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“For Infinity… and Beyond…”: In Praise of “Toy Story 2” as the Perfect Sequel…

Ranking films is often a fool’s errand.

I make this argument with no small amount of hypocrisy. Most obviously, I co-host a weekly podcast called The 250, which is dedicated to exploring the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. Even beyond that, I am guilty of participating in that periodic pleasure of pundits everywhere; the top ten… or forty… or fifty. At the end of every year, I produce a list of my favourite films of the year, whether on the Scannain podcast, on my personal Twitter, or even occasionally on this blog. In my defense, I rationalise that through a desire to draw attention to good films, and accept we can quibble on the order of said film.

At the same time, these lists can often be illuminating in terms of contextualising affection for a particular film, or for gauging the general mood. So when a film appears on a single list, it might be worth checking out if you trust the author. If it appears on multiple lists, it is probably a much stronger recommendation. (The Scannain annual top ten is an eclectic list, but it disparate viewpoints often settle on at least one consensus pick: You Were Never Really Here, Moonlight, Hell or High Water.) It helps to set a level of a particular film’s relative appeal and popularity.

By that measure, Toy Story 2 is generally considered the weakest film its franchise. At time of writing, Toy Story, Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4 all feature on the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. Toy Story 2 is the lowest ranked entry in the franchise on lists compiled by Variety, Business Insider and The Ringer. It is the ranked as the weakest of the original trilogy on lists compiled by Slant Magazine, Collider and Polygon. None of this amounts to anything that can quantifiably be described as a “backlash.” After all, to be the worst Toy Story movie, a film still has to be pretty good.

However, there is a sense in which Toy Story 2 gets overlooked. There are any number of structural reasons for that. The middle part of a trilogy, picking up immediately after Toy Story but without offering the resolution expected of Toy Story 3, the film is neither a beginning nor an end. It is not an introduction to these characters, and it does not really function as a farewell either. More than that, the film may also be somewhat tarnished by its production history, originally mooted as a straight-to-video release before entering an insanely fast turnaround as a theatrical feature; it is partly why Disney owns Pixar.

Still, this tends to look past what makes Toy Story 2 such a delight. It is in many ways the perfect sequel.

From the outset, Toy Story 2 seems designed to emphasise how far Pixar had come since the original Toy Story. The opening sequence features Buzz leading a high-stakes mission to confront Emperor Zurg on his hidden base. It’s an effective cold open on its own terms. From the outset, it has the feel of an episodic standalone adventure, recalling the opening sequences of pulpy delights like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Goldfinger. It is designed to reintroduce the audience to this character, but also as a fantastically choreographed action sequence in its own right.

On a purely technical level, it seems to exist primarily to demonstrate how radically computer-generated effects had developed in the four years since Toy Story. Of course, Toy Story is so well designed that it still looks great, but there is a world of difference in the animation quality between Toy Story and Toy Story 2. The opening sequence in Toy Story 2 makes a point to showcase these advances; the detailed floating asteroids using realistic physics and textures, the contours of the reflection inside Buzz’s helmet, the shine off the countless robots-literally-upon-robots in the crater. It is dazzling, even now.

As with everything that Pixar does, function is wedded to form. The original Toy Story focused on the toys because plastic textures were easier to simulate than human skin, and so the story was built around Woody and Buzz rather than Andy. In hindsight, it is impossible to imagine it any other way, but it still seems strange to think of a blockbuster children’s film that actually marginalises its central child character. In narrative terms, the cold open to Toy Story 2 sets the tone for Buzz’s adventures later in the film; a variety of ridiculously heightened action setpieces with an emphasis on ironic comedy and slapstick.

However, it isn’t just the visuals that have improved dramatically between Toy Story and Toy Story 2. Like any good sequel, Toy Story 2 is designed to emphasise how far the individual characters have come since the first film, illustrating that the journeys that Woody and Buzz undertook in the original Toy Story were more than just stock storytelling formulae. Toy Story 2 starts from the perspective that both Woody and Buzz have been fundamentally changed by their experiences together, rather than forcing them to endure the same arcs over and over again.

This is immediately obvious with Woody. As with Toy Story, Woody is still very attached to Andy. As with Toy Story, Woody is perhaps a little too comfortable in his status as Andy’s “favourite.” In Toy Story 2, Woody is excited to be heading to “cowboy camp” with Andy. However, as in Toy Story, this doesn’t go to plan. Andy accidentally rips Woody, and ends up heading to cowboy camp without his favourite toy. In Toy Story, Andy’s decision to abandon Woody in favour of Buzz prompted a fit of jealousy and rage. While Woody is clearly dejected in Toy Story 2, he handles his disappointment in a much more mature fashion.

