“I can’t look. Can someone cover my eyes?”
The stigma associated with sequels is that they always attempt to either go bigger or rehash what was already done. Both variations are usually set-ups for failure, sacrificing story for more bells and whistles or boring the audience with a slightly reworked alternate version, a watered down facsimile of the brilliant original. So, after Pixar produced just one other film post-Toy Story—the charmingly entertaining A Bug’s Life—the news that number three would be Toy Story 2 became an opportunity for everyone to start worrying the studio breathing new life to animation had already seen its well dry up. Confidence was low and without the stellar track record to fall back on in 2010 with a third, 1999 appeared way too soon. In actuality, the movie was set to be a 60-minute direct-to-DVD work while other features, like 2001s Monsters, Inc., continued production. Early dailies and story points were looked upon so highly, however, that Disney requested it be expanded to a theatrical release, creating a rift which ultimately led to Pixar’s departure from their relationship. Thankfully for us all, not only did the partnership patch up half a decade later, but the film itself ended up just as good as the first.
I remember hearing from friends how great Toy Story 2 was. Not having seen the first in theatres, I knew I had to catch this one on the big screen, so I was very excited to finally attend with the family and see for myself how successful it was. Lasseter, Docter, and Stanton all returned to flesh out the story with Ash Brannon—himself the future helmer on Surf’s Up, a film I’m embarrassed to have still not seen—keeping the tone as consistent as possible. It does ultimately become a similar plotline as the first, dealing with a brave toy’s quest to save another from his manufactured background, only this time the roles are reversed. Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear is now fully conscious to the fact he’s a toy and has nestled right into Andy’s world as Tom Hanks’ Woody’s second in command. All is well with the new toys brought into the fold at the conclusion of its predecessor, including Estelle Harris’ Mrs. Potato Head, and the newest furry member of the family, the cute dog Woody has trained quite well—and who is rendered light years more realistic than Scud before him. It’s an accidental rip to the cowboy’s half a century old arm that ushers in conflict, seeing him stolen from a yard sale by toy magnate Big Al (Wayne Knight) and eventually discovering his past as a famous television marionette.
Woody is faced with the decision to either do what he can to escape and return to Andy or go into a museum exhibit with the other members of “Woody’s Round-Up”, Joan Cusack’s Jessie, Kelsey Grammer’s Stinky Pete, and his friendly horse Bullseye, to save them from an eternity of storage. Buzz turns to heroics and creates a team with Potato Head, Slinky Dog, Hamm, and Rex to invade Big Al’s Toy Barn and save their friend. So, rather than deal with two toys finding friendship in a world of starkly different generational toy styles, the sequel uses the theme of purpose and whether complete happiness and worth in the short-term supercedes a legacy of appreciation forever without the ability to ever be held again. For a toy who’s sole existence is to be loved by its owner, the choice would appear to be easy, but when your new friends face unending darkness as a result of that decision, second-guessing is more than understandable. Some toys will become bitter for never having felt the warmth of a young boy or girl’s unconditional love, though, so it rests with those that know to remember and realize it’s the only thing worth living for.
Who knew a sequel could utilize a similar construct, but infuse it with a brand new message for viewers, and almost end up more powerful than its brethren? It really is difficult to decide which of the two entries resonate more because they are so similar and different at the same time. What I do like about Toy Story 2 is that it focuses on a smaller group of characters, allowing them to breathe and become stronger without the need to continuously return to Andy’s room. By having so many in the outside on the rescue mission, we are able to watch Woody’s crisis of conscience as he’s readied to be shipped off at Big Al’s apartment and Buzz, et al across the street at the Toy Barn searching amongst the still-packaged toys simultaneously. It becomes two stories in one, both concerning survival and protection, eventually converging towards its conclusion. We meet Jessie and Pete, two vintage dolls amidst the massive collection of Woody memorabilia, materials precisely detailed in their aesthetic as a perfect view into the other world of toys—that of the collector. But while they wake Woody up to his heritage, the others have their hands full with freshly molded Barbies and Buzzs, the latter of which allows for a return to Lightyear’s deluded identity confusion. It worked for plenty of laughs before and does so again opposite our own ‘awaken’ counterpart.
As a result, the second film in the series does rely a bit more on comical bits—the three-eyed aliens’ cameo, Zurg and Buzz’s Empire Strikes Back homage, the intrinsic airheaded sensibilities of Barbie dolls, Rex’s lack of arm length, and Potato Head’s never-ending abyss of backside storage space. But they never trump the story being told; wrapping it into a tale of what happiness ultimately means. The acting is superb across the board once again and the inside jokes are plentiful. The real difference, and only non-negotiable point of superior improvement, is in the animation. Watching both films on consecutive days really shows the night and day comparison between the two. It may only be four years later, but the rendering is crisper, the backgrounds are more three-dimensional, and the reflective surfaces are stunning to behold (just look at Buzz with red laser dots covering his helmet at the start). Even the compositions of frames are infinitely more interesting, adding more depth and angle to scenes that would have merely been bare windowsills with action happening in the distance. Toy Story 2 becomes a rare enigma of Hollywood, improving upon its birthright in almost every category and officially cementing Pixar as King. Seeing a sequel so successful only made the anticipation for what was to come that much more appealing, and rightly so.