The Bikeriders (R)

A buffet of character studies and Chicago-y “da Bears” accents is laid out for your perusal in The Bikeriders, which is based on a real life “living amongst the outlaw bikers” book by Danny Lyon, as the movie and Wikipedia tell us.

The movie is structured around a series of interviews between author/photographer Danny (Mike Faist) and Kathy (Jodie Comer), wife of Benny (Austin Butler), who is one of the core members of the Vandals motorcycle club. The Vandals are led by Johnny (Tom Hardy), who formed the club in Chicago, supposedly after seeing The Wild One. When Kathy met the club members, who she describes as mostly unsavory types, in the mid 1960s, Johnny made a point of telling her he’d make sure nobody bothered her. Kathy was sort of lust-at-first-sight with Benny and fell for Benny and to some degree the “outlaw” life during her first motorcycle ride with the whole club. But she always seems a bit torn between her attraction to Benny’s whole “what are you rebelling against, whaddaya got” devil-may-care thing and her desire to separate herself and her husband from what she sees as an increasingly dirtbag-y group of dudes. As the 1960s wear on, new members with more violent dispositions join up and Johnny — who also has a wife and children — seems eager to find some kind of way out, possibly by giving Benny the leadership position.

These new guys don’t listen, Johnny says to Benny at one point, which feels like the generational lament that all older-guard people in all situations and occupations have toward newbies. Johnny created the thing, but now the meaning of the thing has shifted while he has more or less stayed the same. You stay too long at the party and your cutting edge thing becomes cute nostalgia at best — Johnny trying to deal with that is probably the most interesting element of his character.

The most interesting part of Kathy is Jodie Comer’s whole full-bodied creation of her, all cigarettes and mannerisms and conversation style. It occasionally feels like more of an acting exercise than a character in a story, but Comer is a compelling actress and she creates a highly watchable character even when she’s just, like, drinking coffee from a very 1970s green mug.

For me The Bikeriders actually feels at its strongest when it’s just characters talking — Kathy talking about her opinions of the group, a guy named Zipco (Michael Shannon) talking about his attempts to join the army. You get a sense of real people with backstories and inner lives. When there was plot happening, I often felt like the movie was just giving us goobers making bad decisions without really showing us what held these people together. It’s a movie worth a watch for the acting even if I didn’t feel like it was worth rushing out for. B-

Rated R for language throughout, violence, some drug use and brief sexuality, according to the MPA on Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (from the book by the same name by Danny Lyons), The Bikeriders is an hour and 56 minutes long and distributed in theaters by Focus Features. It is also available for rent or purchase.

Featured photo: The Bikeriders.

A Quiet Place: Day One (PG-13 )

A Quiet Place: Day One (PG-13 )

If you are feeling cynical and grumpy about the state of movies, the alien thriller A Quiet Place: Day One might actually be the perfect downbeat (but uplifting maybe?) movie for you.

Let’s consider this one sort of backward from how I usually do things. I’ll try not to spoil things along the way but if you want to go in to this movie with a complete blank slate — which somehow I did? — then just know that this one is worth seeing, probably even worth seeing specifically in the theater, where it holds all your attention. It is one of these “A Something-Franchise Saga” type movies — like Mad Max saga movie Furiosa or Star Wars saga movies Rogue One or Solo — but it is the least annoying of this kind of cinematic universe-building endeavor that I’ve seen in a while. And it hooks in even less to the Emily Blunt/John Krasinki family story of the first two A Quiet Place movies than those aforementioned movies do to their franchises. The first two A Quiet Places are not necessary viewing before seeing this one. All you need to know is that what we’re dealing with is aliens and those aliens have particularly good hearing and stompy-bitey abilities but not great vision. Be super quiet and they won’t “see” you.

About half an hour into this movie I had two issues with it which, by the end, I decided were not actually problems but excellent, tone-appropriate features. Issue 1: This movie seems to have very minimal stakes. Issue 2: The more time we spend with the aliens, the less interesting and impressive and “embodiment of all fears” they are. But, as I said, by the end of this movie my feeling was: “This movie has no stakes and these stupid aliens don’t matter! Cool!” So many movies have set as their central struggle “the end of the world” it feels fun and subversive that a movie about an actual apocalypse has kind of “meh” villains and very minor approach to what it counts as accomplishments.

