Andy Davis is preparing to go to summer camp. He intends to bring his favorite toy – a cowboy figure named Woody. However, while playing with him, he inadvertently tears the figure. Andy’s mother tells her son to leave Woody behind out of fear of damaging him further. Woody is now highly afraid of being thrown out – a fear that has come to pass for one of his peers. Wheezy, a squeeze toy penguin, has not seen the light of day for several months upon breaking his squeaker. Andy’s mother then sets Wheezy up at a yard sale. Determined to rescue his friend, Woody leaps into action.
WARNING: The premise of this film contains spoilers for the series thus far.
Much of the conflict of the original Toy Story revolved around Woody being jealous of newcomer Buzz Lightyear. This was only exacerbated by Buzz’s own behavior, for he believed himself to be the genuine article. After receiving a rather violent reality check and a pep talk from Woody, Buzz has come to accept what he truly is, sharing the sheriff’s adoration of Andy. Since that day, the two became close friends. Buzz’s new, down-to-earth personality is evident in how he roams freely with his helmet off. Before, he would gasp for air when it was removed, believing the alien atmosphere to be unbreathable. Having realized the truth for some time by now, he is about to embark on another quest.
The plot begins in earnest when Woody makes a daring attempt to save his friend Wheezy from the yard sale. To do this, he enlists the help of his trusted steed: Andy’s puppy, Buster. This sequence has a bit of dramatic irony to it because it turns out Woody loves Andy’s new puppy – a contrast to the note upon which the previous film ended. Although he successfully retrieves Wheezy from the sale, he is quickly snatched up by a rotund toy collector. After seeing an advertisement on television, they learn that the thief is none other than Al McWhiggin, the eponymous owner of Al’s Toy Barn.
What I like about this setup is that it plays around with facets the previous film established. Al’s Toy Barn was mentioned in the commercial that informed Buzz of his identity. Although a sequel is allowed to add new elements, it’s also interesting whenever writers revisit a seemingly unimportant detail and retroactively give it meaning. In doing so, watching the original Toy Story with the foreknowledge this installment’s plot grants becomes an interesting experience.
The original Toy Story saw the thunderous debut of Buzz Lightyear, whose action figures were a hot commodity. One aisle of Al’s Toy Barn was filled to the brim with Buzz Lightyear action figures just to have a chance of meeting the high demand. As a result, a significant chunk of the narrative was dedicated to establishing Buzz Lightyear as an in-universe character. Toy Story 2 opts to go in a different direction, shedding more light on Woody’s origins. Despite being the protagonist of the first film, the viewers didn’t know much about him when the credits rolled. One could infer from watching it that he was an original creation, but this film reveals he too originated from a television show.
Woody is taken to Al’s apartment whereupon he meets three toys: a yodeling cowgirl named Jessie, her horse, Bullseye, and a prospector called Stinky Pete – the last of whom is still in his box. The reason Al was so determined to purchase Woody is because he had struck a deal with a toy museum in Tokyo. They intend to pay him a handsome sum for the four figures – but only if the collection is complete. Woody, Jessie, Bullseye, and Stinky Pete were all characters from a 1950s-era television puppet show dubbed Woody’s Roundup. Having no knowledge of his own origin, Woody is intrigued by the show, and is subsequently dismayed when he learns it had been canceled in the middle of a cliffhanger.
In Toy Story, Woody feared he was being replaced by Buzz. Although it turns out his fears were misplaced, a similar scenario occurred many decades prior. The launch of Sputnik in 1959 marked the beginning of the space race. With the idea of space exploration enrapturing a generation, the Western began falling out of favor and science fiction quickly gained popularity in its stead. Children slowly began losing interest in the Old West and began looking to the future – space toys were suddenly in vogue. Because of these factors, the toys based on Woody’s Roundup were discontinued, eventually making them valuable collectors’ items. Indeed, Woody is actually a family heirloom, thus explaining how Andy was able to obtain him despite not having been born when Woody’s Roundup originally aired.
Part of what made Toy Story such a great film is that it operated on a high concept, yet didn’t weigh the narrative down with needless exposition. The world Pixar crafted was minimalistic, yet intriguing. What allows Toy Story 2 to work as a sequel to such a film? The answer is simple. Where the writers go isn’t exactly what one would consider a deconstruction, but rather acknowledging the universe’s underlying implications and exploring them. After failing to escape, Woody learns from Jessie that she once belonged to a girl named Emily. She adored her owner, but Emily eventually outgrew her. This culminated in her being donated. Stinky Pete points out that Andy too will grow up, subjecting Woody to Jessie’s fate. However, by going to the museum, they will all be immortalized.
Representative of the kind of toy that replaced the ones based off of Woody’s Roundup, Buzz has an interesting arc throughout this film. He begins the film much wiser than he was at the beginning of Toy Story. To showcase the sheer amount of character growth he had undergone, the narrative saw fit to confront him with his past. He leads a brigade consisting of Hamm, Mr. Potato Head, Slinky, and Rex to Al’s Toy Barn. There, he happens upon the Buzz Lightyear aisle, and is almost immediately imprisoned by a new model bearing a utility belt. Utility Belt Buzz, just like Andy’s Buzz, mistakenly believes himself to be the real Buzz Lightyear. Their first interactions are highly humorous, with Andy’s Buzz now fully understanding Woody’s exasperation from the previous film. Appropriately, he soon finds himself playing the opposite role in this film.
