100 Film Favorites – #17: Toy Story 2
(John Lasseter, 1999)
And so we come to the highest-ranking (fully) animated film of the Countdown. Let me be clear: I love animation, and could talk at length about many animated features which deserve a place of honor alongside film history’s most lauded live-action efforts. But this Countdown, particularly now that we’re so near the end, is a list of movies which have most spoken to me personally. And in that regard, Toy Story 2 earns top marks.
The film, set a few years after the events of the first Toy Story, begins with the toys’ owner, Andy, preparing to depart for “Cowboy Camp.” Woody is anticipating joining Andy on the journey, an excursion he looks forward to every year. Unfortunately, Andy accidentally rips Woody’s arm in a rigorous play session, and the damaged sheriff must stay behind. Andy’s mom puts Woody up on “the shelf,” a place where broken toys are put to be forgotten and, often, thrown away or sold at yard sales.
A yard sale is the fate of Woody’s shelf-mate Wheezy, a rubber penguin who has “lost his squeaker.” Quickly, Woody mounts a mission to save his squeaker-less friend. Though the gambit to save Wheezy succeeds, Woody is trapped at the sale, where he is discovered by Al McWhiggin, the proprietor of Al’s Toy Barn (a toy store referenced, but never seen, in the first movie). Al, also a vintage toy collector, is overjoyed by his find. When Andy’s mom insists that Woody is not actually for sale, Al simply steals him, while the other toys look on in horror from Andy’s window.
Al, played by Wayne Knight (AKA Newman from Seinfeld and Dennis Nedry from Jurassic Park), turns out to have a large collection of memorabilia associated with Woody’s Roundup. Like the real-world Howdy-Doody Show, “Roundup” was a popular 1950s children’s series, featuring the puppety adventures of Sheriff Woody and his Roundup Gang: Jessie the yodeling cowgirl, Woody’s horse Bullseye, and the bumbling prospector Stinky Pete. Woody encounters toy versions of the “Gang,” who introduce him to his television heritage, and his status as a highly-valued collectors’ item. With the inclusion of a Woody doll, they tell him, the collection is now complete. Al has arranged to sell the entire kit and kaboodle to a Japanese toy museum, where Woody and the Roundup Gang are to comprise a featured exhibit.
Woody protests, saying that he must return to Andy’s house, as his owner still loves him. In the first appearance of the now-traditional “Pixar why did you make me so sad” scene, Jessie recalls the days “when somebody loved me” – her owner, a girl named Emily, once did everything with Jessie, but eventually grew up and abandoned her in a charity bin. The same fate, Jessie warns, awaits Woody when Andy one day tires of him. Gradually, Jessie, Bullseye, and the Prospector convince Woody to travel with them to the museum, where he will be beloved by children forever, and never risk being damaged or forgotten.
Meanwhile, Buzz Lightyear has formed a team to “rescue” his abducted comrade. Buzz leads Mr. Potato Head, Rex, and Hamm the piggy bank on an epic quest to Al’s Toy Barn (though the distance is really only a few blocks, the toys’ small size makes the journey epic). In an especially intense scene, the toys cross a busy road while hiding under traffic cones. Though they almost get squashed under a runaway section of cement pipe, the toys make it across, only causing a handful of car accidents in the process. They breathe a sigh of relief and venture into the Toy Barn, not realizing that Woody is actually being kept in Al’s apartment…across the street.
Eventually, the rescue party realizes their mistake and arrive at the apartment building, now with additional toys in tow. They are joined by an “updated” Buzz Lightyear action figure, who nonetheless shares the original Buzz’s delusion of actually being a Space Ranger rather than a toy. Unbeknownst to the group, they are also being followed by Emperor Zurg, Lightyear’s Vader-like arch-nemesis.
The “rescuers” arrive at the apartment and find a Woody reluctant to leave. In a reversal of the original film, Buzz must now be the one to convince Woody of the value of being a toy. Perhaps Andy will only play with them for a few years more, but if Woody is locked behind glass at a museum he will never be played with nor truly loved ever again.
Woody reconsiders, and convinces Jessie and Bullseye to return with him to Andy’s house, to experience the joy of being loved again, if only for a while. However, Stinky Pete reveals himself as the antagonist who had foiled Woody’s earlier attempts to leave. The prospector blocks their exit, and when Al returns he packs the toys away in crates for their flight to Japan.
In an impressive action sequence, Buzz, Hamm, Potato Head, and Rex pursue the Roundup Gang through the airport’s labyrinthine network of baggage conveyors. They overpower the prospector and stuff him into the bag of a child who (in a genuinely frightening moment) turns out to be an “artist,” defacing her toys with custom drawings. Stinky Pete is whisked off into the night, mourning the imminent loss of his mint condition status.
