The first Toy Story was largely confined to little Andy's room and his dreaded neighbor's house. When we pick up the story in "Toy Story 2," Buzz Lightyear is in outer space where he meets his arch-nemesis, Emperor Zurg. In a cheeky opening, the rules devised by Lasseter and his Pixar staff are laid out: There are no rules.
Buzz flies through caverns, enters Zurg's stronghold, and gets defeated (gasp) by the evil Zurg! Is this the end of our hero?....Nah, it's just Rex playing the Buzz Lightyear video game and losing. It is Yard Sale Day and the toys are understandably tense. You see, Yard Sale Day means that the old toys go out to the sale. Woody has reason to be nervous, he's starting to show his age. He's got a ripped arm thanks to Andy's dog, whom we got introduced to at the end of the first Toy Story. Sure enough, one of the toy troop gets taken. Poor Weezie the Penguin was laid forgotten on Andy's bookcase and he promptly gets put in the sale box. It's up to Woody to save him, which he does. But he gets picked up by a greedy toy-collector named Al and taken to Al's Toy Barn. Seems Woody is pretty valuable and Al wants to sell him to a toy auction. Can Buzz and friends save him in time?
Ho-hum, sounds like a harmless little kid's movie, doesn't it? But remember Lassetter and the rules, or lack thereof? Well, things take quite a poignant turn.
In a magical sequence that's an homage to Howdy-Doody, Woody learns that he was part of an old 1950s children's puppet show along with some other toys from the show, the salty Prospector Pete (Kelsey Grammar), Jessie the Yodelling Cowgirl (played brilliantly by Joan Cusack), and Woody's faithful steed. As Pete tells Woody, toy collecting means immortality. Woody and his new friends will be preserved in cases for admiring eyes to faun over. Woody's days with Andy are numbered. This point is further emphasized by a heartbreaking song sung by Sarah Maclachlan that tells the story of how Jessie's owner abandoned her because, well, she grew up. Pete says, "Do you really think Andy will take you to his high school graduation or to college?" Talk about a bind. Does Woody go back to Andy and have fleeting fun or stay preserved in predictable permanence?
Meanwhile, Andy's gang have their own awakenings to paths not taken. Mr. Potato Head sees temptation incarnate in some friendly Barbies ("I'm a married spud! I'm a married spud!") and Buzz comes face to face with a new Buzz Lightyear figure....who turns out to be as self-delusional as he was. You mean, they're all like this?! And the knockout punch: Buzz faces his mortal foe, Emperor Zurg and confronts a shattering secret. Hint: Think "Star Wars."
Pixar has come a long way since the first "Toy Story." The computer animation is absolutely amazing as the toys have much more dimension and realism in the details than the original. Once again everyone is terrific, especially Cusack who injects soul in the spunky and slighted Jessie. References abound, from "2001" to "Star Wars." Plus some inside jokes concerning Toy Story's lack of merchandise production also make their way. Even a sly suggestive joke or two slips in. Hint: Watch Buzz's wings at the end.
I cannot say enough about one sequence in particular with Buzz and the gang crossing the street. Lasseter directs this scene with great skill and comic placement. I was in tears at this point, and this was a "kid's" movie!
But, as with the first one, what really got me engaged was the story, as affecting a story as I have seen live or animated. If I can make an outlandish statement, Toy Story seems to be reaching for something akin to the "Star Wars Trilogy" or even the "Godfather Trilogy." Not so much for epicness, but for how the story gets deeper and richer as it goes along. "Star Wars" was an entertaining space opera, "Empire Strikes Back" was a mythic, dark, operatic chapter in a saga. "Godfather" was an exciting and classically-influenced masterwork, "Godfather Part II" was a quiet, dark, character study that reveals Michael's moral bankruptcy and the decline of the Corleone empire.
Lasseter's plan intrigues me. With "Toy Story", the plot revolved around a buddy picture that showed the bond between an old toy and new toy, and that being a toy is the best thing in the world. This bittersweet second chapter addresses what happens after the toys aren't needed anymore. What happens now? Where will I go? Will I be loved again? I wonder if with the third, if there is one, we'll see what makes a toy timeless. What separates a Woody or Buzz from Rex the Dinosaur or Slinky the Dog? And I wonder what the ultimate fate of our friends actually is. I'm hoping they get passed on to Andy's children and his grandchildren, throughout all the generations. I wouldn't worry about Buzz and Woody, though. They're already timeless.
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