Anxiety is the anti-hero in Inside Out 2, reflecting the saviour syndrome in all of us

Pixar’s Inside Out returned with a hit sequel this summer, featuring the core emotions Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger inside the 13-year-old Riley’s mind, the Headquarters. The emotions work in tandem to influence Riley’s behaviours and help her be the best girl she could be. The sequel picks up from the first instalment, as Riley is all set to embark on her teenage life. During this time, the emotions face the unfamiliar challenge of ‘Puberty.’

Anxiety got a cute new face with Pixar's Inside Out 2.
Anxiety got a cute new face with Pixar’s Inside Out 2.

Inside Out 2 starts with Riley hitting puberty, introducing new emotions: Anxiety, Envy, Ennui, and Embarrassment. These new emotions barge in, leaving the core emotions shaken and shocked. Anxiety, voiced by Maya Hawke, seizes control of the command centre, wreaking havoc and shuttling the core emotions to the back of the mind, where they risk being forgotten. Despite Anxiety sabotaging Riley’s sense of belief and moral values, it is not a villain but a troubled anti-hero with saviour syndrome, driven by a misguided sense of needing to protect Riley. Just like Anxiety, our anxieties, though disruptive, ultimately stem from a desire to keep us safe.

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(Beware, this content contains spoilers, read at your own risk!)

The anti-hero

Anxiety was the new boss of the mind headquarters, taking unprecedented and absolute control over everything. Anxiety was not the villain as it earlier seemed, it was protecting Riley, just like the core emotion of Joy, in its own way in the prequel. A storm of insecurity brewed within Riley with the start of the three-day hockey camp and the news that her friends will be attending a different high school.

Determined to safeguard Riley from a lonely future, Anxiety took drastic measures. This included ditching Riley’s old friends to impress the popular girls and stealing from the coach’s record book. The scraggly, big-toothed orange emotion with protruding eyes shattered Riley’s self-image of a “good girl,” painstakingly built by the core emotions over the years. Worried about the future, Anxiety planned out scenarios of every possibility, like what would happen at Riley’s big match, so much so that she skipped sleep to practise all night. However, Anxiety’s actions backfired and led to a more faltering self-belief in Riley, “I am not good enough.” At the core, anxiety is an anti-hero, guided with the best of Riley’s interests at heart, but resorted to questionable means to achieve them.

Similarly, it happens to all of us, where we act in ways unknown to us, recklessly to secure ourselves against a perceived future threat. This new emotion was relatable to the die-hard Inside Out fans, resonating with the familiar voice in their heads. Anxiety, with its hysterical planning and overthought fears, became a mirror reflecting the inner battles we all face.

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How Pixar got the anxiety attack right

As Anxiety tried to make Riley fit in, everything spiraled out of control. In the final hockey match, a penalty sent Riley into a full-blown anxiety attack. Anxiety whips up an orange storm in the command centre, frozen and helpless in a frenzy. The climax was emotionally tough to watch, making the audience bawl in theatres. And for a children’s movie, the anxiety attack felt too real.

It was a chilling portrayal of the lightheadedness, sweat, and chest tightness that grip us during such moments. Riley sat down during the anxiety attack, it’s important to ground yourself, as the head starts to feel dizzy. She sweated, she clutched her chest to control her racing heart with trembling hands. The psychological fear can manifest into physical symptoms, making the racing heart feel painful, almost like a heart attack. Riley’s frantic touches to her face with unfocused eyes, with subtle facial twitches, were too unnervingly vivid. It’s a subconscious way to soothe the overwhelming anxiety. Riley’s recovery was on point, as she tested her physical senses. Anxiety attacks block all our senses, so when Riley calms down, she touches the bench, listens to the puck’s sound, and focuses on deep breathing. All the subtle details make the film emotionally rich. The third act had a sense of deja vu, something so raw and real.

Inside her mind, during the attack, Anxiety was paralyzed, shedding tears of helplessness, “I was just trying to protect Riley.” Similarly, we all try to protect the inner child in us, however we can. Rooted in vulnerability, the film essayed a powerful message of learning to live with our anxieties. Unlike its prequel, it didn’t have a happy resolution with ousting anxiety out of the headquarters, but Riley and Joy understood and acknowledged all the emotions, even the uncomfortable ones.

 

 

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