[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Andrew Stanton, Rita Hsiao, Dug Chamberlin, Chris Webb (Screenplay); John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Ash Brannon, Andrew Stanton (Story) | Director: John Lasseter | Released: 11/24/1999 ]
“But they forget you.” – Jessie
It’s hard to remember in an age where every popular film must be repeated (or remade, or rebooted, or reinterpreted), but there was a time when animated sequels were never all that special. Following the commercial fizzling of The Rescuers Down Under, Disney decided that audiences weren’t all that interested seeing what happens after “happily ever after.” A few years later, they found an outlet for follow-up films in home media, and began producing direct-to-video sequels and threequels to films ranging from Aladdin to Tarzan to Beauty and the Beast. Some of these films weren’t bad (Cinderella III, for example, is among the most entertaining animated Disney films of the 2000s), but most were made on the cheap, with lackluster writing and animation, designed to catch the eye of the excitable child and soothe the mind of the exhausted parent.
When Pixar broke into the feature-film arena, it was very much the underdog to Disney’s mighty Mouse. But Toy Story proved to be a hit with audiences and critics, and gave the CG studio ample opportunity to grow and develop their ideas. Their next attempt, A Bug’s Life, was competent but unremarkable, and a few cynical minds began to wonder if Pixar hadn’t simply gotten lucky in its first time out of the gate. These fears were not quelled when Pixar announced that its next theatrical film would be… a sequel to Toy Story.
Developing a second Toy Story so soon after the first was a red flag, a sign that Pixar was already seeking safe haven with its most successful property. But when the sequel was finally released, all concerns quickly evaporated. Not only was Toy Story 2 a great film, but it was the one that firmly established Pixar as a serious player in the world of animation.
Toy Story 2 improves so significantly on its predecessor that one may forget what a remarkable film said predecessor was in the first place. Nevertheless, the sequel is a bona fide upgrade, featuring better animation, a greater scope, and bigger laughs. It also features a more complex story, with stronger character and emotional material, and explores its themes with even more depth and nuance.
Behind all the cute and extremely marketable toys are a series of ponderous questions about immortality. Is it better to live fast and die young? Or to be a soulless but important piece of history? Is one child’s temporary love a match for countless adults’ permanent appreciation? And is it selfish to prefer the former option over the latter?
Woody is faced with these questions throughout Toy Story 2, and his answers reveal far more about him than the first film did. The original Toy Story characterized Woody as a capable leader, but one easily threatened by the possibility of usurpation. Though he showed his petty and malicious side when faced with the challenge of Buzz Lightyear, he overcame his faults in time to realize there was room for two beloved toys on Andy’s shelf. But in Toy Story 2, Woody’s arc is more internal, tied directly to a past he never knew he had.
We discover here that Woody is a collector’s item, a merchandising relic from a Howdy Doody-style TV series. He, along with fellow Saturday morning icons Jessie (Joan Cusack), Bullseye, and Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer), were all part of “Woody’s Roundup,” a charming puppet series with an irritatingly catchy theme song. Decades later, our protagonist learns that he one of is the rare Woody dolls still in existence, and only he can ensure the franchise’s continued survival.
Early scenes in the film emphasize Woody’s fragility, both emotional and physical. A playtime mishap damages his arm, costing him a trip with Andy to cowboy camp. Woody’s deep insecurities – exacerbated by a talk with long-broken squeaker toy Wheezy – lead to a nightmarish dream sequence that’s as unsettling as any of the imagery in Sid’s room from the original film. But damaged arm or no, Woody’s singularity is enough to provoke schlubby toy store owner Al (Wayne Knight) to steal him from a local yard sale. (One does wonder, though, why no one ever noticed Woody’s collector status before the chicken-man came along.)
Ironically, while Woody was stolen for his uniqueness, the first thing Al does is have his individuality scrubbed away. An old toy cleaner repairs his arm, but fixes his other “defect” as well, painting over the name “Andy” on the sole of Woody’s boot. Woody no longer has any individual owner; from this moment, he is an artifact of the world.
Woody’s concerns about Andy run rampant at first, but slowly ebb away as he realizes his celebrity status. Jessie and Pete have long ago accepted their place as collectors’ items (Pete, in fact, has never even left his original box) and they adjust Woody to the idea of being a toy icon.
The concept of individuality is further explored to its opposite extreme. Wandering the well-stocked aisles of Al’s Toy Barn, Buzz stumbles across hundreds of fellow Lightyears, each wrapped in its own cardboard-and-plastic rocket ship. Each Buzz, we can assume, begins its shelf life under the impression that it is the real Buzz Lightyear (as do, apparently, the action figure replicas of his arch-nemesis, Emperor Zurg). The first Toy Story did a commendable job in letting Buzz grow to understand and even embrace his role as (in Woody’s words) a child’s plaything, and turned him into as well-rounded a character all the while. Now the sequel takes us back to Buzz’s roots, reminding us that while the cowboy craze died out years ago, sci-fi continues to dominate the market. The Buzz we’ve grown to know is easily replaceable (and indeed, he does get “replaced” by another Buzz for much of the film, with his friends being none the wiser).