The toy brigade and Buzz eventually break into Al’s apartment only to be horrified when they learn Woody intends to travel to the museum in Tokyo. After Woody convinced Buzz that he could make Andy happy as a toy rather than as a space ranger, Buzz now feels compelled to remind Woody what he told him. He couldn’t possibly be adored in a museum; the visitors would only silently observe them. Nonetheless, Woody rebuffs Buzz, partially out of sympathy for Jessie, and the toys leave. He then changes his mind when he sees a boy playing with a Woody figure at the end of a Woody’s Roundup episode. He convinces Jessie and Bullseye to come with him, but when he moves Stinky Pete’s box, he discovers it to be empty. When they weren’t looking, the prospector sealed the vent plate the toys used to infiltrate Al’s apartment.
As one of the main antagonists of this film, Stinky Pete is an interesting contrast with Sid Phillips. Sid was an ordinary, if highly obnoxious teenager, but he was only malicious from the toys’ perspective. To the toys he frequently destroyed or mutilated, he was a coldblooded serial killer, but most humans considered him, at worst, a nuisance. Once Woody and the chimeras Sid crafted scared him straight, he no longer posed a threat. In fact, it’s a little difficult to have considered him the main antagonist when a majority of the conflict stemmed from Woody and Buzz’s interactions. He was doubtlessly a significant obstacle they had to overcome in order to conclude their respective arcs, but once he no longer served a purpose, he fell out of the story entirely. While Sid was intended to show how dangerous certain humans are to toys, Stinky Pete makes the case that the latter aren’t all saints. They, at the end of the day, share both the positive and negative traits of humanity. Although Woody and Buzz were able to overcome their shortcomings and become better people as a result, Stinky Pete is hopelessly trapped by his own flaws.
He also serves as a foil to the primary human antagonist, Al. The toy store owner is a man driven by avarice whereas the prospector’s motivations stem entirely from envy. The character Stinky Pete was modeled after proved significantly less popular than Woody, Jessie, or Bullseye. He had to watch every other toy get sold while he remained on the shelf. It’s telling that while Al had to steal Woody to complete his collection, he got a Stinky Pete figure still in his box without any problems whatsoever. Having gone his entire life unloved and unwanted, he feels his peers should share the pain.
Realizing Woody is in trouble, Andy’s toys chase Al to the airport. They free Woody and Bullseye from Al’s suitcase and give Stinky Pete his just desserts by placing him in a girl’s backpack – one who is especially fond of face painting, no less. After a climactic chase in which they save Jessie from the plane, all of them return to Andy’s house. Woody does realize Andy will outgrow them one day, but accepts that making a child happy is more important than wasting away in a museum. With its final sequences, the narrative makes the case that good times never last, but it’s better than having never experienced them at all.
Given how much of an enduring classic Toy Story 2 has proven to be, it’s incredible to think that the only reason it managed to hit theaters is due to sheer, dumb luck. The project was originally conceived as one of Disney’s many direct-to-video sequels they released throughout the 1990s. As per Apple CEO Steve Jobs’s decision, it was to be handled by a smaller team within Pixar that had worked on the video game adaptations while the core members worked on A Bug’s Life. The project came dangerously close to being stopped dead in its tracks when one of the animators inadvertently deleted the root folder of the film’s assets from the company servers while clearing unnecessary files. Oren Jacob, an associate technical director, discovered to his horror that all but 10% of two years’ worth of work was gone. To make matters worse, what backups were found failed to restore the project. Fortunately for everyone involved, Galyn Susman, a technical director who happened to be working from home at the time, had backups of the assets on her own computer. The team was then able to restore the project, only missing what they accomplished within the last few days. How was she allowed to work from home? The answer is simple: she had given birth to a child and naturally wanted to take care of him. For want of this unrelated event, the film would never have been made.
However, even with the project narrowly salvaged, many of the staff members were dissatisfied about their work – including John Lasseter. When they presented what they had completed to Disney, the reaction could only be described as a mixture of joy and dread. The joy emanated from Disney themselves, for they liked their work enough to give it a theatrical run. This, in turn, planted the seeds of dread within Pixar. They expressed the desire to scrap their work, yet Disney stood firm, pointing out that they didn’t have nearly enough time to remake the film from scratch in the nine months before the rapidly approaching November 1999 release date.
The reason this is all important to know is because, when you get right down to it, examining the production of Toy Story 2 reads more like the backstory of a legendarily awful disaster such as Harold P. Warren’s “Manos” The Hands of Fate. It seemed equally unlikely that a film being produced at the behest of executives when the team itself had little faith in the project would turn out to be anything other than the studio’s death knell. Absolutely none of this reflects in the final product, for it is one of the greatest films of the 1990s. In a way, it is to the medium of animation what Apocalypse Now was to live-action films, being a stellar product of a tumultuous production cycle.
Just like its predecessor, Toy Story 2 is the kind of film I could recommend to anyone. Kids will love it for its humor while adults will appreciate the subtle nuances that went into its writing. Toy Story 2 may have started out as a direct-to-video sequel helmed by the company’s B team, but it ended up being so much more. It used its unique premise as a springboard to explore new ideas rather than attempt to recreate what made the first film so good. Anyone who wants to make a sequel to a well-received work needs to follow the example set by Toy Story 2. A token sequel can placate fans for but a fleeting moment; a thoughtful sequel such as Toy Story 2 stands the test of time alongside its predecessor.
Final Score: 9/10