Lupita Nyong’o, who IMDb says is called “Samira” even though we probably only hear her name said once, maybe twice, and I didn’t clock it at all, carries this movie. She is the focus of nearly every scene and we see her move through a variety of emotions including fear and defiance. She is excellent at delivering her character primarily through facial expressions, the way she holds her body and little gestures. Even though we’re only seeing Samira through what I think is just a few days, you feel, by the end, like you understand her whole life, or at least her full personality.

The movie begins just before the alien attack — or at least before Samira and other people in New York City realize they are being attacked by aliens. We get to see some of who Samira is coming into this situation and then the very 9/11-reminiscent images of the attack (all white dust everywhere, obscuring what is happening). Once, well, the dust settles, Samira makes a plan, which is kind of excellent, extremely relatable and involves her traveling through the streets of New York with her cat, Frodo. Along the way, various people (Alex Wolff, Djimon Hounsou, Joseph Quinn) are intensely important to the present moment, though that moment doesn’t always last.

Day One has a short-story feel, where we dive deep into someone’s life but aren’t exactly there for a full arc, but it also offers enough closure (and a nice musical button to the movie) to give you the sense of resolution even if, as we know from the other movies, the overall story continues. Is this bleak story wryly offering hope? Not sure, but it’s definitely offering a better movie experience than I expected. B+

Rated PG-13 for terror and violent content/bloody images, according to the MPA on Directed by Michael Sarnoski with a screenplay by Sarnoski and a story by John Krasinski and Michael Sarnoski, A Quiet Place: Day One is a tidy hour and 40 minutes long and distributed in theaters by Paramount Pictures.

Despicable Me 4 (PG)

Gru and family and Minions attempt to assume new identities after a vengeance-seeking villain escapes from villain prison in the animated movie Despicable Me 4.

Gru (voice of Steve Carell) and wife Lucy (voice of Kristen Wiig) are a happy family with adopted daughters Margot (voice of Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (voice of Dana Gaier) and Agnes (voice of Madison Polan); their new baby, Gru Jr. (voice of Tara Strong), and all of Gru’s Minions (all voiced by Pierre Coffin), who help Gru on his Anti Villain League villain-catching missions. At a villain school reunion, Gru captures Maxime Le Mal (voice of Will Ferrell), a villain who has harnessed the power of cockroaches. The AVL takes Max to prison but he breaks out, reunites with his girlfriend Valentina (voice of Sofia Vergara) and swears revenge on Gru. Fearing what Max and his cockroaches can do, the AVL gives Gru and family new identities and resettles them in the snooty town of Mayflower. As you might expect, the family doesn’t blend right in, making it even more likely that Max may eventually find them.

Meanwhile, most of the Minions are hiding out with the AVL and, as part of an experimental program, five of them have been supercharged to become Mega Minions, with powers like laser-beam eye and super stretchiness. Unsurprisingly, the Minions are very destructive when they attempt to save the day.

All of this story business is really just a framework to hold the collection of scenes — scenes whose relationship to the overarching story varies but that all hold that standard Minion Looney-Tunes-like quality of goofy physical humor and mild violence between Minions that reads as sibling-vs.-sibling tussling. The bits? Gru Jr., who seems perennially annoyed with his dad, is forever sneezing on him, squirting fruit mush at him or tricking him into smooshing his face into a banana. The Mega Minions are, as mentioned, kind of bad at superhero-ing. Of the Minions who are with Gru and family, one spends most of the movie stuck in a vending machine. Lucy, posing as a hairstylist, accidentally burns most of a woman’s hair off attempting to color it — that one is probably one of the less funny and highlights the “gotta give everybody a thing to do” problem with having so many characters in the Gru story at this point. The movie also adds a teen character, wannabe villain Poppy (voice of Joey King), who feels she doesn’t really need to be there and a tighter movie would have found a way to give her actions to existing characters.

