For my money, Wall-E is perhaps the strongest Pixar film from an artistic point of view. The Incredibles is perhaps the most consistently entertaining. Finding Nemo is the most emotional. Truth be told, I could probably find a way to rank almost every Pixar film so that it was my favourite in some way or another, because they’re all pretty much that good (although I’ll concede that Ratatouille, A Bug’s Life and Cars were merely “good” or “very good”). So, having completely picked apart any lavish praise I could shower on the film, I have a very special fondness for Pixar’s Toy Story trilogy.
Perhaps it’s the fact that I remember going to see the original film with my family, not expecting much – and then being blown away. It was the first Pixar film, and the one that put them on the map, as it were. Perhaps it’s the fact that the story resonates with me as a young man who remembers when he used to dream about his toys coming to life, and who still keeps a few of them proudly scattered all over his bedroom. It’s a wonderful little fantasy that Pixar have hit upon here, and one which I’ll concede strikes a chord with me – although I’d like to imagine that everybody who ever played with a toy can understand the appeal of a film that asks us to believe that these inanimate objects loved us just as much as we loved them.
There’s a criticism to be made (and I think that Armond White made it) that this is a very materialist philosophy, as if we invest our love and affection in plastic that is casually bought and sold – that it is, therefore, possible to buy and sell affection. White made the argument in critiquing the third film:
Later on in the same review, White accuses film critics of having a short memory and forgetting about Small Soldiers. However, it seems that White himself has a short memory, because he forgets Toy Story 2‘s central point
He’s correct to observe that the film is, to a certain extent, populated with iconic toys. Here, in the second film, Barbie makes her debut (Ken would appear in the next instalment), and Mr. Potato-Head has been a steady fixture of the gang. However, both Woody and Buzz are just as fictional as the characters in the Small Soldiers film that White lauds – and they were just as de-fictionalised to cash in on the success of the films, but that’s another matter. It’s not reasonable or fair to suggest that these movies laud materialism or consumerism, because that entirely misses the point.
Here, in the second film, Woody is revealed as that most ultimate of toys. He’s “a collectible”, a rarity, a valuable commodity. As a toy associated with the fictional show Woody’s Round-Up, Woody is worth a small fortune. The canny collector Al offers to pay fifty dollars for the toy, and we know that he’s not offering anything resembling Woody’s actual value. To Al, Woody is a material commodity, he is a commercial object. Al doesn’t want Woody because of any emotional value, his interest in Woody is strictly economical. He can make a lot of money with this small toy.
However, the movie observes, as anybody who has ever refused their parents attempts to replace a worn old teddy bear already knows, that the value of a child’s toy isn’t measured in dollars and cents. It’s measured in love. The Japanese museum will pay Al whatever he wants for Woody, but Woody is still more valuable to Andy – because Andy loves him, because Andy plays with him. Because he’s Andy’s toy, not belonging to anyone else.
In one memorable scene, we are shown shop shelves packed with identical Buzz Lightyear toys, mass-produced and shipped in bulk. However, even amid this sea of indistinguishable toys, we instantly know which Buzz is ours. It doesn’t matter that he looks pretty much the same as the rest, to us he’s an entirely unique character with his own traits and quirks.
It’s the nature of toys to be played with, and the movie roundly condemns those among us looking to keep these creations in their original packaging, almost feeling sorry for those toys that will never get to feel any genuine affection as they are locked away and treated as a financial investment. “He’s for display only,” Al is warned about Woody. “You handle him too much and he’s not gonna last.” But, the film suggests, this entirely misses the point. It is better to have been handled and damaged, than to have never have been handled at all.
Even ignoring this rather wonderful central point, Toy Story 2 is simply a well-made little film. I adore that opening sequence, to the point that I am eagerly awaiting Andrew Stanton’s John Carter of Mars simply because it might look a little like this. The movie is populated with references to things like Star Wars and Star Trek and Jurassic Park and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to the point where it’s obvious just how much the guys at Pixar love their films. It’s great and wonderful and betrays a sense of genuine affection for cinema matched only by the affection for their childhood play things.
If the first Toy Story was a buddy road film as Woody and Buzz made the journey home, and the third is a prison break, the second is a rescue mission, with Buzz and his toys embarking on a journey to recover their friend before Woody is lost forever. It’s exciting, hilarious and well-directed, handled with such style that it’s impossible to resist the movie’s charm. In particular, Tim Allen is having a great time, playing several iterations of Buzz Lightyear.
There’s also some nice emotional beats here (even if they aren’t the strongest stuff Pixar has produced, they’re still pretty powerful). In particular, there’s a sequence with the cowgirl Jesse which gets me every time, a bit of foreshadowing of what was coming in the next film, but no less powerful for it. It’s interesting that Jesse was almost donated as, in a way, the toys were donated in the third film. However, there’s a world of difference between an anonymous donation in a cardboard box and handing the toys directly to another child. “Toys don’t last forever,” Andy’s mother suggests, but perhaps she has it the wrong way around. Children don’t last forever, but toys can be passed from one to another.It’s a great little film. I especially like the outtakes during the credits, including Stinky Pete chatting up a pair of Barbie Dolls and some cameos from other Pixar characters (“I can’t believe you talked them in making A Bug’s Life 2”). These are nice little moments, which illustrate, above all, just how fun these films are. The fact that they are exceptionally made and emotionally powerful is just extra stuff on top of that.