Toy Story 2
Pixar returns to the toy box
Toy Story 2
Pixar Animation Studios
Directed by John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, and Ash Brannon
USA, 1999
It's rare that you can find a sequel as good as the original. Aliens and The Empire Strikes Back are notable, and I suppose you could make a case for Die Hard 2, but that's where you start getting on shaky ground.

The trouble is that the people who make sequels know their work is always going to be compared to the original, like a kid whose older brother is a handsome brainiac football star who helps old ladies cross the street. Your best bets are to try to be completely different or follow in his footsteps—either way you're in his shadow, and you'll probably end up trying too hard.

Toy Story 2 has a lot to live up to. The original was something of a landmark: not only was it Pixar's first feature, it was the first all-CGI animated feature—a concept tested by ReBoot, but unproven on the big screen; none of the characters burst into song, which is still a rarity in North American animated features; and it appealed to kids and adults alike by assuming that kids were intelligent and adults weren't afraid of whimsy.

So how do you top that? The smartest answer would be: don't try. Aliens succeeded because it was a different kind of movie than Alien. Empire Strikes Back succeeded not by having bigger explosions and more of everything, but by expanding on the concepts laid out in Star Wars and showing the characters' growth.

Toy Story 2 mostly follows the same principle. It pits our heroes against a new nemesis—a toy dealer (voice of Wayne Knight) who steals Woody (Tom Hanks) because of his collectibility—yet its linchpin is, as always, the characters. The two main characters are of course Woody and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), but again the central character is Woody. Woody feels neglected when Andy, heading to summer camp, leaves him behind after slightly tearing his arm. He ends up falling into the hands of the collector, and Buzz leads the rescue effort.

I think what I liked best about Toy Story 2 was how it acknowledged the complexity of human (okay, toy) emotion, that protagonists' character flaws aren't just obstacles to be eradicated by the end of a film's running time. Like Toy Story, what keeps the story going is Woody's insecurity and jealousy. When he's kidnapped, he's united with other dolls that were based on the characters from a '50s TV show, of which "he" was the star. Now that they're a complete set, they'll be sold to a toy museum in Japan, and Woody tries to balance immortality behind a display case with the waning affections of Andy, who he realizes will eventually be too old for toys. It's his fear that Andy will abandon him that keeps him with his new friends, and—when Buzz finds him—leads him to question the opportunity of escape. Other examples abound, such as when Buzz encounters another Buzz Lightyear toy—we see how far he's come, but also how his pompousness and arrogance transformed into his confidence and sense of purpose.

This sort of thoughtfulness is what makes the characters come alive. After a few minutes, you forget that Woody and Buzz's voices are provided by two recognizable movie stars; you just think of them as Woody and Buzz (unlike, say, Rosie O'Donnell's Terk in Tarzan). That's what gives the movie's bittersweet closing lines their emotional heft.

So how does Toy Story 2 rate against its older sibling? Pretty well. There are a few weak spots, but that's largely because the bar was set so high with the original. I thought Randy Newman's "I Will Go Sailing No More", played over the shot of Buzz Lightyear's failed attempt at flight, was a perfect, succinct blending of music and animation to convey emotion, using a fraction of the screen time of a typical Disney show tune. So I was of course a little disappointed in Toy Story 2's only song, which ran a bit longer than it needed to. I also felt that a bit less care was taken in making sure the toys acted and moved like toys.

But it's not as if these nits will keep me from seeing it again a few times. Pixar's got three for three now; they're well on their way to building their own animation dynasty. Maybe they're aware of this as well; the movie was prefaced by Luxo, Jr., Pixar's first short film, which still holds up well after all these years and contains within it the basic tenet of their success: they use believable characters to drive entertaining stories. To paraphrase Walt Disney, they haven't forgotten that it all began with a lamp.

A Critical Eye exclusive (November 21, 1999)