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The Ending Of Inside Out 2 Explained

Contains spoilers for "Inside Out 2"

Disney/Pixar's 2015 animated feature film "Inside Out" starred comedian Amy Poehler as the voice of the emotion Joy, residing in the mind of 11-year-old girl Riley Andersen. Joy exists alongside the emotions Fear, Disgust, and Anger, but things get complicated when Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) is introduced as one of Riley's new emotions. Throughout the first film, Joy tries to stymie Sadness and keep Riley joyful forever, until realizing the importance of Sadness and its role by the end.

"Inside Out" was a box-office smash and bona fide critical darling, inevitably leading Disney to capitalize on that success with a 2024 sequel, aptly titled "Inside Out 2." However, this sequel has much more right to exist than most Pixar cash-grab sequels (we're looking at you, "Finding Dory"), as it follows Riley (voiced by Kensington Tallman, replacing the original's Kaitlyn Dias) as she grows and matures into puberty, thus gaining more –- and consequently more complex  emotions to deal with. 

These emotions include Anxiety (Maya Hawke), Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser), Envy (Ayo Edebiri), and Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos). Anxiety eventually takes over Riley's mind and starts to misguidedly change Riley's core beliefs for the worse. Joy and the others must then once again journey through Riley's mind to save her from Anxiety's machinations. What happens in the end for Riley and the emotions residing within her? Are there any hints on a possible sequel as Riley enters adulthood? Keep reading to find out.

What you need to remember about the plot of Inside Out 2

"Inside Out 2" begins a year after the end of the first film, with Riley — now 13 — having acclimated to San Francisco. She also has two new best friends, Bree (Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green) and Grace (Grace Lu), who are all going to a hockey camp for the summer together. Meanwhile, as Riley has grown up, her thoughts have also started becoming core beliefs, such as "I'm a good person." To help with this process, and to keep Riley's core beliefs pure, Joy has been suppressing Riley's bad memories by sending them to the back of Riley's mind with a makeshift machine she made.

Eventually, a red light blinks on the main console, and a "puberty alarm" blares, which introduces Joy and the others to the new emotions of Anxiety, Embarrassment, Ennui, and Envy. At first, there is admiration from the new emotions for the old; however, it becomes clear that the old emotions have a hard time navigating the more complex social situations of young adulthood, such as Joy fumbling Riley's interactions with the "cool kids" at the hockey camp, especially Val (Lilimar).

Joy's bumbling leads to Anxiety freaking out and forcing Riley's old emotions into exile in the back of the mind, along with Riley's core belief, "I'm a good person" (which looks like a crystalline structure). Now Joy, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear must find Riley's old belief and return to stop Anxiety from ruining Riley's core personality.

What happened at the end of Inside Out 2?

As Joy, Fear, Disgust, and Anger attempt to find Riley's "I'm a good person" core belief that Anxiety has jettisoned, Anxiety has been forcing new thoughts into Riley's mind in an attempt to make her "cool" and liked by Val ... which, at the same time, causes Riley to rudely dismiss her old childhood best friends in the process.

Unfortunately, the new thoughts that Anxiety has been pushing into Riley's Sense of Self (leading to a "brainstorm" that is visualized as a bunch of light bulbs falling from the sky) eventually causes Riley to think "I'm not good enough" as her core belief — much to the shock and dismay of Anxiety, who only wanted Riley to be liked and fit in. Afterward, once Joy and the others reach HQ by riding an avalanche of bad memories Joy had suppressed earlier, Joy helps Anxiety cope with the mistakes she made — which simultaneously helps Riley cope with her bad decisions as well, apologizing and reconciling with the friends she had shunned earlier.

In the end, all the emotions — old and new — find ways to work with each other, such as Joy calming Anxiety down by helping Anxiety realize she doesn't have to fret about imagining scenarios that haven't happened yet. Anxiety also shows her utility by keeping the other emotions on their toes, such as reminding them about an upcoming Spanish test they had forgotten about.

