In the realm of sequels, “Toy Story 2” is to “Toy Story” what “The Empire Strikes Back” was to its predecessor, a richer, more satisfying film in every respect. The comparison between these two franchises will be pursued no further, given their utter dissimilarity. But John Lasseter and his team, their confidence clearly bolstered by the massive success of their 1995 blockbuster, have conspired to vigorously push the new entry further with fresh characters, broadened scope, boisterous humor and, most of all, a gratifying emotional and thematic depth. Disney and Pixar have an end-of-millennium behemoth here, one that, given its far greater appeal to girls by virtue of its female co-lead, could easily surpass the $362 million grossed by “Toy Story” worldwide.
The only thing this sparkling picture lacks, by definition, is the shock of the new; four years ago, it was startling to behold the frontier that computer animation had conquered, to see what vast possibilities were now available in the whole field of animation. But there is no sense of complacency or sameness, as the filmmakers get their charges out of the house and into a situation that gives their lives more poignancy and awareness of mortality than, frankly, most characters in live-action films are accorded these days.
After an overly assaultive outer-space teaser that will nonetheless serve its purpose of getting kids to shut up and pay attention, brisk set-up sees the affable Woody eagerly anticipating being taken to a summer Cowboy Camp by his owner, Andy. But excitement quickly turns to crushing disappointment when a “broken” arm causes Woody to be left behind, with Andy’s mom adding the final sting with the comment, “Toys don’t last forever.”
Woody’s nightmare of being flung into the trash heap of broken toys comes true when he inadvertently lands in a yard-sale 25¢ bin, from which he’s kidnapped by the greedy Al McWhiggin, owner of the local Al’s Toy Barn, who knows something that Woody himself doesn’t — that Woody was a big TV star back in the ’50s.
Stashed in a downtown building, Woody meets cowgirl Jessie, Stinky Pete the Prospector and a horse named Bullseye and, in a wonderfully entertaining interlude, learns of his long-ago celebrity on a show called “Woody’s Roundup,” a kids’ favorite in which Woody and his new acquaintances were puppets. Not only that, but a whole line of commercial products revolved around the show, including the cereal Cowboy Crunchies. Al’s impressive collection of Woody memorabilia was incomplete without its centerpiece, but now that Woody is safely in hand, Al plans to cash in by selling the whole set to a museum in Japan.
Locked in a high-rise room with his torn limb, there is nothing Woody can do to save himself, so it’s up to spaceman Buzz Lightyear and Andy’s other toys, including Rex the dinosaur, Hamm the pig, Mr. Potato Head and Slinky Dog, to mount a rescue expedition. They head first for the Toy Barn, where some Barbies come to delightful life and Buzz is astonished to find hundreds of exact replicas of himself on the shelves — one of whom throws a monkey wrench into the search for Woody by boxing Buzz up and taking his place on the team.
Back in the building, the normally rambunctious Jessie begins tugging at Woody’s heart — as well as that of the viewer — by pointing out that, unlike Woody, who has enjoyed many years with a loving owner, she has endured a long purgatory in storage, bereft of any life worth living.
In the film’s main and moving new song, “When She Loved Me,” penned by Randy Newman and sung by Sarah McLachlan, Jessie recalls how she once had an enchanted relationship with a girl, one that she thought could never end, but that after her owner outgrew her, she ended up, like so many other toys, in a donation box. It’s the fate of all toys, she ruefully reflects, to outlive their usefulness, so the prospect of Japan for her at least means that she will provide pleasure again and have some purpose in life.
Caught up short by this intimation of mortality, Woody suddenly finds himself conflicted, torn between the “blood” family of his old TV cohorts and his closest friends from Andy’s house. Arrival of the rescue party puts his true loyalty to an immediate test, one complicated by Al’s decision to leave at once for Japan. Dynamite action climax, which proceeds through a maze-like roller-coaster ride on airport baggage ramps, into the belly of a jet and out onto the landing gear during takeoff, deftly combines a modern setting with rousing cowboy heroics, while resolution of the main characters’ fates has a sweetly philosophical ring that satisfies while still taking into account the darker issues raised earlier.
Visually, “Toy Story 2” is entirely of a piece with its predecessor, distinguished by the same endearing character design and reality-nudging peripheral details. But the new offering is even more densely packed with rollicking humor than the first, thanks to the addition of more characters and incident; jokey revelation of Buzz’s parentage will bring down the house at every screening. A sense of spirited invention permeates the proceedings from top to bottom, and few films so thoroughly deliver the feeling that everyone connected to it was united in pursuit of a single goal and had matchless fun reaching it.
Adding to this spirit are the outstanding voicings by a stellar cast. Back for another round are Tom Hanks as Woody, Tim Allen as Buzz and supporting players Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Annie Potts, John Morris, Laurie Metcalf and R. Lee Ermey. Important newcomers are Joan Cusack as Jessie, the rip-snorting cowgirl whose heart aims true, and Kelsey Grammer as the crusty prospector, both of whom match the energy and elan of the veterans. Newman’s scoring is busy and spirited.