‘Inside Out 2’ Director Kelsey Mann Breaks Down the Movie’s Beautiful, Horrible Ending

Pixar’s “Inside Out 2,” currently the biggest movie in the country thanks to its record-breaking opening weekend haul, seems to be the rare sequel that enraptures audiences just as powerfully as the original film. In the follow-up, the first film’s emotions, led by Joy (Amy Poehler), are joined by complex new emotions now that their girl Riley (Kensington Tallman) has become a teenager. Among these emotions are Anxiety (Maya Hawke), who takes over headquarters in an extremely aggressive way, banishing the other emotions to the back part of Riley’s mind.

But how does Joy and the rest of the gang get back to where they started?

To talk about the end of “Inside Out 2,” we’re going to have to go into spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, we suggest you watch first before reading further.

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At the end of “Inside Out 2,” the parallel narrative paths converse – in the real world, Riley, at a weekend hockey camp, makes a series of bad decisions in an effort to befriend the high school team’s star player and impress the coach. These decisions are largely guided by the emotions inside Riley, not only Anxiety but also Envy (Ayo Edebiri), Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser) and Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos, who – fun fact! – voiced Ember in the French language version of last summer’s “Elemental”). All of this reaches a head when Joy makes it back to headquarters and attempts to wrestle control away from Anxiety; in the real world Riley has been put in the penalty box, overcome with emotion.

“There’s lots to figure out and we just wanted to make sure it was as motional as it could be,” said Kelsey Mann, director of “Inside Out 2.” (The first film was directed by Pete Docter, who now serves as Pixar’s chief creative officer.)

Mann said that it was a difficult sequence to craft, since they were dealing with the two different narrative paths and attempting to maintain a singular emotional tenor. “We did a lot of experimenting with different story beats, moving things around,” Mann said.

There was also a level of technical complexity to the sequence, with Anxiety working herself into a literal frenzy – an electric, swirling vortex that cuts Joy off from the control panel that is as threatening as it is oddly beautiful. Then there’s Riley in the penalty box, with its extreme angles and lenses reminding you more of “After Hours” than “Alice in Wonderland.”

Mann credits Docter, who was heavily involved in figuring out the sequence, for allowing them to push that sequence as far as they did, both tonally and visually. “It’s not a safe choice. It’s amazing that we were able to do it because that I kept thinking, Is this okay, can we do this? Somebody tell me don’t do it,” Mann said. “Nobody did. It was more a question of, How can we do it?”

When it came to Riley in the penalty box, the cinematography team had cited “Uncut Gems” as one of the inspirations for the sequence and you can actually feel it in the sequence. Mann said that they were conscious of wanting to push things but that they “didn’t want to go too far.” Instead, Mann said, they were interested in “finding the balance.” “If you give the audience a panic attack, you’ve gone too far,” joked producer Mark Nielsen.

“There’s a couple of shots in particular on Riley, that I think are just amazing. I’m so proud of the team,” Mann said, citing departments like layout, lighting, animation and simulation. “What I love about it is it’s so beautiful, because Riley is in utter peril at that moment, but it just emotionally supports what’s going on.” In that moment, Mann said, “I transcend from that somebody on the crew. I feel like I’m an audience member watching something. And it’s just raises the hair on my arms.”

What’s fascinating is that the sequence, Mann said, came together fairly late in the game. Most of it they figured out earlier this year. They attempted other elements of the sequence, like Riley apologizing to the friends that she had offended along the way and the camera traveling into each of their minds, which also fell away as the sequence started to take shape. In this version of the sequence, another key character faded into the background. Mann and Nielsen knew this needed to change too.

“And really having Joy be the more of the focus in what’s happening in those final moments,” Nielsen said. “She’s the main character. And having her really be a key part of that resolving the joint anxiety and the relationship between Joy and Riley became a more important thing to focus on.”

After Joy gets Anxiety away from the control panel, Joy starts to turn away, only to have some of her particles get pulled back towards the console. The other emotions tell Joy that Riley needs her. It’s an absurdly beautiful moment and one that, if you weren’t already sobbing by then, will probably trigger a few tears.

Mann recalls that moment coming up while the team was flying back after one of the preview screenings last November. This was a movie about Joy feeling like she was getting pushed out. And he remembers a conversation with Meg LeFauve, the original screenwriter of “Inside Out” and “Inside Out 2” (Dave Holstein later worked on the sequel), about how the first movie was about Joy learning she needed to step back and let Sadness feel more empowered. And the sequel should be about Joy learning to step forward.

“I remember us talking about, How do we visually show that Riley wants her to go up? And I kept thinking, Well, she’s got these particles that float off of her body. She’s the only one that does that,” Mann said. “If those little particles just start floating towards the console, that could be a cool way just to visually show it.” Since Sadness felt that pull in the first movie, Mann felt like Sadness should be the one who notices the particles being drawn to the console this time around.

As the moment continues, with Joy heading towards the console, they call back to one of the earliest images of the first movie, with Joy “ice skating” around headquarters. But they didn’t want to lean too heavily on a nostalgic beat, since the sequence is also about the urge “to try to stay present” – to find Joy in the present instead of looking for it in some external achievement. “Sometimes we can get so caught up in achieving things that we lose track of like, it’s just wonderful to be alive,” Mann said. “That’s where that came from.”

And while this climactic sequence went through many iterations, there was one thing that was very clear early in production – the movie’s final shot, of Riley looking at herself and accepting who she is.

“I wanted to end the movie with Riley looking at herself in the mirror and smiling and loving what she sees. That’s what I wanted the movie to end on,” Mann said. “Because to be honest, sometimes I have trouble doing that myself. I can’t tell you how much I would want to look away when I was a teenager. And I’m like, I just want to get to that point. This movie is all about learning to love who you are, flaws and all.”

To this end, Mann instructed the sim lead to include stray hairs and pimples. He wanted her to look like a real, active kid. “I wanted to have her look not perfect and for it to be a beautiful image,” Mann said. “It’s always how I wanted to end the movie.” In the words of “Inside Out 2’s” emotions: that’s our girl.

“Inside Out 2” is in theaters now.

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