Any good film is a tough act to follow if a sequel becomes a possibility. In the case of a benchmark and a hit like Toy Story (1995), it becomes even harder to do a worthy sequel, because the first one is not only an amazingly crafted slice of animated entertainment but also because it had broken new ground. It was a first 3D animated feature that opened up a whole new realm of creative possibilities. Four years later, the creative genius behind the first film – John Lasseter, returns with a mission to tell a fresh story in the established universe. Does he succeed in making it once again accessible to people of all generations? How suitable is the second film for children as young as 3?
Once again, our protagonist Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) ends up in a pickle. A toy collector named Al spots him during a yard sale mix-up at Andy’s house. Recognizing Woody’s collection value, Al snatches him away. While the motley crew of Andy’s toys, led by Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen) plan a seemingly impossible rescue mission, Woody is trapped in Al’s apartment where he discovers that his character is based on a vintage television show Woody’s Roundup and that he is a part of a collection of toys from a series that includes Jessie the Cowgirl, Bullseye the horse and Stinky Pete the Prospector.
The first obvious (and glaring) difference between the first and the second Toy Story film is that the narrative beats are more complicated this time. We follow two parallel plots: one is an ensemble rescue mission of Woody, and the other is, dare we say it, a confinement story with strong emotional and philosophical ambitions. Somewhere around the mid-point of the film, the storylines converge and turn into another exciting roller-coaster ride with a surprise villain. In this regard, the final movement is much more similar to the final act of the first film – which can be categorized as an edge-of-your-seat action-adventure.
Now, after such a plot description, the first question that may come to your mind is whether your child can follow the story? Thankfully, the Pixar virtuosos do not fail their audience, and even a 5-year-old can easily follow the story that transpires and, once again, gaze at the screen in amazement, literally at the edge of their seat, for the last thirty minutes. It is an exciting cartoon for sure, and it has less severe scenes than the first film – nothing even comes close to the dark imagery of the scene in Sid’s bedroom. In fact, because there are no scenes that rely on visually scary solutions, you can easily show Toy Story 2 to 3-year-olds (if they are interested, of course).
The dialogue is brisk and witty, and there are many multi-layered jokes that can bring a smile to the face of kids and adults alike, but for altogether different reasons. Now, the moment where it can get significantly more, let’s say, cerebral, is when the movie begins to tackle some complex philosophical themes. The nature of what it means to be a toy and what is its purpose are themes that are frequently brought up. While this was an integral part of the first film as well, it was more a matter of implication that time around.
This time, the inner conflicts of characters – especially Woody – are more philosophical in nature and therefore harder to understand in full without the parent’s assistance. The question of identity and individual’s perception of reality comes to the forefront when Woody discovers that he is based on a TV show. Note that none of the questions raised bog the film down, and it would be unfair to say that children cannot grasp these concepts.
There is a goldmine of dramatic tension found within the dynamic between toys and their owners should you presume that toys are sentient. On the part of storytellers, the key then becomes whether they can find the right ‘pressure’ points that create ample conflict and drama without getting overly dark or contemplative as to alienate children.
Toy Story 2 manages to find the right balance in the most tasteful way possible by tackling serious themes of abandonment and co-dependence. Here, the character of Jessie, played affectionately by wonderful Joan Cusack, takes the spotlight as the sentimental core of the film. A particularly poignant flashback sequence that gives us Jessie’s back-story will leave no one – not a child, nor an adult – indifferent. In fact, most adults will have a lump in their throat throughout Jessie’s flashback scenes, so you can easily imagine that children may bawl their eyes out. It is safe to say that, when all is said and done, it is Jessie’s storyline that remains lodged in the memory of Toy Story 2 audiences for the longest time.
While we should commend the people behind this film for creating such emotional intensity without relying on anything gratuitous, you may want to reconsider showing this film to your children if they are going through an exceptionally sensitive time in their life – ESPECIALLY if they have lost a grandparent or another loved one recently. Still, if enough time has passed, animated features such as this – the ones that deal with the idea of permanent separation – can have a therapeutic effect on children if done right. And everyone agrees that Toy Story 2 does it absolutely right.
Numerous professional critics proclaim Toy Story 2 to be a superior film when compared to the first one. The themes are more complex but not too weighty, the story is more eventful but just as easy to follow as the first one, and the ensemble of characters is bigger but not lacking in depth department. While it is not as accomplished or as significant of a breakthrough as the first film (some behind-the-scenes production troubles contributed to this), it is a stellar addition to the universe that seems to be expanding with confidence. It is a 4.5/5 star endeavor that will capture the imagination of your children, no matter the age.