It’s too good to be true, and yet it is: Toy Story 2 is more magical, more emotionally resonant, more hilarious, more ingeniously plotted, more all-around perfect than the brilliant original. It’s the best kind of sequel, the kind that neither repeats the original nor merely adds to it, but lovingly builds upon it and goes beyond it into narrative and emotional territory no first film could reach.
In Toy Story, the instant-classic first film from Pixar and director John Lasseter, Woody the cowboy doll (Tom Hanks) helped Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) come to terms with the fact that he’s only a toy. Now it’s Woody’s turn to have an identity crisis as he learns more about his own identity — he’s the central figure in a highly collectible 50’s-era phenomenon called "Woody’s Roundup" with vintage television episodes and numerous sidekicks — while Buzz is left to uphold the toy ethic that nothing matters more than being loved by a child. (An encounter with another Buzz toy is a hilarious reminder of just how far "our" Buzz has come.)
The plot is as tightly coiled as any story I can think of; everything relates to something else, and everything pays off, from the importance of a cowboy’s hat to Woody’s damaged arm, accidentally torn in an early scene, which is both the thematic trigger for Woody’s fears and an integral story element that figures in a number of critical scenes, including the first-act plot point that sets the story in motion.
The plot is driven by rollicking rescue-mission antics, but this toy story has even more heart than the original. Woody’s crisis and his new-found relationship with long-lost family, and a heart-rending musical flashback involving one of those characters, are richer and more poignant than the first film’s favorite-toy-status conflict.
On an emotional level, the toys’ dilemma resonates with parental empty-nest anxiety: Like parents, the toys give everything they have for a child’s sake, until the day the child needs them no more; and for many parents the prospect of being left on a shelf, or deposited somewhere to be cared for by someone else, is all too real. (On a literal level, it may be worth pointing out to kids that a young woman who, in a sad scene told from a toy’s point of view, gives away a beloved childhood plaything to charity is actually doing a kind thing that will benefit some child and even make the toy happier in the end.)
The imaginary "Woody’s Roundup" franchise is retro-fitted into its 1950s milieu with unerring nostalgic precision, from the note-perfect theme song to the inventive paraphernalia. And, where the climax of the first film gave Buzz a brief opportunity to soar through the sky like a real space ranger, Toy Story 2 ends with a brilliant, rousing homage to old Westerns that allows Woody, in his finest hour, to become a real cowboy hero.
Five years after Toy Story 2, the geniuses at Pixar may have set a new high water mark for visual beauty and sheer emotional power with Finding Nemo, while Monsters, Inc. represents a pinnacle of demented brilliance in character design. (The latter film also deliberately one-upped Toy Story 2’s gonzo climactic chase sequence, set in an airport baggage handling room and beyond, with an even more insane grand finale on a Monsterland closet-door monorail system.)
But Toy Story 2 remains Pixar’s gold standard for storytelling sophistication, and is not only their best all-around film, but one of the best films ever made, period.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.