Minutes from departing for cowboy camp, Woody (Tom Hanks) suffers a rip to his arm seam that shelves him. Up there, in the dusty recesses of Andy’s room, Woody has an existential crisis. If he is a broken toy, what value does he have? Is he to be forgotten forever? Has his time as Andy’s toy come to an end? It doesn’t help when he meets an old friend up there, Wheezy the penguin, who was shelved months ago due to a broken squeaker. Even worse, an impending yard sale is a serious threat to all and any toys who may not have been recently played with – especially when a declutter-happy mom (Laurie Metcalf) is allowed to make cuts while Andy’s still at camp.
Woody gets a little too close to the yard sale and an eagle-eyed toy collector, Al, from Al’s Toy Barn (Wayne Knight), refuses to take no for an answer. He steals Woody, to the toys’ horror. Turns out, Woody is the valuable central piece in a collector’s set of retro toys. Woody meets the other toys in the set: yodeling cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), Woody’s sidekick and noble steed, Bullseye, and the prospector, Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer). True to his nature, Woody is at first concerned with returning to Andy, but as he contemplates his fate as the broken toy of a growing boy versus the intoxication of a full restoration by Al in order to be sold to a toy collector in Japan, he can’t help but weigh his options. And his new friends have a vested interest in Woody’s sticking with them: without him to complete their set, they’ll go back into storage. Without him, they’re worthless.
I moaned on and on about how cleverly the characters were built in the last movie, and once again, I can’t help but admire what they’ve done with the new toys. Jessie wants very much to convince Woody to stay, but as a former toy herself, she remembers the heady feeling of being someone’s beloved. Pete, on the other hand, is mint in the box. He’s never been played with. Together they sow the seeds of doubt.
But if the first Toy Story was a buddy comedy of sorts, all of the films in the franchise are a testament to friendship. Woody’s friends at home once again launch a rescue mission, and it’s adorable the lengths they’ll go to in order to reunite their friend with his owner. But will Woody go?
At its heart, this film is once again more contemplative and nihilistic than your typical children’s movie. Heck, than most movies, period. Being loved by a child is the thing that gives a toy’s life meaning. But accepting that means that one day you will be rendered useless, which is worse than death. It means a brief period of being adored followed by an eternity of nothingness. But this toy museum in Japan offers Woody another option: immortality. He may not be loved by anyone, but he’ll be appreciated, not forgotten. And Jessie really drives that home with her heart breaking flashback wherein she remembers being loved, and then being abandoned. Because all children grow up, and all toys are eventually discarded.
So yeah, there are some dark ass themes in this movie, but they’re told with boldly coloured characters that make the whole thing just so gosh darned palatable. Woody is still the rootinest, tootinest cowpoke we know, but there’s an edge to him, a darkness. Woody’s been through some shit. Is there a single soul who watched this movie who didn’t, at least for a split second, experience dread over the treatment and neglect of their own childhood friends? I wager there is not.
The first Toy Story was ground-breaking in its animation, but this sequel, which came out just 4 years later in 1999, is already lightyears beyond it. They’re better at animating hair; Andy’s mom has her hair down in this film whereas she had to keep it in a ponytail during the first because of animation limitations. Everything’s gone up a notch. Bo Peep, who Andy uses as a toy, is actually a detachable porcelain figurine who belongs on his little sister’s lamp. In this movie, we can actually SEE that she’s porcelain; she has a particular sheen to her that the plastic toys do not. Pixar was motivated to keep its reputation as an innovator, so they didn’t just recycle stuff from the first film, they went in and upgraded character models, created new locations, and utilized more complicated camera shots that weren’t possible in the first. But they were careful not to let the look evolve too much from the first, wanting to keep the films looking cohesive. Perhaps their greatest technical achievement was up on that dusty shelf where a broken Woody reunites with Wheezy the Penguin. Turns out, dust motes are frustratingly complex to animate. Pixar animated 2 million of them – a major feat since this sequel was originally planned as a direct-to-video release which got bumped up at the last minute, leaving animators scrambling, and fully a third of them with some sort of repetitive strain injury (like carpel tunnel) by the time animation was complete. In a perfect world, making movies wouldn’t result in injuries, but this isn’t a perfect world. It is, however, a perfect sequel. A perfect movie, in fact. I wouldn’t dare tell anyone their injuries were “worth it” but Toy Story 2 achieves even more than its predecessor. It capitalizes on what made the first film great but it doesn’t recycle its success. The story works harder, the characters dig deeper. Though the toys are often out of their element, we are firmly in their universe, a universe that is clever and expansive and shockingly complete.
Pixar establishes itself as a studio that animates adventures that kids will love but writes stories that speak directly to the adults in the audience. It even has an erection joke that’s cloaked in Pixar’s special camouflage – obvious to adults, unnoticed by kids. That’s a rare and unique talent from a studio that keeps the boundaries on what we’ve come to expect from an animated film.