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‘Inside Out 2’ juggles new emotions as it deftly braves those awkward teen years

<i>Pixar via CNN Newsource</i><br/>The emotions are back in Pixar's
Pixar via CNN Newsource
The emotions are back in Pixar's "Inside Out 2."

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — Teens might be entering those awkward “Too cool for Pixar” years, but of all demographics, that cohort and their parents should relate the most to “Inside Out 2,” a wonderfully clever sequel that ages up the concept with one dreaded word: Puberty. Whatever one’s age, there’s much to like in a movie that offers the requisite laughs and sweetness, while managing to feel quite profound.

Granted, Disney’s once-can’t-miss animation powerhouse has experienced its own awkward stretch since “Toy Story 4” five years ago, thanks to some questionable choices (see “Onward”) and factors beyond its control (the pandemic).

Small wonder that there would be comfort in reaching back to a hit from 2015, one that highlighted Pixar’s inventiveness as well as its ability to tap into childhood concerns – by bringing to life the conflicting emotions within them – in a way that resonated with adults as well.

Under the stewardship of first-time feature director Kelsey Mann, “Inside Out 2” re-introduces Riley (voiced by Kensington Tallman) as a now-teenager, playing hockey, excelling in school and enjoying a sense of self that hinges on thinking of herself as a good person. Joy (Amy Poehler) remains the maestro among her various emotions, accentuating the good and pushing the bad into the recesses of her mind.

That equilibrium is instantly thrown for a loop, however, when (in one of several laugh-out-loud visual gags) the puberty button lights up, unleashing a new group of emotions, including Anxiety (Maya Hawke), Envy (Ayo Edebiri), Shame (Paul Walter Hauser) and Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos, who is, naturally, French).

Anxiety leads the newcomers in taking over the command center, telling Joy and the old guard, “Riley’s life is more complex now.” That seems especially true as she’s dealt unexpected news on the verge of arriving at hockey camp, where her performance, she fears, could have implications for her whole middle-school-to-high-school transition.

While there have certainly been no shortage of movies dealing with those delicate coming-of-age years, the central device of “Inside Out” provides an especially good way of exploring questions about growing up, the desire to fit in and still preserving some sense of the child you were as you mature.

Pixar notably grappled with similar issues in “Turning Red,” one of its better recent efforts, which happened to arrive at an inopportune time and lack the established qualities that would help lure audiences to go see it.

On the bright side, even with studios struggling at the box office there’s evidence of a not-terribly-discriminating hunger for kid-friendly fare based on results for “The Garfield Movie,” with the latest edition of “Despicable Me” still to come.

Whether “Inside Out 2” translates that into the hoped-for commercial success – as last year’s “Elemental” ultimately did after a disappointing start – the film happily meets the high creative standards and expectations that Pixar has established. Whatever Riley’s going through, there’s nothing particularly complicated about that.

“Inside Out 2” premieres June 14 in US theaters. It’s rated PG.

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