But then again, story and characters and all of that aren’t really why we’re here. It’s the Minions and the spirit of wackiness in general that are really the stars here. The Minions’ scenes of tomfoolery and kid-like troublemaking are usually the ones that get the biggest laughs. And laughs and silliness really seem like the core of this movie, as least as much but probably more even than the, like, emotional growth of Gru as a father or whatever.

All of which is to say that my kids, and the surrounding kids in the theater, seemed to have a good time (except for the toddler who fully horror-movie-heroine screamed at the sight of Max in all of his cockroachiness; maybe this is not one for the littlest littles). “Very funny” and “I liked the fighting” were their reviews and I feel like that reaction — in the well-paced hour-and-34-minute movie — is exactly why you watch it. B

Rated PG for action and rude humor, according to the MPA on Directed by Chris Renaud and Patrick Delage and written by Mike White & Ken Daurio, Despicable Me 4 is an hour and 34 minutes long and distributed by Universal Studios.

Featured photo: The Quiet Place: Day One.

At the Sofaplex 24/07/04

Godzilla Minus One (PG-13)

As people in Japan try to restart their lives after World War II a new threat emerges in Godzilla Minus One, a pretty great Godzilla movie but also a surprisingly good movie about war and its aftermath.

Reluctant kamikaze pilot Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) returns to his family home in Tokyo only to find it destroyed and his parents dead. Haunted in part by an end-of-war run-in with Godzilla when Shikishima failed to fight back against the monster, he forlornly spends his days in the ruins of his parent’s house until he meets Noriko (Minami Hamabe), a young woman who shoves a baby at him as she is chased through the market being called a thief. These three unrelated people — Shikishima, Noriko and the baby — eventually form a found family, with Shikishima getting a job helping to clear the coastline of underwater explosives dropped during the war.

Meanwhile, the U.S. tests nuclear weapons at Bikini Atoll, which is a Godzilla hangout spot. He is injured and angered and also seems to acquire great regenerative powers as well as the ability to shoot out a heat ray that is roughly the equivalent of a nuclear explosion. One day at sea, Shikishima witnesses these new abilities close up and is horrified as a bigger, badder Godzilla heads to the mainland.

The movie features some significant ramp up to post-war Godzilla. We get a lot about Shikishima’s guilt over the war and his inability to truly live — to put the war behind him and accept his new family, marry Noriko and find some peace. But there is enough Godzilla-ness interspersed with these elements to keep the movie going, and ultimately the emotional and relationship parts of the story do pay off.

I also liked this movie’s visual effects — no surprise as it won a visual effects Oscar at the 2024 awards. There is a real tactile quality to everything here from Godzilla to the buildings he crashes into. I’m going to say “guy in a rubber suit” and that’s going to sound like an insult but I mean it in the sense that Godzilla has the quality of a real entity moving in and reacting to its surroundings, not a weightless cartoon inserted after the fact. Even if some visual elements looked a little stylized, it made sense with the overall visuals of the world created here.

This movie doesn’t have the awe-inspiring beauty of some of the shots of the 2014 Godzilla but it does have a story that is more cohesive, more “real” and more compelling. A Available for rent or purchase and on Netflix.

Wicked Little Letters (R)

Olivia Coleman has fun as meek spinster Edith Swan, who receives vicious hate mail in interwar Britain. Filled with profanities that horrify her (horrible) parents (Timothy Spall, Gemma Jones), the letters are brought to the local police, who quickly investigate the Swans’ neighbor Rose Gooding (Jesse Buckley). She’s a woman who drinks, swears and is Irish, which seems to be the basis for her being a suspect. While the men of the police department are quick to arrest her, “Woman Police Officer” Gladys Moss (the excellent Anjana Vasan of We Are Lady Parts) has other ideas — not that those ideas are listened to.

Wicked Little Letters is a delightful little treat and if anybody wants to make a show with Vasan’s Moss solving crimes with the help of her townswomen irregulars (including Joanna Scanlan, Lolly Adefope and Eileen Atkins) I am here for it. B Available for rent or purchase.

