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“Inside Out 2” reviewed

A question kept shoving itself to the forefront of my mind throughout the duration of Inside Out 2, Pixar’s sequel to its 2015 hit. Are all the personified emotions that scurry around inside the head of the movie’s young heroine supposed to be an allegory for her developing consciousness? Or is Riley actually being controlled by whatever adorable cartoon has seized the console at the moment, like she’s a mecha in the shape of a 13-year-old girl?

Watching the first Inside Out, a lovely though occasionally antic coming-of-age movie about Riley’s struggles to adjust to a move from Minnesota to San Francisco, I would have said the former, without question. But the sequel — I dunno, man. In building on its initial premise to portray the mind as a brightly colored wonderland full of imaginative renderings of someone’s inner workings, Inside Out 2 starts to get a little weird. There’s the real world, where Riley (now voiced by Kensington Tallman) has a stressful time during a three-day hockey skills summer camp she attends with her two best friends, Grace (Grace Lu) and Bree (Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green). Then there’s the interior one, which feels more and more like it’s intruding on Riley’s story rather than enhancing it. New characters and elements get added, the metaphor becomes overextended, and the idea that this world is meant to be a reflection of one person’s psyche gets lost in a sea.

That’s Pixar these days, I guess. Filmmaker and chief creative officer Pete Docter made headlines last month thanks to a line in a Bloomberg Businessweek feature about how, going forward, “the studio’s movies should be less a pursuit of any director’s catharsis and instead speak to a commonality of experience.” That was interpreted, understandably, as a refutation of the company’s recent push toward more diverse characters and creators. But watching Inside Out 2, which was directed by Kelsey Mann and written by Meg LeFauve and Dave Holstein, I had to wonder if what’s actually being nixed is the willingness to let emotional truths take the lead over more marketable and kid-friendly elements. Pixar’s always walked a tightrope when it comes to children’s fare that resonates just as well, if not more so, with adults, but the mix feels seriously off in this new film.

Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Tony Hale), and Disgust (Liza Lapira) are expressive and goofy and have the texture of muppets, something the new film underscores with the doll-like consistency of their hair and the fuzziness of their outlines. This is even more true of the new emotions that join and temporarily overthrow them — Anxiety (Maya Hawke), who has the look of Pepe the King Prawn, Envy (Ayo Edebiri), her diminutive sidekick, Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser), who’s pink and massive and always trying to disappear into his hoodie, and Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who slumps languidly over her phone. Aside from Anxiety, this new crew is not terribly well defined, especially the shortchanged Envy, but they’re cute and colorful and merchandisable, and they’re able to once again banish the original emotions from Headquarters where the day-to-day business of being Riley is run.

A lot of what they go through, escaping from the Vault where Riley’s deepest secrets have been banished and trekking to the back of her mind to retrieve her old sense of self, is just stakeless filler. When we do get to see what Riley’s up to, the inner world’s inadequacy at bolstering what she’s going through becomes clear. Riley, a rising freshman who’s just learned Grace and Bree will be attending a different high school, experiences a mini-meltdown, convincing herself that she needs to impress the coach (Yvette Nicole Brown) and make her school’s hockey team or risk being socially abandoned. In quick succession, she ditches her friends in favor of the older girls, among them team captain Val Ortiz (Lilimar), who she fixates on with a fervor that makes you wonder if one of the confidential things kept in her Vault involves her sexuality. The depictions of the way Riley immediately abandons everything she held dear to babblingly try to impress her potential teammates are excruciating and all too real, and don’t get nearly enough time on screen before we’re cutting back to Anxiety’s efforts to remake her from within.

God knows, there’s a degree of sequelitis here, one that’s only emphasized by the choice to ditch Bill Hader and Mindy Kaling, the original voices of Fear and Disgust, for actors who were presumably more available and/or affordable. There’s a kid’s show character, Bloofy (Ron Funches), who reads as Bing Bong without the forced tragedy, and there’s another trek across the increasingly pun-heavy landscapes of Riley’s brain. The first Inside Out featured a passing joke about a big red button on the inner console that read “Puberty,” but the second film has to actually run with and ends up laboring that bit. Pixar actually put out a good recent effort, Turning Red, about the messiness of adolescence. What stops Inside Out 2 from matching that film’s insights is its own format, which its subject matter has outgrown.

“Riley’s life requires more sophisticated emotions than all of you,” Anxiety informs the original emotions before having them forcibly suppressed. But the new emotions, and the whole structure of the film, don’t feel sophisticated enough for someone suddenly experiencing the agonizing pressure of wanting to fit in and tearing herself to bits in a self-loathing effort to do so. By the end of Inside Out 2, it’s the inner world that feels forced onto the outer story, turning Riley into someone who has to lurch according to its whims rather than lead the way in her own struggle through the tortures of being a new teenager. She’s more puppet than full character, though the forces pulling her strings aren’t a rainbow of talking emotions so much as they are a studio that’s lost its touch.