• Sat. Jul 20th, 2024

Movie Curiosities

The online diary of an aspiring movie nerd

Yes, I know I’m late to this one. I was out of town for a while. And a lot happened while I was away.

On quite a few occasions, Todd in the Shadows has considered the notion of a “delayed flop.” Simply put, he posited the notion that the success or failure of an album may not be a reflection of the quality of the album itself, but the quality of the album preceding. An artist may come out with such a blockbuster album that everyone will buy the next one from that same artist even if it’s trash. And if it is trash, audiences will be more hesitant to buy the third album regardless of quality.

I’d hazard a guess that we’re looking at something similar for Inside Out 2.

It’s tough to overstate how impossibly good Inside Out was and is. An instant classic, a timeless crowd-pleaser, an innovative work of animation. But even more than all of that, the film was a game-changer in how kids and adults can discuss, visualize, understand, treat, and diagnose a myriad of psychological conditions and scenarios. As a whole new mental/emotional vocabulary for us to share as a culture, the film is IMPORTANT to an incomprehensible degree. And given how the original film teased a sequel about the mental/emotional changes involved with puberty and adolescence, of course we were all hyped about the sequel. This wasn’t just something we wanted, this was something we genuinely needed. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this sequel could literally save and/or change lives, maybe even more than the first one did.

So naturally, Inside Out 2 was an immediate box office hit. In a year desperate for cinematic money-makers, fresh off the catastrophic box-office disaster of Furiosa, Inside Out 2 clocked the second-highest opening weekend of any animated film, and the seventh-biggest of any film ever. By its second weekend, Inside Out 2 had secured its place as the highest-grossing film of the year.

(By the way, didn’t Pixar lay off nearly 200 staffers just a month ago? Yeah, I’m sure there won’t be any blowback there whatsoever.)

All of this despite the lukewarm reviews that cautioned the film wasn’t a masterpiece anywhere near on par with the first movie. But let’s be real, that was never an option. The first film was simply too revolutionary, too innovative, there was no way to recapture that lightning. Then again, that’s what we all said about Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. So anyway, what have we got here?

We pick back up with Riley (now voiced by Kensington Tallman) in her teenage years. She’s a well-adjusted kid, on good terms with her parents, she’s got two best friends (Grace and Bree, respectively voiced by Grace Lu and Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green), and she’s great at hockey. I hasten to add that this exposition is given to us by Joy (Amy Poehler), so take all that with a grain of salt.

Anyway, Riley’s place on the local youth hockey team provides us with a convenient recap to show each of the emotions in action, along with some stellar animation for the hockey set pieces. We also see that each of the personality islands is still thriving, with Friendship Island particularly huge, while the family island is almost microscopic. This is never followed up on.

Instead of addressing that core pillar of the previous film’s plot, we’ve got something new to focus on: Beliefs. As Riley’s gotten older and more experienced, she’s developed the capacity to form opinions and perspectives, all of which manifest in Headquarters as threads that coalesce into a kind of miniature tapestry that represents her sense of self. This is Riley’s core identity, carefully nurtured by the emotions, that serves as our MacGuffin for the film.

The plot begins in earnest when Riley and her two BFFs score a prestigious last-minute invitation to a weekend ice hockey skills camp. There, they’ll be training with high-school athletes and potentially getting a spot on the team even before they get to high school. The only problem is, Grace and Bree aren’t going to the same high school Riley is set for.

As if that situation wasn’t awkward enough, this is when the dreaded “Puberty Alarm” goes off, drastically overhauling Riley’s Headquarters in ways her emotions aren’t trained or equipped for. Among the more drastic new additions are a set of new and more complex emotions, comprised of Embarrassment, Ennui, Envy, and Anxiety (respectively voiced by Paul Walter Hauser, Adele Exarchopolos, Ayo Edebiri, and Maya Hawke). There’s also Nostalgia (June Squibb), but she only appears twice before getting promptly shooed offscreen by the other emotions, so there’s your sequel tease for this movie. (I’ll get to my thoughts on that later.)

Anxiety promptly takes charge, partly by virtue of her unstoppable energy, but also because of her compulsion to plan for every possible worst-case scenario. Anxiety is obsessed with the future, to the point where she literally throws out Riley’s sense of self (there’s the MacGuffin I was talking about earlier) and imprisons the five established emotions of the previous film. Thus our main ensemble has to escape captivity and get Riley’s old sense of self back to Headquarters before Anxiety can destroy Riley’s entire psyche in the process of destroying her life. And we’re off to the races.

Let’s start with our main cast. Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith are once again fantastic as Joy and Sadness, but I’m honestly relieved that they didn’t steal the entire show this time. It was genuinely great to see Lewis Black get his due in the role of Anger. Even better, we’ve got Liza Lapira and Tony Hale as the respective voices of Disgust and Fear. With all due respect to Mindy Kaling and Bill Hader, these recastings were upgrades.

One of my big problems with the last film was in how it focused on Joy and Sadness to the exclusion of the other three emotions, and I was genuinely glad to see them working together as a team this time. Unfortunately, that comes with a significant trade-off, emblematic of the film as a whole: The first movie was laser-focused on why joy and sadness are both necessary, and why it’s okay to be sad sometimes. The sequel effectively makes the same point, but in a much broader and sloppier way.

From start to finish, Anxiety drives the plot because of her bull-headed belief that she is the only one who knows what Riley needs, and she alone can fix everything wrong. And everything has to go irreparably wrong before Anxiety can admit that the other emotions are necessary. In other words, Anxiety is pretty much going through the exact same arc that Joy went through in the previous film.