Brats (NR)

Andrew McCarthy directs the documentary Brats, which is kind of a rumination on the idea of the “Brat Pack” and what it meant for his life and his career. McCarthy deeply hated the “Brat Pack” label when it first appeared in a New York magazine cover story in 1985. He describes feeling like it was an immediate diminishment of his career and the careers of his fellow “Pack” members — though who exactly that includes becomes part of the movie’s discussion. The casts of St. Elmo’s Fire and The Breakfast Club probably yes; adjacent people like Lea Thompson, Tom Cruise and Michael J. Fox probably no. John Cryer, who appears here, is Duckie forever but doesn’t consider himself a Pack member, though he did date Demi Moore and appear in movies with Molly Ringwald. The documentary offers memories of the time and what the phenomenon meant for the Pack-ers by the likes of Cryer, Thompson, Ally Sheedy, Moore, Emilio Estevez and Rob Lowe and then turns to movie reviewers and pop culture commentary types to talk about what the movies meant in the wider culture. It’s a fun bit of ’80s teen culture nostalgia. B Streaming on Hulu.

Hit Man (R)

Glen Powell stars in and co-wrote Hit Man, a movie directed by Richard Linklater.

Gary (Powell) is a slightly nerdy professor whose side gig is audiovisual technical support for the New Orleans Police Department. He works on a team that includes Jasper (Austin Amelio), a cop posing as a hit man; Phil (Sanjay Rao), another tech guy, and Claudette (Retta, just forever awesome), who seems in charge. When Jasper is suspended, Gary is tasked with being the “hit man.” On his first attempt, he scores big, turning in a believable performance as the self-assured, take-no-crap Ron and getting the person attempting to hire him to incriminate himself for attempted murder.

When Madison (Adria Arjona) attempts to hire Ron, he stops her before she makes the official ask and talks her out of it, forestalling an arrest. Later she invites him to a puppy adoption event and the two start dating — though Madison thinks she’s dating Ron, a killer for hire, not Gary, a cat owner who enjoys bird watching.

There are parts of this movie that are just whipped cream fun — Gary trying on different personas to placate the hit-man-seekers, the twitchy Jasper trying to catch Gary in wrongdoing, everything involving Retta. Elements of this movie exist in the gritty neighborhood of comedy — think Justified but not as smart. But there are other parts that seem plastic — that kind of too shiny, overly slick quality that feels like somebody asked AI for “sexy banter dialogue.” B-Available on Netflix.

Trigger Warning (TV-MA)

Jessica Alba is almost a convincing action star in Trigger Warning, one of those “soldier with a particular set of skills returns to their hometown to right wrongs” movies. Remember Dwayne Johnson in Walking Tall? It’s like that.

In Alba’s case, she plays Parker, returning from her “part spy, part butt-kicker” government job to her home town in New Mexico after her father died. Died in a collapse in his hobby mine? That’s the official story but Parker’s not so sure.

Early in our introduction to the town we see a campaign sign for a senator (Anthony Michael Hall) whose sons include the local sheriff (Mark Webber), who dated Parker in high school, and the local sleazeball criminal (Jake Weary). There are no surprises in how this plays out and it has dumb action fun potential but Alba is weirdly wooden for a lot of the movie. She doesn’t quite hit — but totally could, if you remember early seasons of Dark Angel — that baseline level of energy to really carry this kind of kicky-punch movie. C Streaming on Netflix.

A Family Affair (PG-13)

Zac Efron is a famous action star who stumbles into a relationship with his assistant’s mother in A Family Affair, a movie that is 30 percent friend, family and romantic relationships and 70 percent real estate and home design.

You know those $13 quarterly home magazines filled with architecture and interior design so beautiful in a “no human has ever lived here” otherworldly way that it might as well be about home design on Mars? This movie is full of these places, from a sleek production office to a young couple’s dwelling to the modernist estate of Chris Cole (Efron), an actor rich from starring in a series of increasingly dumb big-budget action movies. His Los Angeles mansion has this workout loft space that is all white surfaces and exceptional light and this massive door that is both beautiful and medieval-moat-bridge-like in its unwieldiness. His put-upon assistant Zara (Joey King) might be miserable at work, responding to his stupid actor whims and not getting any closer to the production job she was hoping for, but she comes home every night to her mother Brooke’s (Nicole Kidman) palatial yet cozy oceanfront mansion. Brooke is a writer who has mostly been writing for magazines and her late husband was also some kind of writer and unless what they wrote was collectively the most successful set of books of all time I’m going to say a big “nope” to them owning such a house.

