Inside Out 2 Takes on the Humor and Horror of Puberty

Movies Reviews Pixar
Inside Out 2 Takes on the Humor and Horror of Puberty

No one, and I mean absolutely no one, looks back on their time in middle school and thinks, “Wow those years were great. I would love to go back.” Fraught with changing bodies, overnight growth spurts and outsized emotions, the years are turbulent both for the children going through puberty and for their parents trying to understand the stranger living in their house. But, curiously, not many movies and TV shows are aimed directly at this demographic. They either skew too old (Euphoria, a show designed to give adults everywhere nightmares) or too young (Disney’s delightful Descendants trilogy). Pixar to the rescue! Inside Out 2, the sequel to the Oscar-winning film, revisits Riley (now voiced by Kensington Tallman) in the full-blown throes of adolescence. 

Although nine years have passed since Inside Out was released in 2015, less than two years have passed in movie time. Savvy viewers will remember that Inside Out ended with Joy (Amy Poehler) saying, “Riley’s 12 now. What could happen?” Now we find out. 

Thirteen-year-old Riley is about to graduate from eighth grade. In the first movie, Riley was adapting to life in California. Now Riley is adapting to leaving middle school behind for high school. She loves hockey and is thrilled when the high school hockey coach (Yvette Nicole Brown) invites her to a three-day skills camp. 

Parents of teens will be charmed (and definitely feel validated) by how accurately the movie captures this period of time.“Family island” is blocked by “friendship island” in Riley’s brain. A construction crew comes through her mind and posts a “Pardon Our Dust. Puberty is Messy.” sign. These smaller moments, which may go over younger viewers’ heads, are quick-hit delights. 

Riley and her two best friends Grace (Grace Lu) and Bree (Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green) head off to the skills camp. But Riley is immediately torn between being loyal to her old friends or trying to impress the high school students, particularly hockey star Valentina (Lilimar). That desire to be cool, fit in and be liked reaches its peak in adolescence, when teenagers are still figuring out exactly who they are and who they want to be. 

That’s when all the new emotions descend on Riley. There’s Anxiety (Maya Hawke), Envy (Ayo Edebiri), Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser) and my personal favorite, Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos). With her head constantly bent over, Ennui, who is obviously French, is too exhausted to even get up off the couch and controls Riley’s console from her phone. Exarchopoulos’ droll delivery is one of the film’s many highlights. 

With their arrival, Joy’s flawlessly calibrated world, where she protects Riley from bad memories and preserves Riley’s sense of self, begins to fall apart. Suddenly Joy, Disgust (Liza Lapira replacing Mindy Kaling), Fear (Tony Hale replacing Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) are displaced, and their adventure to save Riley begins. 

Anxiety takes over as the dominant personality. “My job is to protect her from the scary stuff she can’t see,” Anxiety announces. Anxiety in teens has become much more exacerbated since the pandemic, and Inside Out 2 eloquently demonstrates the damage anxiety can do. As Anxiety takes over, Riley begins to lose her sense of self.

The script by Meg LeFauve (who also wrote Inside Out) and Dave Holstein perfectly captures our complex minds. Nostalgia (June Squibb) humorously keeps trying to make an appearance. Suppressed emotions, brainstorms, dark secrets and streams of consciousness are all brought to life. As in the first movie, Inside Out 2 is vibrant and full of color with fun, tongue-in-cheek visuals. (Sarcasm literally causes a chasm). And these new emotions have a darker spin: Anxiety is bright orange, a pulsating bundle of nerves; Envy is green, naturally; and Embarrassment gets more pink with each passing humiliation. He’s also bigger than all the other emotions, bringing to life how outsized embarrassment can feel when you are experiencing it.

And the movie really captures what it is like to be 13 (as a mom, I speak from very current firsthand experience). It’s no surprise to learn that the production relied on nine girls, ages 13-16, who were dubbed “Riley’s crew,” to inform the movie. It was a smart move. Too many times movies aimed at teens are from the adult perspective. Speaking of that adult perspective: Riley’s mom (Diane Lane) and dad (Kyle MacLachlan) are still alive in Inside Out 2 which, for a Disney movie, is no small feat.

What’s also clear is how much fun everyone involved is having. Director Kelsey Mann keeps the action zipping along, while Poehler brings that same determined effervescence to Joy. And Hawke, as the increasingly frantic emotion who thinks she’s helping until she realizes too late that she’s not, plays Anxiety just right. From Bloofy (Ron Funches), a cartoon character from Riley’s childhood TV show to Lance Slashblade (Yong Yea) the videogame character she is currently obsessed with, the new characters are a blast.

Like Toy Story 3 or the more recent IF, Inside Out 2 is also a reflection about what childhood things get lost as you get older. “Maybe this is what happens when you grow up. You feel less joy,” Joy says. More poignant than an out-and-out tearjerker, the observations of Inside Out 2 may still get adults a little misty. Life does not get easier as you get older. 

I took my very own Riley to the screening. After the movie, which she enjoyed, she told me she felt “called out” by much of what she had seen. “Is that okay?” I asked. “Yes,” she responded. “At least now you know what’s going on in my head.”

Director: Kelsey Mann 
Writers: Meg LeFauve, Dave Holstein 
Starring: Amy Poehler, Maya Hawke, Kensington Tallman, Liza Lapira, Tony Hale, Lewis Black, Phyllis Smith, Ayo Edebiri, Lilimar, Grace Lu, Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paul Walter Hauser, Yvette Nicole Brown, Ron Funches
Release Date: June 14, 2024

Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).

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