What the end of Inside Out 2 means

Throughout "Inside Out 2," Joy and Anxiety fight to try and control Riley in a misguided attempt to help her, but the end of the film reveals Riley is her own person — full of human contradictions and flaws. She is at once selfish, kind, creative, insecure, smart ... and everything in between. All Joy and Anxiety — and the others — can do is help her on her journey, but they can't guide her alone.

As previously mentioned, it's revealed early in the film that Joy has been using a makeshift machine to throw bad memories into the back of Riley's mind and have her suppress them, including memories in which Riley is mean (such as maliciously tripping another hockey player), selfish, or distressed. However, by doing so, Joy has unwittingly been stifling Riley's growth because Riley's not learning from her mistakes. Riley has to remember when she messes up to be able to grow, even if it's painful.

The film's ultimate thesis is that the worst parts of us are still us, and those parts need to be reckoned with and not subdued. Joy having to use the avalanche of bad memories to reach headquarters forces these memories into Riley's Sense of Self and allows Riley to deal with them and get through her Anxiety-induced panic attack. In the end, Joy needs to learn that Riley has to accept her less joyful memories, while Anxiety learns that she can't help Riley alone.

The movie deals with mental illness

One of the most powerful messages showcased by "Inside Out 2" is how people can't escape their mental illnesses — such as anxiety — but that they can still live a fulfilling life regardless. At the end of the film, Anxiety is still residing inside Riley's mind, living alongside the other emotions. Furthermore, Anxiety remains herself ... she worries about imagined scenarios, gets overwhelmed by her fears, and is prone to becoming controlling of Riley. However, Joy now finds ways to help Anxiety cope, such as by letting Anxiety rest in a vibrating chair and giving her warm tea and something calm to focus her attention on temporarily.

Anxiety isn't defeated, banished, or fundamentally changed by the end of the film, which wouldn't be accurate to people's experiences suffering from mental illness. That's because people can't just banish something that's a part of themselves, nor can they change how it functions within them. What they can do, however, is learn to manage it as best they can.

Even better, the techniques shown in "Inside Out 2" can actually work (per the American Psychiatric Association) for many people suffering from anxiety or panic attacks, so it's educational as well. In fact, the producers of the film did a lot of research on the topic, and even brought in psychologists to help show how anxiety affects people suffering from it as accurately as possible — beyond the caveats, of course, of emotions being anthropomorphized and puns like "Sar-Chasm."

There's an LGBTQA+ subtext

Val is the team captain for the Fire Hawks high school hockey team and the "cool girl" that Riley looks up to and is infatuated with, almost completely alienating her best friends in the process. It's also highly implied in the film that Riley's obsession with Val is actually romantic in nature, especially with how flustered Riley gets around her. 

It's true that Riley has shown interest in boys throughout the two films. There was the boy she met at the end of the first movie, who also appeared in the short film "Riley's First Date?," as well as the "Mount Crushmore" monument (a play on "Mount Rushmore") with the faces of boy band members and a "Final Fantasy"-inspired video game hero carved in it. But that doesn't preclude Riley from eventually discovering she's bisexual. It's also possible for someone to completely change their sexual orientation later in life as well, since fluidity in sexual orientation is not uncommon. There is even a term for this: "second queer adolescence," which is especially common if teenagers are raised in conservative households. 

While it could simply be that Riley just thinks Val is cool and wants to emulate her — which there is ample evidence for as well — if the queer reading is indeed true, it would help explain the extreme way that the new emotions have Riley awkwardly respond to Val throughout the film.

Did Riley make the Fire Hawk team?

While Joy and the other older emotions are pitted against Riley's newer emotions, Riley herself has her own goal she's trying to achieve. Beyond attempting to gain the affection of Val, Riley's also trying to join the high school Fire Hawks hockey team once she finishes the hockey camp. Anxiety has even convinced herself that Riley won't be happy for the next four years unless she's on the team, especially since Bree and Grace aren't going to the same school as her.

This means that throughout the story, Anxiety gets Riley to betray her true self to try and get ahead — such as pushing her friends away, being too aggressive on the ice, and even stealing the coach's records from her office.

