The story goes that the Disney execs, flush with the excitement of direct-to-video sequels (a hellish new revenue stream they first discovered with 1994's bland but inoffensive The Return of Jafar, though the Pandora's box of inanity was really opened with 1997's Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas), commanded John Lasseter and his Pixar minions to produce a DTV continuation of Toy Story, and Lasseter was unable to disagree. At this time, Pixar was not yet one of the greatest stars in the Disney galaxy; Toy Story had been a hit and no doubt (the highest-grossing film of 1995, not quite breaking $200 million - simpler days!), but they hadn't even completed their second feature, A Bug's Life, yet, and their was no guarantee that lightning would strike again.

The story continues that when the Pixar team had completed some initial work and saw what they had done, they (and their Disney overlords) realised that it was too damn good to go straight to VHS. No, the right thing to do was expand Toy Story 2into a full-length feature and give it a proper theatrical release. It paid off by by coming in as the third-biggest film of a high-grossing year, nearly clearing the $250 million mark. In a rare (but for the studio, soon to be characteristic) example of box office accruing to a movie that deserves it, this bundle of cash came about for the elegant reason that Toy Story 2 is absolutely great.

Not, like most sequels, content to simply re-create the success of its predecessor, the new film built off of the framework provided by the first Toy Story, revealing itself to be a surprisingly philosophical work about the moral crises that might be suffered by toys, if only toys were living things. Both Woody and Buzz undergo events that expand upon their experiences from before: in the first film Woody was forced to confront the fact that he was a thing of the past, destined to be passed by, and in the second he is given the opportunity to live immaculately, forever - but at the cost of his toyhood, the quality he holds dear above all else. Buzz, having dealt in the first film with the terrible knowledge of who he is - a toy, not a space ranger - is confronted in the second film with how to apply that knowledge, particularly since it means that he is not unique (the Buzz Lightyear aisle at the toy store is one of the great images in this film). The issues of mortality and identity that drifted as subtext in Toy Story are thus brought, cleanly and forcefully, to the front of Toy Story 2.

By this point the Pixar animators had gained enough experience that they were able to start doing some very exciting things with their artform: the unfathomable baggage sorting system near the end is easily the most ambitious set in the first three Pixar features, even though it feels now like a dry run for the endless room of doors in Monsters, Inc. And Toy Story 2 is certainly a more beautiful film than its predecessor, even if it lacks the freshness of the new. It is with this film that Pixar took the first steps that ultimately led to the likes of WALL·E: movies so visually detailed, and created with such care, that they cease to feel like animation at all, and take on the aspect of real life. Of course, Pixar has always cheated a bit: their stories and characters are so rich that it's highly unlikely that anyone is still thinking of the films as "cartoons" by the end of the first reel.

I have sometimes encountered the notion that Toy Story 2 is the best Pixar film, or at the very least, better than Toy Story, due to its screenplay; it is easily the funniest and maybe the smartest of their movies (although that argument took a hit when Up came out and was freaking hilarious, when it wasn't bittersweet). If I may confess something shameful, it's actually for that very reason that I've always personally ranked Toy Story 2 fairly low in Pixar's canon - though all ten of their features are so near to perfect that "fairly low" is still pretty high. It's their only film in which I can detect a bit of the disease that has been so wicked in the DreamWorks animated films that somehow keep out-grossing Pixar's films, year after year: self-aware comedy driven by pop culture and a desire to entertain the adults on their own level, independent of the kids. Star Wars gags are fine in moderation, but Toy Story 2 has more than its share; and the Jurassic Park reference is unquestionably beneath the talents of the writers responsible for the other 99.9% of the same screenplay.

On the other hand, Toy Story 2 arguably boasts an even richer emotional scope than Toy Story; the addition of a genuine abandoned toy in Jessie the cowgirl (Joan Cusack) makes this the first Pixar movie that is actually, honest-to-God sad at points (that Randy Newman gives her flashback one of the most dour songs he ever wrote helps quite a bit). Beneath the comedy and the adventure, there are real stakes to this story, not simply of survival, as in Toy Story and A Bug's Life, but more existential and unanswerable: it is a film that raises questions of how one is to live, when one's purpose is taken away (as for Jessie) or in serious question (as for Woody). Weighty issues for a cartoon, but that's another part of the genius of Pixar; just because something is targeted for kids doesn't mean you have to dumb it down, because kids are actually pretty perceptive little people.

The 3-D reissue of Toy Story 2 is nothing short of a revelation, and this from someone who hates 3-D: impossibly, the film uses that extra dimensionality in a far more compelling and narratively useful way that most of the recent films that were built for 3-D from the ground up. The backgrounds, already so detailed and lovely, are given an extra burst of living-breathing vitality in 3-D; the world is that much richer and evocative. The refrain that we always hear from the 3-D evangelists, that the technology allows us to enter the movie more than before, has never really felt true to me - but it does now. Toy Story 2 was expansive before, and now it seems to go on for miles and miles, a whole world waiting at the edge of the frame and over the horizon. And that reflects back onto the plot; the disorientation that the toys who head out to rescue Woody feel in this great big world is that much stronger, but the sacrifice that they make by returning to the relatively closed-in world of Andy's room is that much more palpable as well, and this makes those final moments all the more poignant. To give up endless vistas for a single bedroom; that is love.

Which is the final word I have to say on the two films; they are both paeans to love and friendship, to being part of a family, to community. The one truth that connects every Pixar film is that it is better not to be alone; it is better to love than to isolate yourself. The final moments of Toy Story 2 embody that trusim with every frame: everybody's there, and they've brought in new family who need love and connection, and no matter what happens, you've got a friend in me.

Reviews in this series
Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995)
Toy Story 2 (Lasseter with Brannon and Unkrich, 1999)
Toy Story 3 (Unkrich, 2010)
Toy Story 4 (Cooley, 2019)