More than that, the opening scenes of Toy Story 2 effectively play out the plot of Toy Story in miniature. When the beloved penguin “Wheezy” is taken from the room to be sold in a garden sale, Woody stages a one-man rescue mission. Woody’s rescue mission is similar to his inadvertent quest to get Buzz back into Andy’s arms in the original Toy Story, but handled much quicker and much more efficiently. The sequence demonstrates that Woody has matured a great deal. His rescue of Wheezy in Toy Story 2 is much more selfless and much less opportunistic than his rescue of Buzz in Toy Story, demonstrating how far he has come.

In contrast, Toy Story 2 devotes more time and effort to showcasing how Buzz Lightyear has grown and developed since his arrival in Andy’s room in Toy Story. Most obviously, Buzz steps into a leadership role with the toys in Woody’s absence, taking a crack team to recover the wayward cowboy from the clutches of a sinister chicken-suited collector. More than that, the film goes out of its way to contrast Buzz with a fresher out-of-the-box equivalent. Arriving in a toy store, Buzz is confronted with a counterpart who behaves much as he did in the original Toy Story, convinced that he is a space ranger on an important mission.

The later Toy Story films struggle a bit with Buzz’s characterisation, as if trying to reset the hero’s development back to his earliest development. Toy Story 3 has Lotso and company resetting Buzz back to “factory settings” so that they can trick him into serving as warden of their prison camp. Naturally, he eventually gets better. Toy Story 4 does not literalise this approach to Buzz’s character, but it does present him as somewhat more naive and literal-minded than the end of Toy Story would suggest, giving him a strange subplot about listening to his “inner voice.”

In contrast, the use of the factory-setting Buzz in Toy Story 2 provides an effective illustration of how far Buzz has come. Dealing with his counterpart’s pig-headed zeal, the veteran Buzz sighs to himself (and the audience), “Please tell me I was never this deluded.” There is a sense in which the dueling Buzz Lightyear toys allow the Pixar staff to have their cake and eat it in a manner much more effective than Toy Story 3 or Toy Story 4. It allows Toy Story 2 to indulge in some of the classic characterisation of Buzz from Toy Story while still underscoring how far he has come since.

Buzz’s rescue mission provides a playful counterbalance to the film’s darker more existential underpinnings. The journey from Andy’s room to Al’s toy barn is largely an excuse for the Pixar animators to cycle through a variety of film references, including Jurassic Park and Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. These references come quickly and breezily enough that they never feel indulgent. Indeed, the rescue mission is a series of largely episodic setpieces that stand well enough on their own that they maintain an endearing momentum.

However, the rescue mission is not the glue that holds the movie together. Instead, it provides a lighthearted counterbalance to the emotional heart of the story, which rests on Woody’s encounter with Jesse and Stinky Pete after Al abducts him from the yard sale. Pixar movies are now best known for their willingness to grapple with big existential themes, particularly the inevitability of death and decay. Many of the best and most evocative Pixar movies grapple with the idea of change and development, of moving beyond an established status quo; Wall-E, Up, Inside Out.

These themes were there from the beginning. They appeared in Toy Story, with much of the movie hinging on Buzz coming to terms with the fact that he is “a child’s play thing”, a mass-produced figurine crafted in the image of a space ranger who doesn’t exist. In fact, the climax of Toy Story finds both Woody and Buzz trapped in Sid’s room. Woody is imprisoned in a literal cage, an upside-down box. Buzz is trapped by his own melancholy and insecurity, a rocket strapped to his back. Buzz could save himself at any point, if only he could find the strength within himself.

At the same time, there was a sense that Pixar hadn’t yet honed in on the internal thematic logic that would come to distinguish a lot of their output from that of their competitors. In particular, the existential crises at the end of Toy Story have relatively upbeat endings. Woody is insecure about Buzz’s arrival, worried that Andy will abandon him in favour of a new toy. However, the ending of Toy Story suggests that there is room enough in Andy’s heart for both Buzz and Woody. Similarly, Buzz eventually comes to accept the fulfillment that comes from being a toy. (Toy Story 2 is rooted in Buzz’s acceptance of that.)

In contrast, the thematic underpinnings of Toy Story 2 are much more melancholy. The film accepts as a given that Andy will not keep Woody forever. This is a simple fact. That day might not be today or tomorrow, but Toy Story 2 acknowledges that the day will come. Jesse has lived through that day, and is clearly traumatised by it. (In Toy Story 4, Jesse still suffers from claustrophobia when packed in a tightly-confined space, a reminder that she is not quite over that abandonment.)