None of these people have real problems, nor does Brooke’s mother-in-law Leila (Kathy Bates), who has some sort of cozy ski-country house that appears to be specifically for celebrating Christmas in. Zara’s friend Eugenie (Liza Koshy), who listens to her whine and is barely able to discuss her own relationship woes with the self-involved Zara, is having her fights and uneasy silences with her boyfriend in a very nice ground-floor apartment or maybe townhome with a separate bedroom and a very nice living room — these people are in their 20s! The kitchen is positively Nancy Meyers-ish!

The central tension of this movie is around the relationship Brooke falls into with Chris and how that icks out Zara. But who can even pay attention when Brooke is gazing into her massive closet specifically for unworn designer dresses that — wait, is it backlit? B- Streaming on Netflix.

Featured photo: Thelma the Unicorn.

Fancy Dance (R)

Lily Gladstone turns in another captivating performance in Fancy Dance, a movie on Apple TV+.

Thirteen-year-old Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson) goes nearly everywhere with her Aunt Jax (Gladstone). They live together in the family’s house on the Seneca-Cayuga Nation Reservation in Oklahoma. They fish for crawfish together, they work together to do a little light car boosting. Roki is saving her earnings from those endeavors to pay for entry in the upcoming powwow in Oklahoma City where she and her mother will wear their regalia and dance in the mother-daughter dance. But despite Jax’s semi-encouraging “she’s never missed a powwow before”-type statements about Roki’s mother, the hard set of her face and the stack of “missing” posters she carries everywhere tells a different story.

Tawi (Hauli Gray), Jax’s sister and Roki’s mother, has been missing for a few weeks. Tawi and Jax’s brother JJ (Ryan Begay), a tribal police officer, tells her he’s tried, with minimal success, to get the FBI involved in investigating Tawi’s disappearance. Jax takes it on herself to organize searches, hang posters and even push her way in to unfriendly situations to ask men who may have seen Tawi if they know anything about her whereabouts.

Despite Jax’s hopes that Tawi could still return soon, the state’s child services informs her that criminal charges for drugs in her (Jax’s) past keep her from being a fit guardian for Roki. Frank (Shea Whigham), Tawi and Jax’s white father they haven’t seen much of in the years since their mother died, and his new wife Nancy (Audrey Wasilewski), are given custody of Roki. Though Roki hopes to still attend the powwow, Frank and Nancy say they’ve been told Jax can’t be with Roki unsupervised. Jax at first tells Roki “next year” but then, perhaps sensing that there won’t be a next year for Roki and Tawi at the powwow, borrows Frank’s car and takes Roki on a road trip to the event.

Or, to put it the way the FBI sees it, Jax steals Frank’s car and kidnaps Roki, leading to an Amber Alert and statewide hunt for them by local and federal law enforcement.

Jax doesn’t at first realize the seriousness of the situation but even when she learns that Frank has called the police she continues forward in her twin missions to take Roki to the dance and to find information about Tawi. JJ both tries to bring Jax home and helps her in her quest. Both of them hope that perhaps this FBI attention will shine some light on Tawi.

I went into this movie rooting for Gladstone and I was not disappointed. She elevates everything she’s in, helping to highlight this movie’s solid storytelling despite some indie movie scruffiness. Gladstone makes you believe every moment of Jax’s struggle and makes you feel her exhaustion and desperation as well as her deep love for Tawi and Roki.

Which maybe doesn’t sound like the funnest use of your movie-watching time, but Fancy Dance manages moments of heart and sweetness among the bitter. And at just about 90 minutes it’s a well-crafted story. A-

Rated R for language, some drug content and sexual material, according to the MPA on Directed by Erica Tremblay and written by Erica Tremblay and Miciana Alise, Fancy Dance is an hour and 30 minutes long and is streaming on Apple TV+.

Featured photo: Fancy Dance.

Thelma (PG-13)

Three generations of a family undergo gradations of life crises whilst grandma seeks to take down some scammers in Thelma.

