Toy Story 2 (1999)

Bigger and stronger too, maybe

One of my foundational cinematic beliefs that all three movies in the “Andy Trilogy” are 5-star, Tour De Good masterpieces. They are also each flawed in different but striking ways. As with my review of Toy Story 1, I’m presenting my thoughts in a loose, disorganized collection.

What I love about Toy Story 2:

  • Woody’s arc. The first Toy Story was a Buzz-Woody duet, but Toy Story 2 is Woody’s show, with Buzz relegated to supporting player. This would be a problem, except Woody’s arc in this movie remains my single favorite character arc in any Pixar movie. Sure, he knows he’s a toy, and he knows that that’s good, but what does it mean to be a toy? The notion of the messy and frail child-toy bond is questioned, and a chance at impersonal immortality offered in its stead. Woody’s resistant at first, but the turning point is Jessie’s story of a kid growing up and leaving toys behind (more on this in a sec)… And won’t Andy surely do the same, in a few years? Miraculously, the movie presents this dilemma in morally complex and ambiguous terms, and it becomes a cipher for any number of life challenges that require similar nuance — career vs. family time; sentimental idealism vs. cynical pragmatism; a parent’s service of their own needs vs. their child’s, etc. And when Woody chooses mortal Andy over immortal Japan, it feels right on powerful, deeply earned, spiritual journey levels. Our humanity is affirmed.

  • “When Somebody Loved Me.” One of Pixar’s most important and defining moments — the first time they showed they knew how to activate the waterworks. And it remains one of Pixar’s most moving moments. Everything about the sequence is perfect, from Sarah Mclachlan’s heart-tugging vocal performance, to the way Jessie’s story echoes moments we’ve seen in Woody’s life, to the evocative recurring image of the tree swing as a symbol of waning innocence. It articulates all of the existential fears of obsolescence and mortality and loneliness we humans struggle with on a spiritual level, day in day out, all our aging lives.
  • Woody’s Roundup. The cowboy vs. spaceman-as-proxy-for-midcentury-America’s-soul theme is expanded here as we get a loving creation of in-universe show that show’s Woody’s roots reflecting a Norman Rockwell-type of American suburban, nostalgic innocence, only to be curdled into something darker during the Cold War. Profound stuff for a kids movie.
  • The new characters and voice actors. While Tim Allen’s performance as Buzz is much less dynamic than in Toy Story 1, the introduction of Joan Cusack’s Jessie and Kelsey Grammer’s Prospector Pete more than make up for it. They add spark and color to the ensemble, Grammer’s clear baritone a treat especially.
  • The mirrored inversions of the original. So many lines or moments from Toy Story 2 call back to the original in some profound or funny way, big or small. My favorite might be Buzz telling Woody “you are a toy!” in a 100% different context from Woody telling Buzz the same last movie, or maybe the recreation of the iconic reveal of Woody seeing Buzz for the first time in Toy Story 1 with Buzz seeing his clone for the first time here. But there are a lot of callbacks, both in micro and in macro. Woody rescues Buzz in the first; Buzz rescues Woody in the second. Buzz needs convincing of service to Andy in the first; Woody does in the second. Etc. etc. etc.


  • The CGI. It’s so much better than the animation in Toy Story 1, it’s tough to even know where to start: The set pieces are miles better, the uncanny valley moments are essentially eliminated, the camera is more adventurous, the expressiveness of the models and settings much higher, the lighting more naturalistic, etc. etc. The humans are still a bit alien, but they’re far better than the silicone dolls of the original.
  • The mastery of physical space. While Toy Story 2 is pretty simple on narrative fundamentals — basic rescue story stuff — it requires tracking where lots of characters are at any given time, and the film makes it easy for us to easily follow the various threads in parallel (then, eventually, in a collision).
  • The jokes. Not every joke lands, and the writing isn’t as taut or playfully nasty as Toy Story 1, but there are still a LOT of funny gags, from space wings as an erection gag to the escalating hilarity of the repeated line “we are eternally grateful.”
  • The expansion of the Toy Story universe feels just right. We learn Woody’s origin, we meet Zurg, and we see new corners of toy existence.
  • The twist villain.┬áIt’s a trope I tend to enjoy more than I probably should, in general, but this is one that works particularly well for me. (The only one in Disney’s oeuvre I’d put above it in effectiveness is Monsters, Inc.) Prospector Pete’s Machiavellian heel turn highlights the false purity of the institution Woody nearly surrendered himself to, but also resentment personified.
  • The remarkable production story. They wrote and made this all in, like, 9 months? Staggering.

And a few things I’m slightly less enchanted by:

  • Distorted human stakes. Although the scenes are terrifically-constructed on a technical and comic level, the moments when the toys mess up traffic and drive full-on motor vehicles feel out of place in the Toy Story universe. Toys “live” on the fringes of human perception, just out of sight, so seeing them have major real-world impacts is jarring. It really bugs me.
  • Too much pop culture wackiness. I’ve heard the complaint that this movie is too referential to other pop culture totems. I can buy it — the Jurassic Park shot and Star Wars “I am your father” gags are a bit corny. The Barbie stuff is overdone, too. But I don’t hate it the way that most do. Every Toy Story has buckets of genre pastiche and cultural references, so crucifying Toy Story 2 for that is missing a key storytelling pattern of the series, I think, even if it doesn’t land as well as in parts 1 or 3, and it comes in broad buckets of references.
  • The movie’s opening and closing set pieces. The film opens with a simulated video game and closes with a chase in an airport luggage line. They’re fun to watch, but feel emotionally disconnected from the rest of the film, especially when you compare them to the openings and closings of Toy Story 1 and 3. The video game opening in particular feels like a “gee whiz” tech show rather than a crucial piece of character establishment. It does kick off a fun runner of Rex trying to discover how to defeat Zurg.

So for me, it all adds up to a brilliant film I adore, one I don’t hesitate to bestow the “masterpiece” label, but perhaps one slightly more flawed than the Toy Story movies that surround it. I currently have it ranked third in the series, but still unquestionably one of my favorite movies ever.

Is It Good?

Masterpiece: Tour De Good (8/8)

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