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Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Toys?

By Drew Morton | Pajiba Blockbusters | October 13, 2009 |

By Drew Morton | Pajiba Blockbusters | October 13, 2009 |

This past week, Dustin linked to Time Out Magazine’s list of the 50 greatest animated films and, upon realizing the presence of John Lasseter’s feature-debut Toy Story (1995) ranked at number five, noted “Toy Story 2 was better than Toy Story (although the original, obviously, was more influential.” In response to Dustin, all I can say is “Goddamn you.” Not, of course, because your assessment is incorrect but because you stole my lead-in for my 1999 retrospective review of Toy Story 2. Quite simply, I agree with Dustin. Toy Story is one of those rare cases where an amazing original film becomes eclipsed by its sequel. Yet, as is also the case with Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), the original film often finds itself canonized over its superior offspring because it was “influential” or “culturally significant.” Does that mean that Toy Story doesn’t deserve recognition? Of course not! I’m simply trying to give Toy Story 2 (henceforth TS2) the credit it rightfully earned.

I was fortunate enough to hear Lasseter (who co-directed TS2 with Ash Brannon and Lee Unkrich) speak at a UCLA screening of Dumbo (1941) about two years ago. During his talk, Lasseter formulated what he believed to be Pixar Animation’s formula to success: “If we liken filmmaking to fashion design, there is one fundamental rule. You can give the consumer a wild pattern with a standard fabric or you can give them a standard pattern and a wild type of fabric. If you try to do both, the consumer won’t know what to do with it!” While this analogy could come across as the much despised “winning film = cookie cutter for all films following it” description of Hollywood studio filmmaking, I would tend to cite TS2 as a film that exemplifies that analogy perfectly in the most rewarding terms possible. Like The Godfather: Part II (1974), TS2 uses the standard established by the first film, particularly in its citation of shots and character moments, while changing up the fabric and deepening the experience.

TS2 takes its predecessor’s fear of neglect to the next possible stage. While the first film dealt with Sheriff Woody’s (voiced by Tom Hanks) fear of becoming obsolete upon the appearance of the tricked out space toy Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), TS2 relocates that fear in the aging of Andy (John Morris), their master. As one of the supporting characters observes, “How long will it last, Woody? Do you really think Andy is going to take you to college, or on his honeymoon? Andy’s growing up, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Woody and Buzz are of the mindset that they can do something about that inevitable reality (which appears to be the plot of the upcoming third film), which is to supply Andy with as many happy memories as they can while ensuring that “no toy gets left behind” in the process.

The process is perfectly represented in the ageless tradition of the yard sale. As Andy grows older, his interest for the toys of his childhood wanes, sometimes due to the fragility of the materials that the toys are constructed of. This provides the setting for the film’s inciting incident. Wheezy (the late Pixar regular Joe Ranft), a squeaky Penguin suffering from a broken squeaker, is carted off by Andy’s mother (Laurie Metcalf) with the hopes of making a little extra room on Andy’s bookshelf and perhaps twenty-five cents in the process. Woody, being the humanist leader of the toys, decides to launch a rescue operation. In the process, Woody, who quickly learns he is a valuable asset whose origins date back to a 1950s television show entitled “Woody’s Roundup,” is kidnapped by a toy collector (Wayne Knight). The collector has assembled a complete set of toys from the program, including Woody’s horse Bullseye, Stinky Pete the Prospector (Kelsey Grammer), and Jessie the Cowgirl (Joan Cusack) and plans on selling them to a museum in Tokyo. Continuing Woody’s humanitarian (or is it toytarian?) agenda, Buzz mounts a rescue operation with the help of Hamm (John Rarzenberger), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Rex (Wallace Shawn), and Slinky Dog (Jim Varney).

As the perceptive reader may have already noticed, not only does TS2 continue its predecessor’s theme of the fear of neglect but it does so through a series of events that echo the original film: a rescue operation is launched to save a character who no longer believes in his value to Andy that once again climaxes in a nail biting chase scene. Now, I’m not trying to treat TS2 as being unoriginal. In fact, I would tend to argue that the similarities in theme and structure enrich the finished product. We know the characters are going to get from point A to point B, the joy is figuring out how and in the detours on the way.

There are two detours that keep me coming back to TS2, the first of which is the film’s clever use of toy collecting. Growing up in the household of an antique collector, I often found myself being verbally chastised for taking my action figures and toys out the original packaging (I do feel kind of bad for opening up that B-Wing Fighter Pilot from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi). Yet, as the characters in TS2 point out, is it more fulfilling to be played with or to be lovingly and longingly gazed at through a plastic barrier? I had a lot of fun with my B-Wing Fighter and while I can’t speak for feelings of that Kenner action figure, I’d like to assume that he felt the same. I appreciate the film’s viewpoint on the matter, acknowledging the desire and nostalgia to keep things as they were, but ultimately siding with use value over exchange value.

This brings me to the second point I admire about TS2: the consequences of that decision on behalf of the toy, which is so wholeheartedly portrayed in the relationship between Jessie and Emily (or, to be more specific, via the musical number “When She Loved Me” performed by Sarah McLachlan). If, as Jessie did, the toy is brought into a loving relationship with its owner, that final break, the product of age that Woody and Buzz fear so dearly, can have terrifying repercussions. In a very subtle and indirect way (these are toys after all!), the film is helping kids recognize that friendships and relationships may not last forever but that new ones are to be formed on the other side (temporally, not figuratively). This sequence reminded me of the death of Carl’s wife in the opening moments of Up (2009): both are narratives about great loss, told without the use of dialogue, and very capable of making the viewers weep.

Over the past ten years, some of these qualities have come and gone in Pixar’s films, for better and for worse. While Monsters, Inc. (2001) was successful at keeping pace with TS2, I found that Finding Nemo (2003) relied too heavily on some of the themes and narrative structures of the earlier films and I felt a similar disappointment with Cars (2006) and the third acts of Wall-E (2008) and Up (2009). Despite these past disappointments, I look forward to summer 2010 to see if Pixar is once again capable of providing a standard pattern with a wild type of fabric (or do I mean that the other way around?).

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.