FIVE STAR FILM: Toy Story 2 (1999)

Toy Story 2 (USA, 1999)
Directed by John Lasseter
Starring Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Kelsey Grammer

Creating a sequel to a successful and beloved film is hard enough at the best of times. It is even harder to do this when the film in question is not only groundbreaking as a children's film, but also a key pillar in the history of digital animation. In making a sequel to Toy Story, John Lasseter and his PIXAR team could neither just reproduce the same graphical quality with a different story, nor retell the same story with better production values, a la Evil Dead 2. Any sequel worth its salt would have to do both.
This in itself makes it impressive that Toy Story 2 ever got made at all; the original was such a high water mark in animation that it would not have been considered foolish if PIXAR had put up their hands and said "we can't top this". But when you take into account both the tortuous production saga before its release and the series' role as the jewel in PIXAR's crown, the idea of it being as good if not maybe better than Toy Story shifts from the impressive towards the inconceivable. But here we are, with a sequel which both improves on and compliments the first film, and which is a masterpiece of animation in its own right.
I have continually stressed in my reviews the importance of not judging a film by its reputation - whether it comes to us with a bulging entourage of awards, or dragging behind it the stench of negative press. This is, admittedly, very difficult in the internet age, where the amount of information we have to process is inversely proportional to the time which we have to process it before forming opinions. But as I stated in my review of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the context under which a film was created cannot in and of itself determine whether the film is good or bad: "arguments and constant pressure can produce great creativity, while bonhomie and relaxation can lead to disaster."
Toy Story 2 was originally conceived as a straight-to-video project. With the bulk of the company working on A Bug's Life, the film remained a small-scale side project for some time - until Disney's enthusiasm for early rushes in November 1997 led to it getting a theatrical release. What followed was an intense and back-breaking effort to not only finish A Bug's Life but to reshape and extend Toy Story 2 in time for its release in 1999. Numerous horrifying events befell the PIXAR staff as they raced to meet Disney's deadline; animators were diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome or repetitive strain injury, one animator's baby was left in the back seat of his car for a whole morning, and the film was almost lost when one employee accidentally deleted 90% of the files (fortunately, another employee had a backup).
The first thing that must be said about Toy Story 2 is that it had no right to be this great given the circumstances under which it was made. It is the animated equivalent of Apocalypse Now, in the sense of being able to pull something terrific out of what to outsiders would seem a total disaster. One could use it as an argument for quick production schedules: what Nicholas Meyer called "short order cooking", referring to his experience of rewriting Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home mere weeks ahead of shooting. But while the concept of fast production has demonstrated its benefits, this argument both supposes that this was always PIXAR's intention and implies that liking the film stems merely from admiration at its efficiency, when there is so much more to it than that.
For starters, the film's visual landscape is not only brighter but bigger in scope than the original. There's a real sense of world-building here, not just to show off the technology but to give a genuine sense of scale to the character's decisions and accomplishments. The opening sequence alone is sublime, with its deft nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey and 1950s B-movies, but every new location used is beautifully realised with distinctive colours, carefully planned geography and great lighting. This also means that the visual humour has more room to play out, such as the sequence with the traffic cones or the riff on The Empire Strikes Back in the lift.
Just like Toy Story itself, the humour and bright visuals of Toy Story 2 serve as the perfect counterpoint to a story which is, if not dark, then very melancholy. Where Toy Story took the concept of toys coming to life and brought the issue of abandonment along for the ride, this is very much a story about fear of the abandonment, ageing and obsolescence. The characters are coming to terms with their own mortality - shelf life, if you will - and have to make difficult decisions about how they should be remembered, and about who has the right to make those decisions.
In this respect, there is a comparison with the Harry Potter series, with the outlooks of Harry and Voldemort mirroring those of Woody and Stinky Pete. The latter clings to a dream of immortality; his lack of love in early life leads him to avoid at all costs the long, slow 'death' of being in a box or on a shelf, just as Voldemort's loneliness and inability to love led him to see death as a weakness and cling onto life by any means necessary..
Woody, like Harry, comes to accept his limited time on this Earth, saying that he "wouldn't miss it for the world", whatever may (or may not) be waiting for him after Andy is too old to play with him. These are deep existential questions to which the film is alluding, showing its different characters' responses as a way of exploring not just the nature of our masters but how we respond to our time and purpose in life, and who chooses that purpose. It it rare to find this level of intelligence in a children's film, and even rarer to find such issues approached so subtly through a great script.
The script also makes a good fist of 'the Buzz Lightyear issue'. The dynamic of Woody and Buzz in Toy Story worked, at least in part, because Buzz's delusion about his true nature was both funny and humanising; by the time he snapped out of it, they had become firm enough friends to hold the rest together. The problem is this: how do you replicate the stakes of the first film without simply retreading old ground? The two Buzz solution is a very neat way around it, allowing for humour while also spacing out the different parts of the action very nicely.
The voice cast in Toy Story 2 is all of the highest calibre. Buzz Lightyear remains the one bright spark in Tim Allen's largely disappointing filmography, and Tom Hanks is still the perfect match for him as Woody. Newcomers Kelsey Grammer and Joan Cusack are a great deal of fun, with the former drawing on the frustrations present in Frazier to bring a humane darkness to the character. And there's plenty of good work from John Ratzenberger, Wallace Shawn and the late Don Rickles as Hamm, Rex and Mr Potato Head respectively.
Toy Story 2 is a tremendous sequel which remains one of the finest achievements in Western animation, and may be the crowing glory of PIXAR as a studio. John Lasseter's direction is flawless, supported by a cracking cast, a beautifully written script and visuals which are gorgeous to behold. Whatever the future of the series holds, and whatever PIXAR do in the years to come, this will still stand as one of the best children's films ever, as well as one of the late-1990s' brightest gems.


For more on Kelsey Grammer, check out my WhatCulture! article on his career here.

NEXT REVIEW: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

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