To Infinity...And Beyond!
Pixar makes amazing leaps with Toy Story 2, creating a sequel which surpasses the original in almost every way. The animation, the action figures, and the themes have all evolved since the first Toy Story, while new characters like evil Emperor Zurg and sleazy toy store owner Al create new complications for Woody and Buzz Lightyear. This isn't a nice domestic toy story; it's a grand epic, yet it doesn't feel overblown. It's like discovering that the new model of your favorite old toy actually is worth trading for.
The last film centered on Woody teaching Buzz that he's not a hero, only a toy. That turned out to be a good thing because it meant that he could be loved. This follow-up gives Woody a mid-life crisis centered on that same issue. When owner Andy leaves his slightly damaged action figure home from camp, Woody has nightmares about being discarded or being sold at a dreaded yard sale. After he's stolen instead by the nefarious collector who owns Al's Toy Barn and discovers that he's a collector's item, the cowboy figure realizes that unlike Buzz, he really may be a rare treasure - one of the only remaining dolls from a set created around an early Western marionette television show.
It's quite a dilemma for the unpretentious Woody, who normally reminds other toys to take turns at the top of the toy chest. United with yodeling cowgirl Jessie, trusty steed Bullseye, and mint-in-the-box Prospector Stinky Pete - along with a collection of Woody records, lunchboxes, and memorabilia beyond Buzz Lightyear's wildest dreams - the cowboy feels drawn to his own legend. When he recalls Andy's recent neglect and hears Jessie's sorrowful tale of being given up for donation with other used toys, he begins to consider a life as the centerpiece of a collection at a museum in Tokyo where Al intends to sell him for big bucks.
Though Woody misses his beloved Andy, Stinky Pete reminds him that a toy's heyday is fleeting. "How long will it last, Woody?," the prospector inquires. "Do you really think Andy is going to take you to college? Or on his honeymoon?" In a museum, with the prospect of being admired by children for generations, Woody thinks he will find peace. "Who am I to break up the roundup gang?" he asks.
Of course, Woody's friends back home don't suspect his change of heart. They mount a courageous rescue, tracking down the address of Al's Toy Barn by watching commercials until they spy "the chicken man." Then, sneaking downtown, they cause major accidents by hiding under traffic cones to cross the highway. Unfortunately, they have no way of knowing that Woody is being held in Al's 23rd floor penthouse, so instead they sneak into the toy store.
There, Buzz is confronted with evil Emperor Zurg...but worse, a newer Buzz Lightyear with a utility belt apprehends him. Trapping Andy's Buzz in a discarded toy box, Buzz 2 heads off with Rex, Hamm, Slinky, and Mr. Potato Head, who struggle with distractions like flirtatious Barbies and popping money plugs. The friends don't notice Buzz 2's diminished sense of humor until the original manages a daring escape from packaging to rejoin the rescue. Regrettably, none of the group knows that during Buzz's escape from the store while the other toys hid in Al's bag, an evil Emperor Zurg action figure got activated.
Meanwhile, Woody is being pampered and cleaned by a man who looks suspiciously like the chess player from Pixar's short Geri's Game (paired for release with Bug's Life the way Jr., the story of the little lamp in the Pixar logo, is shown at the beginning of Toy Story 2 and makes a cameo in the longer film). Andy's name is painted off the cowboy's foot, and when his friends arrive to "save" him, the action figure admits he doesn't want to go back. Buzz has to deal with a Woody who fears obsolescence, and he's forced to remind the cowboy how important it is to be loved by a kid. "You are a child's plaything! YOU ARE A TOY!" the space hero reminds his friend. Hearing himself singing "You've Got A Friend In Me" on a videotape of his own TV show, Woody rethinks his priorities.
From there, the events get rather zany, incorporating some acrobatics in an elevator shaft and a daring trip through an airport luggage system. It's all a little over the top. In the first film, none of the toys had super-powers that they weren't designed with, whereas in this film the characters can do almost anything as long as humans aren't watching. But it doesn't particularly detract from our emotional involvement with the characters, and the visuals are stunning.
