Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Review: Inside Out 2

More colors, more drama, same beats, same stakes

After successfully guiding a girl through her first identity crisis and her first complex emotions, Joy and her color-coded coworkers are now in charge of a teenager. And with growth comes even more complexity: not only is this teenager a lot more sensitive and volatile; newcomer Anxiety leads a whole new team of additional emotions that promise to make the next few years the rollercoaster all parents dread. What kind of person will she become? How will her conflicting impulses settle into a (hopefully) stable personality?

As it turns out, this time the inner journey is basically the same as last time. Her core emotions are shunted into her unconscious, they go on a tour of metaphoric locations inside the girl's mind, Joy learns that she's been following a counterproductive routine of suppressing all unpleasant thoughts, and the next step toward maturity consists of accepting a more multifaceted and adaptable identity. It seems that in the universe of Inside Out growing up means having to relearn the same lesson again and again.

Except for Joy, who strangely hasn't assimilated what she was supposed to have learned in the first movie. She's still nervously pushing away bad memories in order to steer the formation of a hyperoptimistic sense of self. She pays lip service to acknowledging the importance of Sadness in a healthy mind, but she has put herself in charge of selecting which thoughts are allowed to matter. Now that the girl they're guiding is a little older, a new module has appeared in her mind's headquarters: the self-image, which emerges from all the beliefs she holds. When Anxiety shows up to threaten the status quo, it's already highly anomalous on its own.

One of the traits of great storytelling is the mirroring of the large conflict and the inner conflict. The worldbuilding of Inside Out is uniquely equipped to make this correspondence literal. We watch our girl's increasingly ill-advised choices as Anxiety grabs more and more control over her. In a funny homage to 1984, there's even a scene where Anxiety has turned into a Big Brother figure with all-seeing tools to anticipate every disastrous scenario. This is fully realistic: if Anxiety takes over, we become its slaves. Our girl is well on her way to a panic attack by the time Anxiety has finished seizing the mind's headquarters.

The rest of the mind, alas, is not so imaginatively portrayed. The first movie explored at a leisurely pace the mechanisms of conceptualization, dreams, and memory processing; in the sequel, what we get is a literal treatment of brainstorming, the stream of consciousness, and the dark recesses where secrets hide. There's nothing to criticize as regards the technical side of digital animation, but nothing to marvel at either. It's perfectly adequate Pixar, but it doesn't bring any visual innovation.

What does land impressively is the subtext in the script. Joy has been so deliberate in pruning this mind's development that, were it not for the chaos of puberty, she'd easily lead our girl to a narcissistic personality disorder. After Anxiety's coup, however, she starts quickly building toward a dependent personality disorder. Both are based on a distorted, because incomplete, model of the self: Joy only wants to allow happy thoughts, while Anxiety is hyperfocused on winning approval. What the mind needs is neither of these single-party regimes. We need to let ourselves contain multitudes.

While the conflict is interesting, the resolution is too familiar. Just as Joy eventually agreed to stop trying to control everything, so does Anxiety. Last time, we learned that it's unhealthy to try to ignore Sadness. Now we learn that we also need just a teeny bit of Anxiety in our lives; as she explains at the start of the movie, her task is to anticipate and plan against disaster. The irony is that redirecting all mental resources to one single task also leads to disaster.

Inside Out 2 has the curious problem of presenting a simple conflict with an overcrowded cast. There are brief hints as to the role of Envy in fostering self-improvement, of Embarrassment in correcting course after mistakes, and of Ennui in cutting through unnecessary complications. The obstacle when attempting to expand this story is that there are only so many ways you can keep saying that it's unhealthy to let one emotion rule, that we need to open ourselves to the fullness of the human experience. Unfortunately, Pixar will have to keep finding ways of saying it, if one goes by Disney's plans for future productions. All right, it's time for some Anxiety. Let's tremble.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.