Inside Out 2 Just Saved the Summer Box Office

Inside Out 2 just saved Hollywood’s summer profit margins. Too bad it’s just another bland depiction of the Pixar Child’s inner life.

Still from Inside Out 2. (Pixar)

After the disastrous Memorial Day weekend at movie theaters with the tanking of Furiosa, and, before that, the lackluster ticket sales for The Fall Guy, it seems the Hollywood summer is now saved. The new Pixar film Inside Out 2 “massively outperformed expectations at the box office and scored the biggest opening of the year so far with $155 million domestically and $140 million overseas.”

This pulls Pixar out of its recent slump, rescuing the studio from a terrible fate. According to Chief Creative Officer Pete Docter, had Inside Out 2 failed, Pixar would have had to “’radically’ rethink its business model.”

Horrors! What a narrowly averted tragedy!

Since I’m not the intended audience for Pixar films, I’m not in on the hosannas over its new hit. I appreciate that there’s a lot of talent involved in making these films, and I like a few of them. I enjoyed Toy Story 4 (2019), for example, because somebody gave the creative team permission to make do with less than the usual two-ton load of sentimentality, and let edgier comedy fill in the gaps. If you happened to see it, you know Toy Story 4 is the one featuring the great character of Forky (voiced by Tony Hale), the suicidal spork that got hand made into a messy toy by a small child and plunged into existential crisis.

“I am not a toy, I was made for soups, salads, maybe chili, and then the trash. Freedom!” declares Forky, who keeps hurling himself into garbage cans.

I had a certain amount of hope for Inside Out 2, which deals with the emotional life of a teenager, thinking the guaranteed extremes of adolescent emotions would naturally lend themselves to plenty of comedy and more interesting developments. But other than a few funny bits here and there, Inside Out 2 is a typical Pixar product, shiny, sappy, plotty, and aimed at solemn lessons to be learned.

As so often in Pixar films, the mild problems of affluent kids are negotiated as if they’re huge crises. In this case, the burning question is, will thirteen-year-old Riley (Kensington Tallman) make the hockey team and have a smooth transition to junior high?

If you saw the earlier Pixar hit Inside Out (2015), you know it was about eleven-year-old Riley’s crisis over her family’s move from Minnesota to San Francisco, California, because of her father’s new job. The move threw the generally beaming child into an unhappy state, apparently for the first time ever.

Accustomed to working the controls of Riley’s inner life, the emotion of Joy (Amy Poehler), personified as a kind of bright yellow Tinkerbell of manic good cheer, was thrown into a tizzy by the sudden prominence of lugubrious blue Sadness (Phyllis Smith), with occasional interference by red Anger (Lewis Black), purple Fear (Bill Hader, replaced by Hale in the sequel), and green Disgust (Mindy Kaling, replaced by Liza Lapira in the sequel). Much internal struggle and many adventures later, the lesson learned is that it’s okay to be sad sometimes.

Occasional fear, disgust, and anger are also necessary for maturation. It seems that as soon as you accept that, you wind up happy again, or some such damnable philosophy.

As someone who has had, from infancy onward, what might be called a rich emotional life, I was appalled at this vision of childhood blandness. What kind of pod-people operate from the premise that young children have uncomplicated emotional lives? Unless some external upheaval darkens their perpetual sunny inner landscape, that is. Of all the nonsense! Just children’s fears alone tend to be amazing, imaginative, and complex.

Anyway, Inside Out 2 starts once again with Riley as a maddeningly happy “winner” at everything in life, getting top grades, playing top hockey, surrounded by doting family and friends, and telling herself often with tender complacency, “I’m a good person.” But then there are a few more bumps in her annoyingly smooth road in life. Her two best friends confess to Riley on their way to hockey camp that they’ve been assigned to a different school the next year. This throws Riley into a panic about a possibly friendless experience in junior high, especially when she’s told her hockey camp experience as far as making the junior high team might be crucial to her social status for the next three years.

