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‘Inside Out 2’: Pixar Wins With Colorful Tale of Teenage Peer Pressure

June 17, 2024 | By

The big-screen storytelling magic of Pixar is back in Inside Out 2, an imaginative peek inside the mind of a young teen who must rediscover her “core beliefs” to navigate the social pressures of growing up.

Carrying the story forward in a way that remains true to the beloved 2015 feature film, Inside Out 2 has already broken box-office records and is likely to have a lengthy summer run.

Following what some viewed as agenda-driven missteps—notably in recent Pixar films Turning Red and box-office bust Lightyear—the studio has returned to form with this blockbuster.

Similar to its predecessor, Inside Out 2 is winning high marks from parents and mental-health professionals alike for visualizing big ideas in ways that kids can understand.


Early concerns from some corners based on the trailers (read: that a teen girl looking up to a female athlete had a romantic dimension) were proven incorrect. The plot is standard Disney Channel fare, with a message of staying “true to yourself” while pointing to bigger ideas about integrity and core beliefs.

For parents planning to take their young ones to this feature, does it present any concerns? It might, depending on the kids' ages.

Inventive take on classic coming-of-age story

With Inside Out writer-director Pete Docter now elevated to chief creative officer at Pixar, he handed off the sequel to longtime Pixar writer-animator Kelsey Mann, whose past credits include The Good Dinosaur and a few short films.

The sequel’s cast and crew sought to tell a story just as emotionally resonant and instructive as the original, with varied results. Once again, the narrative unfolds in two realities.

Riley (Kensington Tallman), now age 13, has hit her stride as a middle-school hockey star, known by her two besties for teamwork and kindness. In the other dimension — within Riley’s psyche — the characters of Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), and other emotions appear to be working well together.

Until, with sirens blaring, one day puberty hits, and Riley’s “control board” of the mind no longer makes sense.

A whole new crew of emotions, led by fast-talking Anxiety (Maya Hawke, who recently portrayed Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor in Wildcat), show up with a novel game plan. They’ll do whatever it takes to help Riley climb the high-school social ladder.


On the way to summer hockey camp, Riley’s best friends reveal to her they’ll be moving on to another school. And she also learns that the camp doubles as tryouts for the high-school varsity team. Will Riley change her personality and sense of self to fit in?

Spoiler alert: yes, until the movie’s final act. Her visualized inner life dramatizes her own warring emotions, including with a new plot device.

Existing just below the dump of forgotten memories, Riley’s belief system shows how truths that Riley has internalized (like “Mom and Dad are proud of me” and “I’m a really good friend”) coalesce together like strings of a harp to form her sense of self.

These beliefs concern her self-concept, which dovetail only marginally with spiritual or religious ideas in this universe. A key idea, “I am a good person,” carries humanistic assumptions that require some theological digging to unearth truth.

The brightly colored, comedically voiced quintet of core emotions must venture to the back of Riley’s mind, with pit stops at the memory vault, Riley’s stream of consciousness, and the newly formed “sar-chasm.”

While it may all seem on-the-nose, screenwriters worked with a team of psychologists to integrate real-world research into this fantastical plot.

Talky, abstract film likely to bore youngest viewers

As parents of kids ages 3 and 5, my wife and I recently introduced them to Inside Out, which covers Riley’s early childhood and mostly-middle-school worries during a family move. It went over . . . OK.

My son was enthralled by the dramatized emotions but barely understood how the story played out in dual realities. All the dialogue-driven jokes — about deja vu, abstract thought, the common confusion of facts and opinions — meant nothing. Our daughter is smart but had no idea what was going on.

If Inside Out is a colorful animated film that’s mostly for not-young-kids, the sequel doubles down on that. The movie’s funniest moments are all centered on the lengths one goes to during adolescence to fit in.

When peers begin to diss Riley’s long-loved tween pop groups, she reaches for another band she can claim. Anxiety yells into the console: “Recall everything she’s ever known about music!” Other amusing moments concern the awkwardness of how to walk and “look cool,” and perceiving a friend’s caginess through over-analyzing a glance.

It’s clever storytelling, and even kids approaching adolescence (age 10 or so) will watch, laugh, and learn. But mostly a lot of young kids will have boredom — which is, yes, a standout new emotion character — controlling their consoles while watching this one.


At one point, a group of first and second-graders seated in front of us laughed for a minute straight at a not-that-funny slapstick scene. They clearly had a pent-up desire to laugh after so many one-liners based on mental health concepts went clear over their heads.

My wife later heard a mom trying to explain to her confused seven-year-old that anxiety is “kind of like worry.” There’s little that's objectionable here, but likely only pre-teens and up are going to enjoy and appreciate the multi-layered storytelling.

The perils and promise of Pixar

Families and even adults who love animation — as all should, in my view — will gain a lot from Inside Out 2, though it does retread similar ground as the first movie.

Most audiences of a certain age will enjoy this visual feast of a story brought to life by some of the world’s funniest comic actors and many of the best visual artists working today. Of course, they sneak in references to countless past Pixar projects and other sly details.


In terms of the subject matter, it’s high-concept but a little shy of the first film’s wider appeal and memorable world-building.

Parents wanting to introduce top-tier, imaginative animated films to their kids should consider recent Pixar flicks Luca and last year’s sweet romantic comedy Elemental, which are colorful metaphorical stories that younger ones can more fully grasp.

Without question, families should be aware that agendas are at play inside The Walt Disney Company—including their crown-jewel studio, Pixar, where Christian families had once felt most at home. A recent podcast delved into some of these questions in-depth.

For Inside Out 2, many families will venture back to the Magic Kingdom and find it’s a home for some talented storytellers, alongside some ideologically driven ones. Maybe every person is a mix. These realities underline how entertainment requires discernment.

Image: © 2024 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.

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