Toy Story 2
Directed by John Lasseter
Written by Andrew Stanton, Rita Hsiao, Doug Chamberlain, Chris Webb, John Lasseter, Peter Docter, Ash Brannon
With the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Wayne Knight, Jodi Benson
Lightning does strikes twice, at least for John Lasseter and his team of computer artists at Pixar who have created a sequel which is just as good as its excellent predecessor. After the minor misstep of A Bug’s Life, which was merely entertaining, Toy Story 2 is an instant classic, one of the most creative and fun movies of this year.
Now that nobody can be surprised by a completely computer-generated movie (after all, we already had three), Toy Story 2 manages to easily avoid any semblance of resting on the laurels. The visuals are even more detailed and complex; the action scenes are similarly exciting; the characters are as funny as they come and yet feel perfectly realistic (for a bunch of walking and talking toys, this is no small feat). What’s more, compared to the original, the sequel possesses an inordinate amount of emotional heft: while the kids can watch it and laugh, the adults can recognize and relate to several clearly conveyed moral dilemmas, which make the movie a deeply emotional experience.
The storyline is somewhat similar to that of the first movie, albeit with a mirror twist: this time, it’s the cowboy Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) who’s missing, and it’s up for his pal Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the assorted menagerie of toys to save him. The characters include old familiar faces like Mr. Potatohead (Don Rickles), now married, Slinky Dog (Jim Varney), Rex the insecure dinosaur (Wallace Shawn), Hamm the piggybank (John Ratzenberger) and others. Eventually, they are joined by some of Woody’s old pals, cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) and Stinky Pete the Prospector (Kelsey Grammer), as well as Ms. Merchandise herself, Barbie (Jodi Benson, the original voice of the Little Mermaid).
It’s clear that the people who made this film had as much fun as the audience that watches it. The script is funny and witty, the art direction and editing are just right, and the voice actors are having the time of their lives. While the first film was stolen by Tim Allen, this one belongs mostly to Tom Hanks and Joan Cusack, who manage to make their characters both realistically flawed and empathic.
Toy Story 2 passes the test of all good movies: there’s something happening all the time, and this “something” occurs on all the levels. There’s the plot, which is complex, unexpected, and fast-paced. There’s the astonishing amount of visual invention, consistently upping the stakes. There’s the humor which ranges from the kid-level slapstick to the quite grown-up jokes to some purely adult references (there’s one line about a honeymoon which I’m surprised made its way into a G-rated picture). As a result, there’s something for everyone here: while kids can enjoy the videogame-like opening, the adults can laugh at the unexpected Also Sprach Zarathustra reference. There are also references and in-jokes a-plenty, including pokes at Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Howdy Doody, and even the merchandising hysteria surrounding Disney animated releases. The title character from Pixar’s Oscar-winning short Geri’s Game even makes a cameo appearance.
There are some problems with the narrative, to be sure; perhaps betraying its initial destination as a direct-to-tape release, some plot points seem to function more like plot devices, and the pacing is a bit off here and there. It’s also not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as the original was, and not as suspenseful.
On the other hand, Toy Story 2 includes the year’s most emotional sequence, a startling flashback, narrated by one of the toys. It seemingly comes from nowhere and it’s nothing short of stunning. Even when accompanied by an average pop song (by Sarah McLachlan), this scene is simply staggering. When a kids’ animated adventure seamlessly integrates a subtext about transiency of love, you know you are watching something remarkable.