The film ends with a close-up shot of Riley reading the coach's potential acceptance or denial letter, an unreadable look on her face as the movie cuts to the credits. It's rare — and honestly refreshing — to have such an ambiguous ending for what's ostensibly a kids film, but it makes perfect sense thematically. Riley's journey has been to learn to deal with her feelings of insecurity. Before Riley even gets the letter, she has accepted — just as Anxiety had to — that she can't let herself worry too much about things she can't control. Thus the reveal of whether she makes it on the team is irrelevant — even if the whole plot revolves around it prior.

What has the cast and crew of Inside Out 2 said about the ending?

Director Kelsey Mann has worked on many previous Pixar projects over the years, but "Inside Out 2" is actually his feature film directorial debut. Mann told Box Office Pro about the film, "[Riley]'s emotions and beliefs come together to help her make choices. Now that she's becoming a teenager, she's starting to develop her own sense of self."

This reiterates the point of self-discovery being a core tenet of the film's themes and ending. Riley, as she grows up, is going to find out who she is through making decisions, both good and bad. It's an expansion of the first film's climax, where memories can be joyful or sad, but also joyful and sad, i.e. bittersweet. However, "Inside Out 2" is about Riley dealing with internal core beliefs that are seemingly contradictory — such as "being a good person," but also "not being good enough." It's the idea that not one single thing defines you, but rather a confluence of multiple emotions, thoughts, and beliefs coming together.

In another interview with Animation Scoop, Mann spoke about the purpose of Anxiety and her ultimate role in the film, saying, "A lot of what this movie is about is learning to go ... It's about staying in the present and worrying less about the future — just worrying about, 'Okay. What's happening right now?' That's in part learning to manage anxiety, which is what we tried to put in this movie."

What the end of Inside Out 2 could mean for the franchise

The entire premise of people gaining more emotions in "Inside Out 2" is obviously somewhat of a retcon when compared to the established lore set up in the first "Inside Out" film. True, Sadness was a new emotion for Riley at one point too; however, when we saw inside the heads of Riley's parents' at the end of that film, we only saw the main five emotions controlling them, which seemed to imply that's all there was ever going to be. Of course, at the end of "Inside Out 2," it's revealed that Riley's mom and dad also have Anxiety (and presumably Envy, Ennui, and Embarrassment as well), so at least they tried to address that inconsistency in the sequel.

However, does this mean that additional emotions will be introduced as Riley grows up into an adult, and possibly even more as she ages into a senior citizen too?

This possibility is practically confirmed by the introduction of the character "Nostalgia" (June Squibb), portrayed as a doddering old lady. In the film, there's a running gag where she reminisces about things that happened just moments ago, and is told by the other emotions that she's "coming too early." This means that Nostalgia is an emotion Riley will eventually experience (and her parents presumably already have) as she grows older. This also greatly implies that Nostalgia isn't the only emotion waiting to be introduced later in her life either.

Inside Out 2's alternate ending

As with the first "Inside Out" film, multiple emotions were introduced in the initial concept for "Inside Out 2," only to be later cut out of the final movie – with nine new emotions initially supposed to appear in the sequel. Luckily, director Kelsey Mann realized that the number of new characters had to be whittled down to keep the narrative focused and not too overwhelming for audiences to keep track of. 

One of those deleted emotions was apparently Shame, described as a gray, morose-looking character, and conceived, as designer Jason Deamer told The Wrap, as "an arch villain." This means Shame would have likely been much less sympathetic and redemptive than Anxiety turned out to be. Would this have led to a much more action-oriented climax for the film, rather than the more subdued emotional one we have now? If so, it's probably for the best that the story remained focused on Anxiety as a well-meaning, but misguided, antagonist, rather than a more cliché villain for Joy and the gang to fight against. 

Who would have played Shame? Based on the scant details we have, it seems like she would be dour, conniving, and presumably younger to fit in with the other "new" emotions. Honestly, the role seems tailor-made for someone like Jenna Ortega or Aubrey Plaza. On second thought, if they could have gotten one of them to play a villain in "Inside Out 2," that would have been great. But hey, there's always "Inside Out 3."