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The Essential Geek #14: "Toy Story 2"

The Essential Geek #14: "Toy Story 2"

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Many of you who read my bi-weekly (and starting today, weekly) columns probably wonder exactly what I'm doing here at JimHillMedia.com.

After all, this is a website that focuses primarily on Disney-related news and features. I'm just a recovering action figure addict with too many DVDs and a neatly-folded pile of "Star Wars" T-shirts in his closet.

But the truth is, I'm also a hardcore Disney dweeb who's been stalking Jim Hill around the internet for years. I'm just lucky as hell that he decided to have mercy on me and give me an occasional home-away-from-home on his fine website.

So it's finally time to delve deep into an area that I know the Disney devoted love, one that also happens to rest close to the heart of Essential Geekdom: Animation. And for my money, no animated film of the past twenty-five years has been more moving, human or funny than "Toy Story 2."

Which is shocking, because that's not what you'd expect from Disney now, or any studio for that matter. It's an undisputable fact that the majority of sequels suck. And these days, if there's a numeral after the name of a Disney-released animated film, it's probably going to suck hardcore. I see those titles in the video store and I physically shudder-each and every one is a long, wet piss on Walt Disney's grave.

But "Toy Story 2"-that's not technically a Disney product. It's a Disney release, but it's a Pixar film, and with the current creative climate at Disney, Pixar is more likely to create films closer to the spirit and vision of Walt than his own company is. Sad but true.

"Toy Story 2" is indeed that rare beast-an unsucky sequel-and yet it's even rarer, in that it surpasses the original in some respects. The first "Toy Story" was a mindblowing event of a film; I remember watching it in absolute disbelief. Packed with great jokes and heartwarming characters, using computer-generated graphics in a way never before seen in a feature-length film, it came essentially out of nowhere to take over the youth of America in the best possible way. It was a phenomenon.

It would have been easy for Pixar to follow the traditional sequel template, which is to take advantage of all the goodwill surrounding their first film to churn out a subpar sequel. Instead, they went back to the drawing board to create a script that surpasses the first "Toy Story," and they did it by asking a simple question: What happens to toys when no one will play with them?

It seems simple, anyway. I'm sure arriving at the concept for "Toy Story 2" was anything but simple for John Lasseter and the rest of his Pixar creative supah-geniuses. Because it's one of those simple ideas that's packed with weight and meaning, and so it can't have been easy to stumble upon it.

After all, toys don't really "die"; they crumble to pieces over time, but they don't just stop being one day like us fleshy bags of water do. Instead, they live on...but do they really LIVE, if they don't have a child who adores them and who will give them the love and attention they deserve? Do they have life (in other words, meaning) if they're stuffed in a toy box somewhere...or preserved for all time on a shelf by a collector?

What happens then? What is there left to live for if the boy or girl of your dreams doesn't want to play with you anymore?

What does happen to toys when no one plays with them?

Lasseter and his team answer the question by returning to the thesis of the first film, which makes "Toy Story 2" all the sweeter. What happens to the toys, of course, is that they go on living with their other toy buddies...and that's what really makes life worth living. Andy may not care anymore, but someone will. In other words, "you've got a friend in me," and a good friend can make everything okay.

This digs down deep and touches the hearts of kids, because they're growing up and getting scared and wondering if everything will be different when they stuff Buzz Lightyear into a box because they're sick of him, or the Nintendo is more fun, or there's this adorable girl they just can't stop thinking about. "Toy Story 2" speaks to them, has an answer for them: Whatever changes may come, don't forget your friends. Good friends will always be there whether you play with toys or not.

"Toy Story 2" is filled with enough clever screenwriting to fill a book. They realized they couldn't have the square fish-out-of-water fun with Buzz Lightyear that they did in the first "Toy Story," so they give us a Bizzaro Buzz, fresh out of the box and just as clueless as the original. They offer toys locked away in mint boxes who have gone just a little crazy from the lack of exposure to kids...Jesse in a fun way, and Stinky Pete the Prospector in a scary way. They deliver the same smart throwaway gags that made the first "Toy Story" so fun, featuring all the great characters we met in the original-Mr. Potato Head, Hamm, Rex. Heck, Rex even gets his own subplot where he can finally be the hero for a change.

Above and beyond it all is "When She Loved Me," the heartbreaking musical interlude featuring a Randy Newman original interpreted by Sarah McLachlan. It accompanies the visuals of Jesse being left behind by her original owner, finding herself donated to a charity sale. Just thinking about it makes me emotional, and that's because it cuts to the core of the message in "Toy Story 2": Jesse is losing her best friend, and there's nothing she can do about it. Fortunately, she makes some new best friends and everything turns out okay, but for those few brief moments when Jesse is cast aside, it's hard not to feel your heart breaking-and not in a "Gosh, what if the Beast doesn't become a prince???" sort of way, but in a truly human way, one that you can understand even if you're not a toy doll.

That's part of growing up, too-accepting change. Going to the potty by your lonesome becomes riding a two-wheeled bike becomes your first little league game becomes reading big words becomes...well, becomes being a grown-up eventually, I guess. Everything changes, and watching "Toy Story 2" helps you realize that change isn't so bad, and that there are good times just around the corner from the bad ones, and new friends waiting once the old ones fall away.

But you can't pretend that change and growth isn't a little bit sad. That's where "Toy Story 2" really wins out-not just in seizing upon a perfect theme for a wistful, exciting, funny and fun cartoon, but in exploring it fully. This CG family comedy, a sequel that could have been awful in oh so very many ways, manages to become complex in that one small sequence. Frankly, it transcends its genre, it transcends its characters, it transcends itself. "When She Loved Me" is one of those glimmering perfect movie moments I will carry in my head and my heart forever.

Visually, "Toy Story 2" takes the palette of the first film and just expands upon it. The colors in this film are unrelentingly bright, from the explosive reds of Al's Toy Barn to the gentle greens trimming Buzz's space suit. But the human world has a darkness to it that can't be denied. It's there in the browns and shadows of Al's private room, or the blues and greys of the airport runway. There's an attention to mood and detail in the visuals of this film that, again, lifts it high above most animated efforts, whether they be CG or 2D.

"Toy Story 2" is best experienced as part of the exceptional "Ultimate Toy Box" DVD set, which features both "Toy Story" films in their full digital splendor along with a boatload of fantastic extras. It's a definitive presentation of the films, and still one of the best all-time DVD packages, even years after its release. If you don't own this set, you absolutely must-sell the dog, ransom the neighbor kid, beg borrow and steal if you must, but GET IT.

It's animated. It's about toys. It's funny as all get-out, for kids and adults. It's sad and wistful and packed with more heart than ten other cartoons. It's got just about everything a geek could want in their movies. Best of all, "Toy Story 2" teaches us all two important lessons: Life is better with friends, and Disney sequels don't have to suck.

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