, including team captain Val Ortiz (Lilimar), and clings to them with such fervor that she suspects that among the secrets kept in her vault are those concerning their sexuality. The depiction of Riley instantly abandoning what she holds dear in order to quibble and impress potential teammates is horrifying and all too real, and she’s not even on screen long enough to cut to Anxiety’s efforts to alienate her in order to rebuild from the inside out.

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“Riley’s life requires more sophisticated emotions than any of you. Fear shapes the primitive emotions before they are violently repressed.” But the film’s new emotions and overall structure don’t feel sophisticated enough for someone who suddenly feels an agonizing pressure to fit in, and wallows in self-loathing in the attempt to achieve it. By the end of Inside Out 2, it feels like an inner world is being imposed on an outer narrative, and Riley has been transformed into a character who must submit to her own whims rather than leading her own struggle through teenage pain. She’s more of a marionette than a fully-fledged character, but the force that drives her is not a rainbow of emotions, but rather the studio itself, which has lost its touch.

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