Our emotional autobiographies influence our film tastes more than we’d care to admit. Toy Story 2 was one of the first movies to make me cry. Thirteen years old, alone one night, I watched a plastic cowgirl sing about her former owner. “When somebody loved me, everything was beautiful,” she started, and over the course of the next few minutes I watched a flashback of her relationship with a young girl, the luminous sunlight of their idyllic outdoor romps fading in favor of a donation box’s darkness. Feeling friendless myself, I identified.
Like the bad men of The Wild Bunch, even critics were once kids. This is the cause of the bait-and-switch that often haunts critical discourse on animation, in which a film is praised despite gaping flaws (Up, with its autopilot third act, is one recent example). Children often accept mediocre art because, having seen little, the viewing experience itself becomes a kind of Valhalla, and it is as if by wearing blinders critics wish to return to that state themselves. Pixar walks on water for many critics not just because the company makes good films, but specifically because it makes good animated films; in the same way that people overpraised The Dark Knight to make a case for the superhero film as a genre, The Incredibles was overpraised to make the case for what’s traditionally been an equally adolescent genre in American film: the cartoon.
This is not to say that Pixar doesn’t do great work (WALL-E shows some sublime physical comedy before descending into soft commercialism, and Ratatouille’s subtle attention to its characters’ relationships is Lubitsch-worthy), but except for Cars, the company has generally gotten a free critical pass—again, for very understandable, very human reasons. I gave my heart to Toy Story 2 upon its 1999 release, though it broke my heart when I watched it recently for the first time since then. The kid in me wants to proclaim it a masterpiece, like others have (it currently has a 100% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes), but the adult in me now realizes that it’s just not that good.
The occasion for revisiting it is a two-week double-bill with the first Toy Story, both in 3D. In the first film, cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) and spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) fight for their owner’s attention until Woody saves Buzz from the neighbor, a preadolescent psychopath. The second film turns the tables, as Buzz must save Woody from the clutches of a stunted collector (Wayne Knight). A wrinkle arises as Woody wonders whether he even wants to be rescued: Is it better to have immortal life on a shelf or a fragile, transient life in someone’s arms?
Pixar originally planned Toy Story 2 as a direct-to-video release before deciding to run it theatrically. The staging suggests this, consisting oftentimes of shot-countershot arrangements of characters in closed rooms. The images feel conceived on a tighter, smaller scale than those of the first; even the action sequences rush by, blurred. John Lasseter’s direction fails to ground the scenes in character and story. Unlike Pixar directors Brad Bird, whose films excel at depicting relationships, and Andrew Stanton, who’s best at landscapes, Lasseter’s Pixar films highlight action over character, a problem when the action fails. Toy Story 2 prizes chase scenes, but they’re bland and lack imagination; the most memorable are overtly stolen from Star Wars.
Unlike the first film, which featured dark, scary scenes (often jarringly) alongside broad bright ones, Toy Story 2 errs on the side of sweet and light. A squeaky penguin suddenly bursts into song, accompanied by backup Barbies; a villainous toy gets girly-girl face paint. A few moments of melancholia (Jessie the cowgirl’s Grammy-winning “When She Loved Me” being the most prominent) slip into what is otherwise a slackly baked soufflé. The film’s cutting directly from Buzz’s leave-no-man-behind speech to an American flag waving on TV makes an A-plus example of lazy visual wit. The movie’s virtues—Joan Cusack’s doggonit exuberance as Jessie especially soars—share a shelf with its flaws.
The film’s ontological fuzziness proves most problematic. Toy Story’s most affecting scene comes when Buzz, face-to-box with other Buzzes, realizes he’s just a product of someone else’s imagination and must rebuild his self-image; Cervantes writes a similar scene in Don Quixote, where the protagonist learns he’s just a character. Toy Story 2 also shows Buzz confronting other, more delusional selves, though this time the filmmakers toss them into the action sequences without stopping for pathos. The second film’s real equivalent to Buzz’s Quixote moment comes when Woody watches an episode of Woody’s Round-Up, the old TV show where his character first appeared, and whispers in awe, “That’s me.” The difference between the two scenes is between destabilization and affirmation; the unacknowledged irony here is that Woody’s not watching himself. As a toy based on a TV character, he’s a facsimile of someone who never existed. The only true way to affirm his individuality, the film ultimately argues, is through his owner Andy’s real attention and love, but Woody makes this climactic realization in a matter of seconds, and we don’t see enough of Andy to understand Woody’s attachment. Yet Woody’s Socrates compared to his peers, as neither Buzz nor any of Andy’s other toys show insight beyond one-liners. By failing to develop its characters past perfunctory, Toy Story 2 essentially states that it’s good to be loved without answering why.
The cynic in me wonders whether this was for marketing purposes, as urging kids to unthinkingly love Buzz and Woody meant they might buy more Buzz and Woody toys. Yet the idealist side that I, like all cynics, possess wants love and acceptance automatically. The Toy Story films have proven so successful with audiences, I suspect, partly because they address something primordial—the urgent, basic need to find a friend, even where one doesn’t really exist. Imputing motives to dead objects, after all, is what cinephiles do. Andy holding a ripped, fading Woody in his room isn’t so different from my sitting in a theater, 3D glasses pressed to my face like blinders to distract me from the film’s flaws. But even knowing its flaws, the film still hits me deep. I love this movie without actually liking it.