Jessie, however, is still trapped, and gets loaded aboard the plane. The thrilling climax has Buzz and Woody chasing the taxiing airliner down the runway atop Bullseye. Jessie is saved, the reunited toys return to Andy’s, and it’s a happy ending for everyone (even the updated Buzz: Zurg reveals that he is Lightyear’s father, and Buzz is ecstatic to finally spend some quality time with his dad).
Back at home, Buzz and Woody agree: Andy will one day grow up and leave them behind, but they’ll enjoy what time they have left, and they will always have each other. Wheezy, now fixed as well, leads the characters in a rousing chorus of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”
The development of Toy Story 2 marked the first major hiccup in the relationship between Pixar and Disney. This unrest would fester and grow until Disney purchased Pixar following the ousting of Michael Eisner in 2005, promoting Pixar bigwigs like John Lasseter to high-ranking positions within Disney.
The trouble began when, following the massive success of Toy Story, Disney announced their intention to release a direct-to-video sequel to the film without Pixar’s involvement, claiming that Disney owned the characters themselves, and could use them for films without Pixar’s consent. Pixar understandably balked, but could not change the fact that production of Toy Story 2 was looming…and so they decided to take charge of the project themselves. In order to “do it right” and really give the film the production value associated with Pixar, the studio stepped in to make the movie by the specified direct-to-video deadline. This meant that they had roughly half the time to make the film as is allotted for the typical Pixar production. John Lasseter, who had just directed two consecutive films for Pixar (the first Toy Story and A Bug’s Life) canceled his family’s vacation to fill the director’s chair once more. In something like nine months, Lasseter and his crew hammered out what remains my personal favorite Pixar film to date.
Why do I like it so much? There’s a few reasons:
-As with Shrek 2, I like that this film reverses the scenario of its predecessor: In Toy Story, Woody had to save Buzz, and now Buzz must save Woody. In this reversal, we see new aspects of the two characters’ personalities: Buzz has grown to accept (and truly value) his role as a toy, and Woody has begun to fear his “mortality.”
-The story of Woody’s Roundup. We learn that the show was cancelled before it’s finale cliffhanger could be resolved, as the rising popularity of outer space stories following the launch of Sputnik in the late 50s eclipsed the country’s earlier fervor for westerns. This conflict echoes Woody’s replacement by Buzz as “favorite toy” in the first film, and also gives the movies an historical context, expanding considerably on the world of the film.
-This may not sound like a good thing, but I see a lot of myself in the character of Al. He’s not a bad guy, really, just a collector doing what collectors do. In a sense he’s kind of the anti-Sid. While Sid in the first film tortures and destroys toys, Al does all he can to protect and preserve them. The film suggests that a toy’s ideal “life” lies between the two extremes: Happiness lies in being played with by a child, and that love entails a certain degree of wear and tear…and, one day, being forgotten.
I like that the film touches on the “darkness on the horizon,” so to speak. One day Andy will forget them, but the toys will make the most of the time they have. This, I think, is enough of an ending to have brought closure to the franchise. It’s somber, but hopeful. I know a lot of people loved Toy Story 3, and it’s certainly a well-made film, but few movies have left me feeling so bad after watching them. While 2 does a masterful job of working in “the sad scene” (an art-form which Pixar would later perfect with the opening of Up), 3 starts sad, ends sad (albeit with “happy tears”), and sad stuff happens in the middle. I just felt wiped when it was over. A lot of this sadness came from the brief moment where we see Buster, Andy’s dachshund mentioned at the end of Toy Story and featured as a character in 2. By 3, Buster is fat and old. Andy pats the dog and departs for college. I too had a dachshund that I got when I was nine (1999, coincidentally the year Toy Story 2 was released), and he died when I was a sophomore in college (2009, a year before 3). Over the course of the Toy Story trilogy (which spanned a full 15 years), I grew up alongside Andy, and it’s bittersweet. Toy Story 2 represents the perfect middle moment…celebrate what you have while you have it, because nothing lasts forever.
This film raises an interesting conundrum. If Woody is a toy from the 50s (When Woody’s Roundup was popular), what happened to him in the roughly four decades before Andy owned him? More importantly, why does he act as though Andy is (and always has been) his only owner? There is speculation that Woody may have belonged to Andy’s father, but this doesn’t address the second question. My theory is that maybe after 20 years or so of being abandoned, Toys lapse into some kind of dormant state where their memories reset. Then, they can imprint on another child should one come along. This is really just speculation, and seems to be refuted by Jessie and Stinky Pete’s decades of memory. But otherwise, it’s a fairly large and unexplained plot-hole.
-The film’s opening sequence (Buzz zooms through space, blasting laser-wielding robots) is awesome, and a quantum leap in complexity over the visuals of Toy Story four years earlier. The scene is revealed to be from a Buzz Lightyear video game…but the console hooked up to Andy’s TV is very clearly a Super Nintendo. That must be some impressive mod to have graphics like that.