There's also more violence, particularly when a ball-shooting Zurg encounters Buzz and the gang, but all turns out fine in the end. Zurg's voice sounds uncannily like Darth Vader's, and he breathes just as heavily. There are references to other science fiction films, such as a device in Zurg's video-game fortress which plays a segment of the Strauss theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Al's toy store even markets Pixar's own Bug's Life toys.
The animation is terrific, even better than the last film, though the video-game opening looks like a shameless plug for the Game Boy version that's already available. Some scenes have richer 3-D graphics than others, so the spots which look sparse - like Woody's awakening in a glass case in the collector's household - stand out unfavorably, while superb work like the toy store chase get taken for granted.
The voices are superb, particularly Tim Allen's subtlety playing two different Buzz Lightyears at once. Joan Cusack does a lovely job during Jessie's melancholy moments, but her exuberance at meeting Woody is annoying. The most memorable voice is Zurg's, but that's because he has the most memorable line in the film - a Star Wars joke that brought sustained applause from a preview audience.
Like Disney's Aladdin, Toy Story 2 is full of self-referential jokes and postmodern concepts, which is ironic considering that fear of obsolescence in the face of modern progress is an ongoing theme. Stinky Pete tells Woody that his marionette TV show lost out to Sputnik and space fever, ruining the market for Westerns. "I know how that feels," Woody says, identifying with space toys taking over. Yet while he's engrossed in reruns of his own series made possible by the wonder of videotape, Buzz and the others frantically switch channels via remote looking for an address in an advertisement for Al's Toy Barn.
Buzz 1 may be able to defeat Buzz 2 with his improved utility belt, but they're no match for that technological wonder, pellet-shooting Emperor Zurg. Fortunately, Rex wastes time in the toy store reading up on how to defeat Zurg in the video game, and is able to use that knowledge in "real life," even though the dinosaur complains that it's extortion for game companies to make you buy the book before you can win the game. The conflicts are all played out with great humor, and nostalgia wins in the end, though I'm not sure how children will apply the lesson that toys should stay with their owners for as long as possible. It may lead to a refusal to donate old toys to charity for fear of insulting them, and it will surely lead to the belief that all the toys in any given set must be purchased and kept together.
There are other disturbing aspects to the film. For me the biggest was the uncritical demonstration that "girl toys" are for losers, a carry-over from the first movie where Sid's sister's dolls were vilified. Cowgirl Jessie's spunky at first, but she spends more time sobbing about her fate than taking action to change it. She's also portrayed as a tomboy's toy, outgrown for girly-girl activities like nail polish and Beatle-worship.
But at least that took place decades ago. In the present, Andy makes his toys enact a very stereotypical scene where Bo Peep must be rescued by Woody, which is later replayed when Jessie has to be saved from shipment to Japan by an all-male group of toys. Mrs. Potato Head is only good for packing Mr. Potato Head's "angry eyes." The Barbies, like their equivalents in Small Soldiers, are typical bimbos. Toy Story 2 shows how little things have changed since the 1950s for girls, toy-wise. Not only do we need better ones, but also the relentless marketing of "boy" toys and "girl" toys may end up working against this movie's tie-in saleability.
The characterization of nasty Al is a little strange too, considering that a significant percentage of toys are sold to adult collectors. Al's a fat, unwashed, Cheese Curl-eating sleaze who has a "No Children Allowed" sign on his office. His interest in toys ostensibly stems purely from greed, but it's hard to believe that a grown man kept a Woody shrine without some affection for the characters and the show, especially with a missing central action figure. The dire warnings that Andy will outgrow his toys carry the corollary expectation that Andy should outgrow them.
Much as I enjoyed this film, I guess I shall not be buying an extra Happy Meal for myself when the tie-ins come out, because I do not want to be thought of as a loser who enjoys Buzz Lightyear action figures when I'm too old to love them properly. Then again, I certainly wouldn't buy any sucky girl toys. Maybe I should stick to the only real competition around - Pokémon, which has vastly inferior animation and even worse sexual politics. In spite of its drawbacks, I'd rather see Toy Story 2 again.