Go see it. Of course, if you haven’t seen the first one, you might not appreciate all of the characters’ depth, but even forgoing a short trip to rent Toy Story, you’ll rave over its sequel. For starters, the movie, while aimed at kids (I went to see it with my nine-year old sister, Rosalynn) manages to hit a home run with adults as well.
The plot is fairly simple: Woody, voiced by Tom Hanks (note: a great thing about animated films and Pixar is that all of the original characters are voiced by the same actors, and as computer animation has not yet become so cheap as manual labor, there probably won’t be myriad straight-to-video releases following Toy Story 2) attempts to rescue a new friend, Wheezy (yeah, he wasn’t in the first one, but he’s a wheezy penguin, which is sort of cute) from a deadly yard sale. In the process he is stolen by an evil toy store mogul named Al (voiced by Wayne Knight) who wishes to sell him to Japan along with the rest of his large Woody collection.
You see, it turns out Woody was the star of a 1950s television show, essentially not unlike Howdy Doody, called Woody’s Roundup. Woody meets the two other dolls who represent stars from the show, Jessie (voiced superbly by Joan Cusack) and Stinky Pete the Prospector (Kelsey Grammer, brilliantly cast) who are both excited to see the “prodigal son.”
But Woody’s disappearance from the house has not gone unnoticed. With Andy off at summer camp, the more adventurous of the remaining toys, Buzz Lightyear, Mr. Potato Head, Slinky Dog, Rex and Hamm, decide to rescue him from the infamous Al’s Toy Barn. Unable to grab either a rocket or pizza-powered vehicle as in Toy Story, the five must travel at night to avoid detection as they work their way into the heart of the city and on a collision course with wackiness.
At this point, the pop culture references shift into overdrive. Every few seconds one of the character is either ripping off a major film or subtly acting within the framework of one. Whether its Geri from Geri’s Game (a short but laudable Pixar movie that most people might have seen before A Bug’s Life) appearing as the “cleaner,” the rescuers crawling around an office building air shaft, a la Die Hard, Woody behaving towards Andy’s new puppy as if it were Lassie, or Rex running behind a rear-view mirror Jurassic Park style, the references span decades and collective film memory. A plethora of inside jokes has been squeezed into the film itself, and one would need to search for hours to unfold all of the hidden treats.
While the plot unfolds, viewers may also suddenly regain the awarereness that they are watching a computer animated movie. This is one of the shining facets of Toy Story 2: namely, the high quality that Pixar has put onto the screen. Even the awkward humans, so glaring in the original Toy Story, seem softer and more flesh-like. Rather than the typical Disney protagonists and antagonists (anyone remember Pocahontas?), Pixar manages to make its humans look lifelike and realistic. Al is almost too realistic, especially in a scene in which he manages to spill Cheetos all over himself and the floor. Regardless, the animation would steal the show if it weren’t for the fact that the movie works so well on every other level.
The moral conundrum that Woody faces, this being a Disney movie after all, is that Jessie and the Prospector actually want to go to Japan. By becoming part of a museum celebrating Woody’s show, they will get to see young children from all over the world each day, without ever having to worry about falling apart or being thrown away. Jessie has a flashback in which she explains that her former owner grew up and stopped playing with her, making her feel abandoned and meaningless. It’s the only depressing part of the movie, but it does cast doubt into Woody’s (and the audience’s) mind.
At the same time that Woody faces his moral decision, Buzz must tackle a more metaphysical dilemma, that of encountering an entire aisle of Buzz Lightyears in their boxes. Of course, these are unenlightened Buzzes, who believe they must defeat Zurg and are not actually children’s playthings. A mixup occurs and soon a radically idiotic Buzz (who hearkens back to the original Buzz from Toy Story) is leading everyone to rescue Woody.
In any case, Woody’s decision is a difficult one, but fortunately Stinky Pete manages to crystallize the situation, raising the tension and providing plenty of madcap action. It’s a typically Disney ending, but that doesn’t stop it from still ringing true. The easy to follow plot conceals richly rendered characters, a well-written script and great humor that works on many levels. Anyone, regardless of age, as long as they have played with a toy at some point in their life, will enjoy Toy Story 2. Which is why you should see the first one first, and then go to the theatres to enjoy one of the few sequels in recent times to surpass its original incarnation.