Still from Inside Out 2. (Pixar)

She’s also hit puberty overnight, represented by one pimple on her chin plus waking up groggy and irritable from sleep. Pixar edged closer to messier biological realities in a praiseworthy way with Turning Red (2022), enough to get the film banned in Kuwait and a few other countries, but don’t expect any references to menstruation or genuinely raging teen behavior in Inside Out 2.

In the “workplace” of Riley’s emotional world, puberty is represented as a giant red alarm on the computer console that goes off with a blare. It’s worth tracking from film to film the way Pixar tends to make every system in the world function as a workplace. The toys in Toy Story (1995) treat their lives as jobs with Woody as their clipboard-wielding manager rating their performances. The monsters in Monsters, Inc. (2001) work at the “scare” factory that powers the city of Monstropolis with the screams of children. Remy the rat in Ratatouille (2007) is determined to enter the high-stakes profession of top chef in the kitchen of a Parisian restaurant. Elemental (2023) concerns the personified four elements who populate Element City, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, and the difficulties of one fiery character named Ember Lumen who’s being pressured into running her father’s convenience store, the Fireplace, until her interactions with watery plumbing inspector Wade Ripple show her that what she really wants to be is a glassmaking artist. And so on.

No media corporation ever did more to normalize constant work as a natural state of being, whether the worker-characters live in terms of intensely competitive professions or cogs in the wheel of vast laboring bureaucracies that order whole communities.

So naturally the arrival of more complex emotions in Riley’s system are heralded by a brusque team of workmen tearing up the place in a remodeling job to make room for the new personified feelings. They promptly wrest the controls away from Joy and Sadness and the other basic emotions. Their leader is bright orange, frizzy-haired, frenetic Anxiety (Maya Hawke), who’s obsessed with fretful plans to guarantee Riley’s future success. She’s followed by small, teal-colored, big-eyed Envy (Ayo Edebiri), huge pink hoodie-wearing Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser), and slim, bonelessly languid, French-accented, indigo Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos).

Occasionally there’s one other complex emotion that comes in unexpectedly, a grandmotherly figure with rose-colored glasses who prattles on about the good old days, named Nostalgia (June Squibb). She always gets hustled out again, assured that she won’t be needed on the job for many years to come. That bit is quite amusing.

But of the main new emotions, Ennui is the funniest of the lot and has the smallest role. Anxiety is the least funny and gets the most screentime, carrying the narrative load involving teaching a lesson — that Anxiety mustn’t be allowed to dominate the other emotions and define a child’s life. But on the other hand, Joy can’t just stuff unhappy experiences down the “repressed memory” chute either. Each of the emotion characters has their little lesson to learn in teamwork in order to help Riley mature and readjust to her new feelings so she can maintain an even keel and be a perpetual winner at life once again.

And obviously there are people who like this kind of thing — legions of them, especially those in charge of children. No matter how often there’s a rebellion against preaching and sanctimony and pedantic piety in the world of entertainment dealing with children, those tendencies come surging back. Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland in part to reject the tendency of children’s literature toward Victorian moralizing. Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes cartoons functioned as the purveyor of anti-Disney animation, defiantly sticking with raucously funny characters and impious, satirical attitudes.

We get alternative animated films and film companies sometimes, but they lack the overwhelming reach and staying power of the Disney-Pixar juggernaut. Laika, for example, started so promisingly with the darkly inspired Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012), but has let us down in recent years with increasingly soft, unmemorable fare. The last film the company produced was Missing Link (2019). The Ice Age (2002) franchise created by Blue Sky Studios was pretty good, but the company got taken over by Disney. And Rango (2011) was, sadly, a brilliant Gore Verbinski one-off.

But Disney-Pixar we have always with us. We can expect Inside Out 3 in a few years, when Riley gets her first crush, and the character of Infatuation — fuchsia-colored, I presume — takes over to briefly unsettle the smoothly operating emotional workplace of her banal inner life.