Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Pixar Project: Toy Story 2

Hi there! Today's post is another installment of The Pixar Project, a review of Pixar's animated features in the order of their release. Click here and here for my two previous posts on this subject.

This past weekend at the Fortress of Ineptitude, the El family continued its chronological re-watch of the films of Pixar with Toy Story 2.

For a long time, Toy Story 2 was Pixar’s only sequel and was certainly a safe bet for them and for Disney as Pixar's next project. Once again, toys make an excellent subject for CGI animation, capturing the plastic sheen of children’s playthings with a wide range of human like expressiveness without getting caught in the awkward trap of uncanny valley weirdness that comes with animating humans. Other than Andy,  the only humans of note are Big Al of Al’s Toy Barn and the old man Al hires to fix a damaged Woody. Both characters are physical caricatures which makes them easier to animate. Still, there is a noticeable lack of stiffness in the animation of people than there was in the first Toy Story.

The focus of Toy Story is on, of course, the toys, headed up by Woody and Buzz Lightyear. Our story finds Woody toynapped by Big Al and Buzz Lightyear and other toys from Andy’s room go off on a rescue mission.

But who would want to steal Woody? It seems Woody is a rare and valuable toy that was part of a TV show phenomenon back in the 1950s, Woody’s Round-up. Al wants to add Woody to the other toys from the Round-up gang: Jessie the cowgirl, Bullseye the horse and Stinky Pete the Prospector, the latter still mint in the box, never been opened. Al is looking to make a considerable fortune selling the complete set of Woody’s Round-up toys to a toy museum in Tokyo. (That’s in Japan!) Woody doesn’t want to be put in a toy museum, he wants to get back to Andy. But in what has to be the most heartbreaking sequence ever put on film (damn you, Sarah McLachlan and the soulful stirrings of your beautiful voice), we find out Jessie had an owner named Emily who meant the world to Jessie. But Emily outgrew Jessie and the sad cowgirl has been alone ever since. It’s a toy museum or back into storage for her.

Buzz and the gang get to Woody but Woody has decided that he’s going to the toy museum so the Round-up gang can stay together and not get stuck in storage. Buzz, however, reminds Woody of a lesson that Woody had taught Buzz: a toy is only truly alive when being played with by a child. Then Woody realizes there’s a third way: he can go back to Andy but he’ll bring the Round-up gang with him. But Stinky Pete is not so mint in the box as we thought as he thwarts Woody’s attempts to join the two groups of toys. Stinky Pete doesn’t have a lot of good feelings about kids, having been left on a dime store shelf for ages.

In a desperate quest, Buzz and his pals pursue Al and his cargo to the airport. There Stinky Pete gets his comeuppance while Woody, in a daring and exciting action sequence and with help from Buzz and Bullseye, saves Jessie from a plane trip to Toyko. And everything ends up back in Andy’s room as Jessie and Bullseye are welcomed to their new family. 

Toy Story 2 was originally conceived as straight to video production aimed at a decidedly younger audience. Yet as work on the film progressed, Pixar and Disney realized that had something bigger and better than that and the goal was changed to make a big screen feature release. The growth of the Pixar team is clearly evident in this movie. The animation was more fluid and detailed. For example, as the toys search through Al’s Toy Barn, you can see their reflections on the waxed tile floor. But the story also steps up to take some chances. The shout out to Jurassic Park as Rex races to catch up to his friends in the toy jeep is a great example of the creators appealing to the grown ups in the audience.

But there’s also a maturity in Pixar’s work in Toy Story 2 that is a bit surprising but sets the stage for future films. The sequence I referenced above where Jessie’s time with Emily is told in a haunting montage set to an emotionally powerful song. But it’s the moment after the montage and we’re back to Jessie sitting on the window ledge and Woody has no words for her pain. Notice there is no music. Just Jessie’s voice, low and sad, as she tells Woody to go. Then Woody moves to the vent where he will make his exit and all remains quiet, still no music setting the tone or telling us how to feel. When Stinky Pete makes his last appeal to get Woody to stay, he reminds Woody that Andy will grow up and is not likely to take Woody to college… or on his honeymoon. Still, no music, no sound effects, just the weight and the power of words and the expressions on Woody’s plastic face.  This is an animated movie but what carries these moments in this sequence is acting, by the voices of Tom Hanks, Joan Cusack and Kelsey Grammer, by the animators working magic with pixelated plastic and a trust by the producers in the power of the story.  It is a power we almost take for granted these days in a Pixar movie but then, it was daring and new.

Toy Story 2 is not about kids outgrowing their toys but toys being out grown. We are the toys, contemplating our mortality and our place in the flow of time that just won't stop for us. Pretty heavy stuff for a movie about toys coming to life.

Toy Story 2 was accompanied by more outtakes like we saw in A Bug’s Life and the short, Luxo Jr. This short was the first film that Pixar ever made and provides the hopping lamp we’ve come to expect from the Pixar logo that opens and closes every movie.

Next time on The Pixar Project, the family settles down to watch Monsters Inc.

Meanwhile, a new blog post is up and running tomorrow so I hope to see you back here. Until then, remember to be good to one another.

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