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.”
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.
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 Tor.com and will surely do so again.