I believe the generations work out like this: Zoomer Daniel (Fred Hechinger) spends time with Silent Generation grandma Thelma (June Squibb) while her Gen X daughter Gail (Parker Posey) and son-in-law Alan (Clark Gregg) worry over both their life trajectories. The movie centers Thelma, of course, but it helps that we’re seeing people in different life stages feeling different kinds of lost. We avoid the cute-ification of Thelma, what Tara Ariano on the Extra Hot Great podcast refers to as the “rapping granny” effect.

Thelma lives alone after the death of her husband. Daniel is kind of adrift both in his career (we see his mother encourage him to apply to work in a friend’s dental office) and in his personal life, where he is “still on a break” with a girlfriend who we get a sense was the together one in the relationship. Gail is worried that her mother, who has suffered from a variety of health ailments and no longer drives, might not be up to living alone anymore (just as she is also worried that Daniel isn’t getting with the program, adulting-wise).

Gail expresses this worry after Thelma is taken in by a phone scam in which “Danny” calls to tell her he’s been arrested and to give money to a defense attorney who asks for $10,000 in cash. Thelma rushes to mail the envelope of cash but Daniel turns out to have been at home asleep all day. After the police tell Thelma there’s nothing they can do, her family takes her home, with Daniel promising to look in on her more and pushing her to wear her life alert watch.

Despite her family’s urging that she let it go, Thelma decides she wants her money back. But she doesn’t want to involve Gail or Daniel in her plans. Transportation-less, Thelma turns to Ben (Richard Roundtree), a not-super-close friend who lives at a senior facility. Much like how friendships among teens are often forged based on who has a car, Ben’s appeal to Thelma is largely that he has a sweet electric scooter.

Thelma first tries to “borrow” Ben’s scooter but when he stops her he agrees to go with her to the location of the post office box she sent the money to so she can scope it out and find the scammers. The trip across the San Fernando Valley takes time but Thelma is determined to get her money back — and probably to prove that she can still take care of herself.

Meanwhile Gail, Alan and Danny are desperate to find the missing Thelma, especially Danny, who feels responsible for having “lost” Thelma and that it’s yet another example of his general life failure.

The June Squibb/Richard Roundtree of it all perhaps had me expecting some level of action cleverness, humor and overall smartness that this movie doesn’t quite achieve. But, stepping back from my expectations, the movie has nice moments between the different characters and a general sweetness. We get to see their relationships to each other and their own difficulties. Thelma, for the most part, gets to feel like a real person, someone who is enjoying her independence for the first time ever (we learn that she lived with her parents until marriage and then with her husband until just a few years ago) but also is at times lonely and feels the vulnerability of her age for all that she tries to fight against it. Squibb gives a solid performance that has heart even as it has fun with its heist movie-like elements. B

Rated PG-13 for strong language, according to the MPA on Written and directed by Josh Margolin, Thelma is an hour and 37 minutes long and distributed in theaters by Magnolia Pictures.

Featured photo: Thelma.

Inside Out 2 (PG )

The puberty alarm goes off and suddenly Riley’s mind is a construction zone with new emotions in Inside Out 2, a less jolly, more complex sequel to the 2015 Pixar movie.

Riley (voice of Kensington Tallman) is 13 and on the cusp of high school. Inside her mind, Joy (voice of Amy Poehler) has learned to let Riley’s emotional experiences have balance — Anger (voice of Lewis Black), Fear (voice of Tony Hale), Disgust (voice of Liza Lapira) and of course Sadness (voice of Phyllis Smith) all have a place in Riley’s life. Joy does tidy things up at the end of the day, sending the less than ideal memories to the back of Riley’s mind, letting Riley’s sense of self (as physically represented by a sort of crystalized snowflake sculpture thing that grows from the roots of the memories kept down below) develop from only positive memories.

Then the puberty alarm goes off and suddenly a wrecking ball crashes through headquarters and the emotional control panel has new colors. A frazzle-headed orange creature pops up and introduces herself as Anxiety (voice of Maya Hawke). Along with her come a small turquoise-colored Envy (voice of Ayo Edebiri), a large shy pink Embarrassment (voice of Paul Walter Hauser) and floppy French Ennui (voice of Adele Exarchopoulos). Anxiety, however, has plans and quickly takes over.

