Jun 13 2012 12:00pm

Love and Sacrifice: an Appreciation of Toy Story 2

Toy Story 2

It’s the rare sequel that’s as good as an original film. The first movie in a series has the novelty of new characters in a new world. Furthermore, if the first film did its job, then the characters completed satisfying story arcs, and so a lot of sequels have their protagonists relearning or unlearning the lessons they learned in the first film.

So it was surprising that for what was only their third movie, Pixar chose to make a sequel to their breakout first hit, Toy Story, and it’s impressive that Toy Story 2 not only matches the original, but actually improves upon it. And the way John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton and Co. did that was by adding complicated, emotional depths to the life of toys.

In Toy Story, mistreatment of toys happens only at the hands of uncaring mothers, dogs, and one sadistic boy next door. But Toy Story 2 states that, inevitably, every owner will outgrow and abandon their toys, and there is nothing any toy can do about it.

The emotional core of Toy Story 2 is Woody (Tom Hanks)’s story. While his friends, led by Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), attempt to rescue him from an unscrupulous toy collector, Woody is offered an alternative to facing his own mortality, preservation in a toy museum. 

Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammar) lays out the emotional conflict of the movie succinctly: “How long will it last, Woody? Do you really think Andy is going to take you to college, or on his honeymoon? Andy’s growing up, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s your choice, Woody. You can go back, or you can stay with us and last forever. You’ll be adored by children for generations.”

Toy Story 2

And while Pete, who’s still in his box, can’t speak from experience, Jessie (Joan Cusack) can. Watching your owner outgrow and abandon you is a devastating experience for a toy. In Pixar’s first (but certainly not last) heartbreaking montage, we see how alive and fulfilled Jessie is playing with her owner Emily, and how broken she is when she’s left in a box. Even if Jesse’s still in good physical condition, she is an emotional mess, terrified of being abandoned again. If Woody chooses to go back to Andy, he’s choosing to die. Painfully.

Which makes it that much more resonant that he does go back. As Buzz, and even Jessie, explain, as a toy he’s only truly alive while playing with the child he loves. Woody chooses to have a finite but meaningful life over an extended but empty one. The ending is bittersweet at best, as Woody has resigned himself that his life with Andy will end, but it will be fun while it lasts, and he’ll have Buzz Lightyear with him.

As much as seeing Toy Story 2 improves Toy Story, seeing Toy Story 3 improves Toy Story 2. In Toy Story 2, the end is an abstract point, some day in the future, and, in a sense, not real. But Toy Story 3, as Stinky Pete predicted, is the day Andy goes to college and give up his toys, and it is just as heart-wrenching as he said it would be, even with the happiest possible ending. It further reinforces the idea that Woody returned to Andy not to risk possible abandonment, but to face absolutely certain abandonment.

Toy Story 2

That said, Woody clearly makes the right choice in Toy Story 2. Pete is after all, the villain of the piece—violent, envious, and selfish, who, having never been owned, cannot understand what it’s like to love and be loved by a child, and why Woody goes back. Even Jessie leaps at the chance to be owned again, if only to again be abandoned. Because while Woody knows that someday Andy will leave him, Woody could never leave Andy.

Woody’s fears and desires, wanting to be there for the child he loves, and dreading the day the child will outgrow him, reflect the concerns of a father for his child. In many ways, Woody is Andy’s masculine role model (in place of a noticeably absent Dad). Andy dresses like a cowboy, has cowboy sheets, is off to cowboy camp. Woody is deeply invested in Andy’s happiness and success. And the two days Pete predicts Andy will outgrow Woody, going to college and going on his honeymoon, are two days when a child traditionally leaves his family. Toy Story 2 is the first Pixar film to feature the leitmotif of fatherhood, how to nurture and how to let go, which they further and more fully explored in Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, and, of course, Toy Story 3.

Thus, Toy Story 2 is also the first Pixar film that really shows off the genius of their brand. Plenty of all-ages movies have a story for the children and jokes for the adults. Pixar films have a fantastic adventure for the children, but tell stories that speak directly to the experiences of adults.

