Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Toy Story 4 opens this weekend, and it will deservedly conquer the world. My review.
The franchise, hatched and guided with something close to genius by John Lasseter, may finally be wrapped up. Or maybe not; Toy Story 3 seemed like the perfect ending to the series, and here we are. (Lasseter, dumped by Disney/Pixar after allegations of inappropriate behavior, is named on Toy Story 4 with a “Story by” credit; most reviews I’ve read discreetly avoid mentioning the person who invented this beloved franchise.)
Reading my review of Toy Story 2, I see I was already suggesting that the concept could happily end right there, which is more evidence that I would never make it as a studio executive. The review is no great shakes, but it gives a little flavor of how the film felt at the time; first published in the Herald in November 1999:
First things first: Let it be said that Toy Story 2 is not quite as pure, innocent, or fresh as the original Toy Story, which charmed audiences in 1995.
That, however, is about the only negative thing I can think of saying about Toy Story 2. This is an utterly delightful sequel, a romp that captures childhood joy in state-of-the-art computer animation. The same team from Pixar Animation that put together the first film (and A Bug’s Life) is in place, led by director John Lasseter. Needless to say, that includes the voice talent: Tom Hanks is back as Woody, and Tim Allen returns as Buzz Lightyear.
The movie opens with a kicky Buzz Lightyear fantasy adventure, then returns us to the familiar confines of Andy’s room, the domain of the little boy who has Woody and Buzz as his favorite toys. The plot hinges on Woody’s kidnapping by a toy collector, one Al McWhiggan (voice by Wayne Knight), the owner of Al’s Toy Barn. The devious Al realizes Woody is a collectible, and worth a fortune.
As Woody himself discovers for the first time, he was once the highly popular puppet star of a fifties-era TV series, “Woody’s Roundup.” Al already has the other collectible pieces from the show, a cowgirl named Jessie (Joan Cusack), an old prospector named Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammar), and a cloth horse called Bullseye.
The movie pokes fun at the idea that toys should be prized, untouched collectibles, rather than things kids play with. Poor Stinky Pete has never been taken out of his box—no wonder he’s cranky. While Woody is held captive, discovering all about his old saddle pals, Buzz and the rest of the gang ride to the rescue. Or try to, anyway—it isn’t easy crossing eight lanes of traffic when you’re six inches tall.
Toy Story 2 has some terrific set pieces. The old black-and-white programs from “Woody’s Roundup” are a brilliant re-creation of early-TV shows, with the figures hanging Howdy Doody-like from a mess of puppet strings. The dizzy peak is a trip through the aisles of Al’s Toy Barn, where thousands of Buzz Lightyear dolls lead naturally to confusion. Also some good inside jokes about merchandising, and a glimpse at what Barbie Dolls do when nobody’s looking. (They throw a beach party.)
The film’s sentimental side, about the emotional attachment between kids and toys, doesn’t go quite as deep as the first film, partly because we’ve been here before; although Randy Newman does contribute a three-handkerchief song called “When She Loved Me.”
The supporting toys from the first film are still around, including Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Rex the Dinosaur (Wallace Shawn), Hamm the pig (John Ratzenberger), and the Slinky Dog (Jim Varney). The animation used to create them is impeccable, and even more expressive than before. The sequel has more humans on screen, and the problem of making people look convincing in computer animation still hasn’t been solved—too many rough flesh tones, too many moving hairs.
Ultimately, Toy Story 2 works not because of its technical innovations, but because the story is a good one. Still, it might be a good idea to end the series with this installment, while the Toy Story franchise is still way, way ahead.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.