Then there’s the issue of the name. Functionally, Anxiety represents Riley’s fear of the future and what could happen as a consequence of her actions. Trouble is, we the audience tend to associate the word “anxiety” with a class of anxiety disorders that can seriously impact normal daily function.

On the one hand, I appreciate the implication that anxiety is perfectly normal. Everyone gets irrational fears over what they say or do, and it’s only really a problem in excess. Furthermore, given how many in the audience will have first-hand experience with anxiety, OCD, ADHD, autism, depression, et cetera, I find it genuinely useful how the film provides a kind of visual depiction for how these orders can mess with the brain and the personality. It goes back to what I was saying earlier about how these films are IMPORTANT.

But then comes the climax.

To be clear, the film has a lot of messages that I genuinely love. Keep an eye on the future, but respect the past. Change is necessary, but it can be destructive if handled improperly. Long-term goals aren’t worth short-term recklessness. Don’t change who you are to fit whatever you think someone else might like. Move past the bad times, but accept them with the good times as part of the totality of who you are. It’s okay to make mistakes, especially at such a young age. Planning for the future doesn’t mean obsessing over how things can go wrong — staying reasonably optimistic is important as well. Moderation in all things.

All of this is wonderful. But the themes start to fall apart in its ultimate treatment of anxiety.

In reality, crippling anxiety attacks — especially for those new to the phenomenon — would likely need long and intensive treatment from licensed professionals, or at least a good long talk with a supportive friend. As portrayed in the film, a panic attack is something Riley can simply work her way through on her own. It makes sense as a film narrative, given that Riley’s emotions are the main characters and we want to see them overcome the central crisis, but I don’t know if it sends a healthy message about properly dealing with mental/emotional disorders.

At its heart and core, the central message of the film is that emotions are short-sighted and fleeting. It shouldn’t be emotions defining your core identity, but the other way around. And that’s great advice… for a neurotypical. But if somebody’s suffering an anxiety attack or explaining what it’s like to try and get through life with crippling anxiety, I wouldn’t advise asking them if they’ve simply tried NOT being anxious.

(Side note: I have to wonder if maybe there was any way Fear could’ve been promoted to the antagonist role. Maybe it’s just me, but I could totally picture Fear turning heel on the other emotions and trying to predict every possible worst-case outcome. Might’ve been a good way to illustrate anxiety without invoking the name. Oh well.)

There’s a library of psychological disorders that either cause or are caused by a fundamental inability to control emotions or mental activity. Yes, the visual language of the franchise may be helpful to convey and discuss what these disorders are and how they work. But that doesn’t make the central advice of “moderate your emotions and don’t let them control you” any more viable or helpful.

This honestly scares me with regard to the notion of further sequels. Disney/Pixar (quite understandably) is making these movies and presenting these messages for the widest possible audience and the lowest common denominator. Naturally, that means making them for a neurotypical audience. But while these movies can help educate and destigmatize with regards to mental/emotional disorders, I’d argue it’s the neurodivergent viewers who need these movies more.

The sequel clearly shows that as Riley gets older and figures out who she is, her personality will be increasingly cemented. Which means that with each successive film, her mental/emotional turmoil will be inextricably based on the life and times of this conventionally attractive neurotypical white girl living a well-adjusted life as the single child of two happily married parents (who are wealthy enough to afford a house in San Francisco, I might add). I’m genuinely worried that the universal concepts portrayed in these movies will only get less relevant and less relatable if the series continues.

Inside Out 2 is certainly not a bad film, and it does a decent job building on the characters and humor of the first movie. Unfortunately, it exposes the limits of this franchise and the filmmakers responsible for it. I’m sure the filmmakers meant well, and I can appreciate the portrayal of anxiety as an emotion to be indulged in moderation, but the portrayal of anxiety as a disorder sets off a few red flags.

Given all the storylines that are hinted at but never followed up on, all the huge actions without proportional consequences, and all the characters who briefly flit in and out of the movie, this has all the earmarks of a film that was trying to accomplish way too much. Or maybe it’s the product of a studio that didn’t expect the film to be as huge a hit as it was and suffered under the pressure to crank out a sequel ASAP with no idea of what they wanted or needed the sequel to be. (see also: Pirates of the Caribbean and its sequels)

It’s a decent movie, and I know we were never getting a movie as good as the original, but there’s still a sense that this movie should’ve been better. I’m sure the film will be a helpful resource for somebody out there, but its depiction of mental/emotional illness still comes off as careless. I want to say that this film is necessary, but that’s tough when the first movie covered so much of the same ground and in a more entertaining fashion.

I don’t begrudge the film for existing, and I wouldn’t blame anyone who’s already gone to see it on the big screen. But if we ever get an announcement for a third movie, I both dread and expect it to be a seismic delayed flop.

By Curiosity Inc.

I hold a B.S. in Bioinformatics, the only one from Pacific University's Class of '09. I was the stage-hand-in-chief of my high school drama department and I'm a bass drummer for the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers. I dabble in video games and I'm still pretty good at DDR. My primary hobby is going online for upcoming movie news. I am a movie buff, a movie nerd, whatever you want to call it. Comic books are another hobby, but I'm not talking about Superman or Spider-Man or those books that number in the triple-digits. I'm talking about Watchmen, Preacher, Sandman, etc. Self-contained, dramatic, intellectual stories that couldn't be accomplished in any other medium. I'm a proud son of Oregon, born and raised here. I've been just about everywhere in North and Central America and I love it right here.

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