Her plans involve helping Riley to make and solidify friendships with the high school hockey team players, especially team captain Valentina (voice of Lilimar).

While on the way to a three-day hockey camp with her middle school friends, Riley learns that her besties will be going to a different high school. Though a “sadness is a part of life” Joy looks at the camp as a way for Riley to spend as much time with her buddies as possible, Anxiety quickly convinces the gang that Riley needs to use it to make friends with Valentina and secure her place on her high school hockey team so she won’t be friendless and alone next year. Anxiety’s special skill is painting vivid pictures of the things that can go wrong for Riley, so emotions old and new agree to follow Anxiety’s lead, until the original emotions start to argue Anxiety’s actions don’t reflect Riley’s true self. Then Anxiety vacuum tubes them out to “The Vault” to be locked up — “suppressed emotions,” one of them cries.

But of course you can’t keep a plucky Joy down. She rallies the original emotions to find the sense of self that Anxiety jettisoned when it got in the way of her Valentina plan and take it back to headquarters to save Riley.

Ultimately, what they’re saving Riley from is Anxiety’s increasingly aggressive ideas of the things that could go wrong and the resulting beliefs they create in Riley that she’s not good enough. In the movie’s climax, Anxiety creates something of a storm of this blend of real and imagined horrors — which we see as an emotion tornado where Anxiety is both moving so fast she kind of loses her physicality but is also frozen in place. That’s a pretty good visual representation of being in the grip of panic or anxiety — a combination of an increasingly intense feedback loop and of being stuck. The movie also shows Riley — with the help of external friends and internal emotions — working her way out of this feeling. I don’t know that it means anything to younger kids in the audience — the younger members of the crowd in the theater I saw this movie at were antsy by this point — but I do feel like it’s a good teachable moment for teens and tweens. This moment — and a good bit of the movie — does feel more successful as “art saying something about life” than as “entertaining for the littles.”

When I say this movie is less jolly and more complex, I think that’s what I mean. In the first movie, older but still kid Riley was dealing with the sadness of moving away from her friends. This is a life difficulty that I think is easily graspable to a kid, even a younger one. There is something more nuanced about Riley’s fears and hopes and struggles here — she isn’t really losing her friends, she can still see them, but she won’t be with them every day and will be without the social protection a group of buddies brings and so needs to replace that with older kids she must work to impress (versus the buddies who more naturally share her interests). I think the movie does a good job of examining how this feels and how — without veering into Afterschool Special Peer-Pressure territory — your ambitions for certain friends or social acceptance can cause you to act in ways that are against your core beliefs, your sense of self.

In addition to tackling a muddier problem, Inside Out 2 feels less sharp in general probably in part because we’ve seen all this before. The movie’s funniest new addition is probably Bloofy (voice of Ron Funches), a old-school hand-drawn-looking animated dog-thing that is a character from a preschool show that Riley secretly still loves. Bloofy asks questions of a nonexistent audience and has a helpful fanny-pack friend named Pouchy (voice of James Austin Johnson) — all very Dora the Explorer and my kids laughed at both the visual and character absurdities of Bloofy and Pouchy, who always seems to have very Acme-looking dynamite at his disposal.

I asked my daughter, who is not so far from Riley’s age, what she thought of the movie and her response was that the movie itself is decent but that she hated how Anxiety was trying to ruin Riley’s life. Yeah, tell me about it, I thought. It did help to underline to me, though, that while all the Bloofy wackiness and the punny “brain storms” (idea light bulbs hailing from the sky) and the occasional raft ride on a giant broccoli were entertaining enough for the kids, the ideas in this second outing were probably more interesting and thought-provoking for their grownups. B+

Rated PG for some thematic elements, according to the MPA on Directed by Kelsey Mann with a screenplay by Meg LeFauve and Dave Holstein, Inside Out 2 is an hour and 36 minutes long and distributed in theaters by Walt Disney Studios.

Featured photo: Inside Out 2.

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