The line between the toy version of Buzz and the character who inspired him is intriguingly blurred throughout the story. The film opens with an action-packed Buzz Lightyear video game, which is itself revealed to have Rex at the controls. Rex’s arc, throughout the film, is to “be” Buzz Lightyear – to brave intergalactic danger and defeat the evil Zurg. But his quest to beat the virtual Zurg eventually leads to him (quite accidentally) defeating a physical replica of the character. To Rex, the distinction is irrelevant. “I defeated Zurg!” he exclaims, watching the plastic tyrant plummet down an elevator shaft.
And in truth, is there really a difference? In the Toy Story world, all Buzz and Zurg toys believe themselves to be the real McCoy. They have layered backstories to go with their personalities – Zurg, in fact, turns out to be Buzz’s father. That they are each individually “Made in Taiwan” is irrelevant to the space toys themselves – just as it is irrelevant to the millions of children who play with them. To imagination-prone kids everywhere, the toy they hold in their hands is the one and the only Buzz Lightyear.
Which brings us back to Woody. Anyone above a certain age can predict his final decision long before he makes it. But in preferring to spend a few more years with Andy, rather than living through decades of impersonal and artificial fame, Woody chooses the limitless possibilities of one child’s imagination over the stagnating confines of a “Roundup” reunion. Instead of being the real Woody, he chooses to be the toy.
It’s a sentiment that Jessie (who was once a child-owned toy herself) can understand, but Pete (who has never been played with by any child) cannot. Seeing children as irresponsible and destructive of their toys, Pete believes a museum is the most prestigious place for such valuable toys. Woody shares some of Pete’s sentiments (and understands his dislike of “space toys”), which makes Pete’s third-act turn as the film’s most threatening villain all the more unsettling.
Pete’s ultimate fate sees him finally gaining a young owner, but one who, according to her face-painted Barbie doll, is “an artist.” It’s a twist on the Sid scenario – a child who does not mutilate her toys, but instead paints over them, redecorating their outer features to better appeal to her. Pete is finally going to be played with as a real toy… much to his everlasting regret.
But Woody, along with Jessie and Bullseye, embrace the temporary love of a gleeful child. Their “Roundup” history is a thing of the past, only briefly invoked during the action-packed climax. Unlike the hundreds of Buzz Lightyears that continue to line toy shelves everywhere, Woody and his Western friends have no trouble telling the difference between fiction and reality, and they end the film in full embrace of the latter.
That Toy Story 2 is able to juggle such complex themes with such progressively deepening characters is impressive enough. That it manages to do so while being so richly entertaining is even more amazing. Outside of a brief detour to Pizza Planet, the first Toy Story was mainly confined to the area of two adjacent suburban houses. Not so with the sequel. John Lasseter and co. explore a variety of locales throughout the film, including a rundown apartment, a string of toy store aisles, and a labyrinthine airport. The main characters’ small stature also makes for some excellent visual setpieces. A busy intersection proves dangerous for small toys, even once they take cover beneath traffic cones. A spilled bowl of cheese doodles inadvertently becomes an alarm system. The film even outdoes its predecessor’s Pizza Planet cred by having the toys actually drive one of the company’s vans.
Pixar broke fresh ground with the original Toy Story, but it’s the sequel which stands as their first true classic. And it would kick off a stretch of great films that would span the length of the 2000s, before climaxing with the inevitable – and equally excellent – Toy Story 3.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The opening video-game sequence gets the film off to a rousing start. It was also probably meant to excite kids about the then-upcoming Buzz Lightyear TV series.
+ Mrs. Potato Head packing her husband’s angry eyes… “just in case.”
+ The toy cleaner bears a striking resemblance to the title character of “Geri’s Game,” the funny short film which preceded A Bug’s Life in theaters.
+ The toys’ reaction to the Barbie exhibit.
+ I know the “Use your head” line has been used hundreds of times, but if you didn’t laugh at its use here, we can no longer be friends.
+ I know that playing Sarah MacLachlan songs during sad scenes has pretty much become a cliché, but if you didn’t get misty-eyed during Jessie’s flashback montage, we can no longer be friends.
+ Okay, I don’t really mean those last two comments. We can still be friends, right?
+ The entire third act is just a ton of fun. The battle with Zurg, the drive in the Pizza Planet truck, the search through the airport conveyer belt, and the race down the airplane runway. Love it.
+ This probably goes without saying, but I prefer Robert Goulet’s rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” over Randy Newman’s.
– Okay, shouldn’t someone notice all the toys running down the streets or through the airport? I can suspend disbelief and all, but it strains credibility at some point.