Inside Out 2: for all its innovations, the takeaway feeling from Pixar’s sequel is déjà vu

Envy, Embarrassment, Ennui and Anxiety begin to dominate the mind of struggling teen Riley in this witty Inside Out follow up that feels too similar to the original.

Anxiety, voiced by Maya Hawke, Inside Out 2 (2024)

Inside Out (2015), Pixar’s best film of the last 15 years, built its story around a model of the human psyche that was both lucid and playful, centering on the interactions between five personified emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust – who direct the moods of its preteen protagonist Riley. The elegance of its premise was capped by the simplicity of its ending, in which Joy and Sadness learn to collaborate in shaping the girl’s inner life. Coming from the studio – Disney – that perfected ‘happily ever after’, this sentiment was gently radical.

In this sequel, the moral is a touch more complex – but then so is the psychological makeup of Riley (Kensington Tallman), who is now 13 and hitting puberty. This occasions the arrival of four new emotions in her mind’s command centre: Anxiety, Envy, Embarrassment and Ennui. Developments in Riley’s life provide particularly fertile terrain for Anxiety (Maya Hawke), a goofy orange bundle of nerves who swiftly takes control of operations. As Riley auditions for her school’s hockey team while trying to befriend older, cooler teens, Anxiety colours her entire experience, not to mention her very environment: orange predominates in the design of the hockey camp. Personality traits are hardening into beliefs that often conflict: “I’m a good person,” Riley tells herself, but also, “I’m not good enough.”

The brilliance of the films’ model of the mind is as much visual as conceptual. Riley’s psyche is mapped out as a vast and deceptively orderly set, in which coloured capsules containing memories are stacked methodically on shelves, bridges lead to discrete Personality Islands, and accidents or intrusions occasionally upend everything. Inside Out 2 elaborates wittily on this architecture, introducing features such as the Sar-Chasm: whatever one shouts across it will reach the other side in a sardonic tone. Having been banished to the Back of the Mind by a rampant Anxiety, the five original emotions must find their way back across this symbolic realm, their odyssey mirroring that of Joy and Sadness the last time. The film intercuts between this and Riley’s adventures in the more mundane outside world, sustaining a nice tonal and aesthetic counterpoint till the end. But this device, and the extensive reuse of the psyche set, reinforce similarities with the first film.

Joy and Sadness, voiced by Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith in Inside Out 2 (2024)

The script, by Meg LeFauve (who co-wrote Inside Out) and Dave Holstein, ably steers us through its tricky, exposition-laden structure; yet for all the little innovations, we feel we’ve travelled down these neural pathways before. A central gag introduces characters from a (fictional) fantasy game and kids’ TV show, animated in relatively low-poly CGI and 2D respectively: Riley’s enduring attachment to these childhood heroes has been filed away as a guilty secret in the recesses of her mind. The characters are lame substitutes for Bing Bong, the imaginary friend in the original. And these kinds of absurdist intertextual shenanigans are increasingly common, and tiresome, in mainstream animated cinema (and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) did it better with its references to Porky Pig et al.)

Meanwhile, the narrative builds inevitably to a conclusion patterned on the original’s: all emotions have a part to play in constructing Riley’s sense of self. Fine – but the number of emotions this time, and the fact that four of them are new to Riley, mean that this revelation feels less intuitive than the last time, when Joy and Sadness learnt to jointly shape memories in a graceful illustration of wistful longing. Here, even as Anxiety’s role in Riley’s shifting selfhood is acknowledged, she ends up somewhat subjugated by a resurgent Joy. Anxiety is an interesting character, because she is a defining emotion not only of Riley’s young age but also her generation: by various metrics, teenagers are growing more anxious in wealthy nations, as social media increasingly distorts their lives and ever-greater global crises unfold around them. These things are beyond the scope of Inside Out 2, of course, but the ease with which Anxiety is integrated into Riley’s psyche may reveal the limits of what a Pixar film can say on the subject today.

Inside Out 2 ultimately feels more confined by its formulas – the elaborate logic of its world and the need for a reassuring ending – than some of the studio’s past sequels. A neat joke in the first film referred to the part of the mind responsible for sensing déjà vu. The sequel often triggers that spot, though it wisely avoids recycling the gag.

 Inside Out 2 is in UK cinemas now.