Jesse’s extended flashback to her time with Emily, set to When She Loved Me by Sarah Maclachlan, remains a highlight in the Pixar canon. That sequence is perhaps Pixar’s first big tear-jerking moment, setting up similar narrative beats in Wall-E, Up, Toy Story 3, and Inside Out. It’s a fine illustration of the sort of economical and emotive storytelling that elevated the studio, and is quite distinct from anything in the previous two films. Indeed, many of the company’s most effective moments owe a lot to that simple dialogue-light sequence, which is anchored in the idea that the love of a child can only ever be temporary.

Indeed, like any good middle installment, Toy Story 2 (however inadvertently) has its eye on the future as much as the past. At the climax of the story, Woody is confronted by the embittered old toy named Stinky Pete, the prospector who has come to resent the future. Like Woody, Pete was embittered by the arrival of space-age toys in the late fifties and sixties, and grew up without the love of a child to guide him. Pete provides a template for both Lotso in Toy Story 3 and for Gabby in Toy Story 4.

More than that, his dialogue explicitly establishes the premise of Toy Story 3. “How long will it last, Woody?” Pete asks. “Do you really think Andy is going to take you to college or on his honeymoon?” Tellingly, Andy’s journey to college is a major part of Toy Story 3. Ironically, Andy considers taking Woody, but leaving all the other toys. During the climax, Pete taunts the toys, “Idiots! Children destroy toys! You’ll all be ruined, forgotten! Spending eternity rotting in some landfill!” Again, the climax of Toy Story 3 proves Pete right to an extent. The toys do end up in landfill, abandoned and unloved.

It’s a bleak, depressing premise – especially in the context of a children’s film. Toy Story 2 argues that all love is temporary and disposable, that people inevitably outgrow their relationships and their attachments. No matter how much Woody loves Andy, Andy will always outgrow him. Andy will always move beyond Woody. However a viewer chooses to interpret this metaphor – whether as a child outgrowing their parent, or a romantic partner outgrowing their lover – it’s a bleak existential truth. Toy Story 2 never shies away from it. It never qualifies it. Woody never argues that Pete is wrong and that Andy will always love him.

Because Woody knows that this is not true. The beauty of Toy Story 2 lies in its maturity, in forcing the toys to confront this reality and having them accept it. Toy Story 2 contends that Woody’s love of Andy is not in anyway diminished by the fact that Andy will grow beyond him. More than that, Andy’s love of Woody is in no way diminished by the fact that it is temporary. It is still love, and it still have worth. It is a powerful theme, with a great deal more nuance than the standard internal logic of most children’s films. Everything expires, everything dies; but that does not mean that everything is meaningless. Quite the opposite.

Toy Story 2 makes this point by tempting Woody with immortality. Woody finds himself in the home of a collector – “no children allowed!” – and finds a shrine built to his honour. Everything is perfectly preserved from the old record player to the classic puppet show that inspired his creation. Woody finds himself staring at monuments build with his own face and watching himself on a big screen. Stinky Pete points out that Woody could live forever like this, in a glass case closed off from the world. He would never be truly loved and he would never truly live, but he could be preserved. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t it tempting?

Toy Story 2 rejects this idea, with Woody effectively accepting that Andy’s love is worth all the inevitable pain that comes with it, that the inevitable abandonment is a simple fact of life. Woody could remain trapped inside a confined space like Stinky Pete, whether literally or metaphorically wrapped in plastic and cardboard, but that would be meaningless. Toy Story 2 assigns value to love in spite of (and maybe even because of) its temporality. There is something very beautiful in that, and it’s a straight line from that to concepts like the opening montage of Up or the character on Bing-Bong in Inside Out.

As befits a sequel, Toy Story 2 effortlessly ties all of that back into Toy Story. There’s a healthy portion of recycled dialogue, but delivered in interesting new contexts. Coming to bring Woody home, Buzz illustrates both how much he has grown and how universal the themes of the original Toy Story are. “Woody, you’re not a collector’s item,” Buzz advises his old friend, echoing an earlier exchange in Toy Story. “You’re a child’s plaything. You are a toy!” (Woody returns the favour when Pete sarcastically refers to Buzz as “Buzz Lightweight.” Woody used similar nicknames in Toy Story, but corrects Pete in Toy Story 2.)

Toy Story 2 is an incredible piece of work. It’s strange to think of a Pixar film – and especially a Toy Story film – as overlooked, but Toy Story 2 arguably is. It’s beautiful, funny, immaculately constructed and beartbreakingly mature. It is all the things that make Pixar such a distinct production house, all rolled into one package. It’s a movie for infinity. And beyond.

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One Response

  1. Absolutely-it builds on the original in the best way possible, while striking just the right tonal balances. This is one of Pixar’s very best-up there with The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and Ratatouille. Despite that, it’s generally been forgotten.

    And while we’re on the subject of ranking things-The Toy Story Films ranked: 2>3>4>1.

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