Toy Story 2 (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Four years ago, the release of Toy Story forever changed the face of animated motion pictures. The astonishing, three-dimensional quality of John Lasseter's work amazed both average movie-goers and hard-to-impress critics. Now, in 1999, the toys are back. While not as innovative as the original Toy Story, Toy Story 2 is a worthy successor. The sequel picks up where the landmark original left off, and tells an enjoyable story without retreading everything that has gone before. Those who appreciated the first movie are virtually guaranteed to like the second, which represents family filmmaking at its best. All the elements that made Toy Story popular are present in this installment. Toy Story 2 makes Pixar three-for-three in the feature film arena and is sure to continue Disney's string of animated hits.

One would have to be a hopeless curmudgeon not to be entertained by Toy Story 2's remarkable visual style, quick-moving storyline, endearing characters, and witty dialogue. The balance between what has been included for kids and what's there for adults is almost perfect. There are things that children will appreciate more than their parents, but other elements will go over the heads of shorter viewers. However, the majority of what Toy Story 2 offers will delight everyone in the audience, regardless of their physical or mental age.

Reportedly, Toy Story 2 was originally slated for a direct-to-video release, but Disney eventually opted for theatrical distribution instead (all of The Magic Kingdom's recent animated sequels, including further chapters in the Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and Lion King sagas, have bypassed theaters). After viewing the final product, it's difficult for me to believe that this movie was ever intended for the ignominy of a Blockbuster premiere. Like Toy Story and A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2 has a richness of texture and detail that will be lost on smaller screens. Only in a theater is it possible to fully appreciate the benefits of computer animation, where every blade of grass, mote of dust, and hair on a dog's body has its own identity, and where the branches of a tree sway to the prompting of a gentle breeze. And, while computer animation has drawbacks (for example, the humans are saddled with an artificial appearance), those are significantly outweighed by the benefits.

This film begins an unspecified time following the happily-ever-after conclusion to Toy Story. In the aftermath of their earlier adventures, Buzz (voice of Tim Allen) and Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) are now fast friends. One day, Andy's mother decides to have a yard sale, and she collects a few old toys from her son's room. Since one of these discards is a member of the moving toy gang, Woody goes to the rescue, leaving the safety of the house for the uncertainty of the front lawn in order to bring the toy back. Although his mission is successful, he is placed in a serious predicament when a toy collector named Al (voice of Wayne Knight) spies Woody while hunting through the wares available at the sale. The cowboy toy represents the final collectible needed to complete his collection of merchandise from the old TV series, "Woody's Roundup." If he can acquire Woody, Al can ship everything to a toy museum in Japan for a huge profit. So, after Andy's mother refuses to sell the wooden cowboy, Al steals him, and it's up to the other toys, led by Buzz, to go into the city to save their friend. Meanwhile, as Buzz, Rex (voice of Wallace Shawn), Hamm (voice of John Ratzenberger), Mr. Potatohead (voice of Don Rickles), and Slinky (voice of Jim Varney), find themselves confronting things like busy streets and other Buzz Lightyear toys, Woody learns that he was once a TV celebrity and has a family - a cowgirl named Jessie (voice of Joan Cusack), a horse named Bullseye, and a father figure called the Prospector (voice of Kelsey Grammar), none of whom wants Woody to go back to Andy. The problem is, if Woody escapes from Al's clutches and returns home, they will end up back in the lonely darkness of storage.

Toy Story 2 contains some great moments. From a purely visual standpoint, few are better than the opening scenes, which show Buzz Lightyear zipping around the galaxy, ready to do battle with his Darth Vader-like nemesis, Zurg. With its ever-changing camera angles and intricately rendered detail, the sequence cannot fail to dazzle. Equally impressive are scenes where the toys attempt a "safe" crossing of a busy street (using red cones) and Buzz's visit to the "Buzz Lightyear" aisle in a Toys 'R Us-type toy store. Parodies are kept to a minimum, although there's a funny takeoff on a key element of the Star Wars series in addition to a quick, throw-away moment lifted from Jurassic Park. The movie also pokes fun at its own merchandising, even going so far as to offer a blueprint for a possible Toy Story video game.

The camerawork is more interesting here than in either Toy Story or A Bug's Life. A real effort is made to duplicate the kinds of shots obtained though live-action cinematography. The camera moves around. There are distant shots and close ups. Lighting and filters are used to establish a mood (as in Jessie's remembrance of her days when she was a beloved toy). And there are times when techniques are employed to suggest a depth of field (such as making background objects slightly blurry).

Voice casting is as good the second time around as it was the first. The principals are all back - Tom Hanks as the irrepressible Woody; Tim Allen as the heroic Buzz; Don Rickles as Mr. Potatohead; John Ratzenberger as Hamm, the piggy bank who keeps losing his change; Jim Varney as the stretchable slinky dog; and Annie Potts as Woody's flame, Bo Peep. New additions include Joan Cusack as Jessie the Cowgirl; Kelsey Grammar (who has one of the most versatile voices in the business) as Stinky Pete the Prospector; Wayne Knight as the unscrupulous toy salesman Al; and The Little Mermaid herself, Jodi Benson, as Tour Guide Barbie.

With all the elements working in perfect concert, Toy Story 2 is a lot of fun. Viewers can expect a healthy dose of fast-moving action and broadly amusing comedy. And, although the primary thrust of the narrative is not drama, there is a moment of surprisingly affecting pathos where Jessie contemplates the pain of being outgrown by her child. It's a testimony to the skill of directors John Lasseter (who went solo on the original Toy Story), Lee Unkrich, and Ash Brannon that we develop such a strong bond with a group of computer generated toys. And, while Toy Story 2 isn't quite the achievement that its predecessor represented, it is nevertheless one of the best examples of family entertainment that 1999 has offered.

Toy Story 2 (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 1999-11-24
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1