Steven Padnick has written about comics and other subjects before on and will surely do so again.

John R. Ellis
1. John R. Ellis
Thank you! After the rather out-0f-the-left-field bashing TS2 got in the Bugs Life review, I was worried about this one.

It's not a film free of flaws, but it certainly doesn't deserve to be grouped with Cars 2! *shudder*
John R. Ellis
2. dav
The moment I saw that montage was when I knew this was something different. Pixar was trying to do more and be more than what at the time was a "standard" animation studio. They had big stories to tell and I was willing to go wherever they wanted to take me.

I don't think Toy Story 2 was bashed in the Bug's Life review (it was mentioned alongside a couple of other movies, but not critisized in depth, although yes the classification did seem to come out of left field). The association with Cars seemed to position it as a second-class citizen in Pixar's filmography. I think people who love this movie are drawn to the emotional bonds you describe between Woody and Andy and Jesse and Emily. That's where the story surpassed the original.

Also, let's not discount the huge leap forward for the technology between the first movie an this one. The scope was huge, the action was more exciting, the character models were more detailed, and Gerry! The scene with Gerry and all of the close ups on Woody really show off the artistry and attention to detail.

These reviews are really getting me excited for Brave.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
3. Lisamarie
Aww, I felt all sniffly just reading this.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Sarah McLaughlin is (in my opinion) one of the most talented singers EVER.
Chuk Goodin
4. Chuk
Yes, one of the best sequels ever, and probably the very best animated movie sequel. (I have high hopes for the next Monsters, Inc. movie though.)
John R. Ellis
5. Stefan Jones
I have slightly mixed feelings about TS2.

But first off . . . it's Pixar, so Toy Story 2 is still technically head and shoulders over most anything out there. Top notch talent, always.

First time through, in the theater, I loved it.

What I found hard to take on repeated viewings was the stuff going on with Buzz and Rex and Potato Head and all the others while Woody was away. It was fun the first time through, but didn't hold up. Especially the stuff about Buzz and his "father" and the tedious video game references. (The video game bit up front seems like a commercial to me now . . .)

But oh, wow, Woody's trials and temptations in the collector's den. That was wonderful stuff. Woody's expression as he watches the old TV show, Jess and the miner and the horse delightedly meeting their old friend. The strange old toy repair man (voiced by Jonathan Harris!). Woody, fresh from rescuing Wheezie (?), realizing how tenuous his "life" and position are.

And of course Jess's bittersweet recollections. A foreshadowing of the existential crisis in Toy Story 3. That makes this film worth seeing again. (There's a wonderful bit in TS3 that I haven't seem remarked on much. When faced with abandonment, Jess has a brief freak-out. A hyperventilating PTSD moment. She remembers the horror of abandonment. Her backstory, and Woody's temptation, set up things for TS3.)
John R. Ellis
6. Steven R Boyett
Pixar didn't really want to do a sequel to Toy Story, especially after they saw the first-draft script they were sent. Disney hugely pressured them to do it as a straight-to-video. Pixar sure as hell didn't want Disney to make the sequel; it would have been as wretched as other Disney offerings at the time. It was basically a bone Pixar was throwing Disney to help secure the unprecedented production partnership between the two studios that was negotiated during the production.

The decision to release it as a feature came while I was at Pixar writing the second draft (and it bears mentioning that I never saw Lasseter there once; he was making Bug's Life).

The fact that it's a good movie (or so I hear; I won't watch it) is something of a miracle, considering Disney's extraordinary sabotage through ineptitude. Lasseter through Andy Stanton at it in the last stages, which was the best thing that could have happened to the production.
John R. Ellis
7. Steven R Boyett
Sorry; meant to write "Lasseter threw Andy Stanton at it."
John R. Ellis
8. AlBrown
Mr. Boyett's comments are the type of thing I love about It is not just fans that join the discussion, but authors and creators of the works we love who join the conversation.
Toy Story 2 held its own, and Stefan Jones has said, did us a great service by setting the stage for the wonderfully touching Toy Story 3.

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