Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Toy Story 2

I've been watching all the Pixar films over the past month, leading up to the release of their newest film, Up. The next one on the list was Pixar's third film and first sequel, Toy Story 2. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed when I heard that they were doing a sequel to Toy Story. Sequels by their very nature are lesser than the original, and almost never does a sequel come within spitting distance (or even driving distance) of the power, humor, depth, or entertainment value of the original.

Now, from what I've heard, Pixar didn't have much choice with this one. Disney, as was their wont in the day, was hell bent on making what Rish has lovingly dubbed a "Cheap-quel." The plan was to make a direct to video sequel of Toy Story, just like they made the direct to video masterpieces Cinderella 2, The Little Mermaid 2, and Aladdin 2 and 3. (Lion King 1 1/2 anyone?) Pixar didn't want it, but they'd signed a deal that basically sold away the image of Woody and Buzz to the now completely uncreative hacks in charge at Disney. So it was either make a sequel on their own, or let Disney come in and crapify things for them.

Again, this is just what I've heard, there may be no fact to it at all, but when Pixar put together this sequel that Disney asked for, they realized that it was too good to be a "Cheap-quel," and they decided to release it theatrically. Way to go guys, thanks for protecting Woody, Buzz and all the rest from the money-grubbers.

So, in watching these films all month long with my kids, I've tried to show them as they were shown in the theater. So first we watched the preview to the upcoming Pixar film, then the pre-film cartoon, and finally the movie itself. With Toy Story 2, Pixar decided to slap on an old cartoon (well, an old one for them, but nearly no one had seen it before). I remember seeing it in the theater, the lights went down, a bunch of previews rolled, then text appeared on the screen. It said, "In 1986, Pixar Animation Studios produced its first film. This is why we have a hopping lamp in our logo." I remember thinking at the time, "Oh cool, I can't wait to see this."

Luxo Jr. is a cute little film, and very impressive for having been done with computer animation in 1986. It makes me love Pixar all the more, when I see where their logo design came from. Most film companies never give you a real insight into that. Disney's logo isn't too hard to intuit, the castle from Disneyland (and Cinderella) overflown by Tinkerbell, but beyond that, I can't think of any film company logo that has been explained to us. There are plenty of well known logos out there, but why they've chosen what they've chosen, who knows?

Now, let me preface my comments by saying that I absolutely love Toy Story 2. I think it may be one of the best sequels in movie history. It holds up very well to the original. The animation itself is superior, as it should be since it was made several years after the first. The story is engaging, exciting and best of all, it's not simply a retelling of the first film with some slight alterations.

The film takes a completely new angle, exploring the fear that toys must have for their own mortality. Woody's arm rips, and suddenly, Andy is not so keen to play with him. He's an old toy. It's an interesting idea, and can be parlayed into human terms as well. It's not a theme that kids can relate to much. Kids always seem desperate to grow up. It's not until they've grown up that they want to go back and be kids again. But that's alright, kids just want to see a movie that is a rollicking good time anyway (that's right I said rollicking). The parents in the audience are the ones who can understand how Woody feels, and how Jessie feels, or even how Stinky Pete feels.

Parents are aging along with their children. Some day, their kids will outgrow them. They will get to the point that they need to develop their own identity, separate from that of the family and their parents. It won't be cool to be seen with their parents. They will eventually, leave the home, and strike out to make their own life. What is a parent to do?

Stinky Pete's reaction is, "to hell with kids! They just ruin you; forget them all!"

Jessie is the one who has already been rejected once, and is too scared to open her heart to anyone again.

Woody has to make a choice. Eventually he'll be left behind and forgotten, like Jessie was. What should he do? There's the promise of a sad antiseptic life in Tokyo. He could be part of a museum exhibit and watch children, or more likely adults, from behind glass, or he can face his eventual demise with cheerfulness, and make the best of the time he has.

Of course Woody makes the right choice, and helps Jessie find trust again too. He elects to give his heart to Andy, no matter what the future has in store for him. It's something that I sometimes struggle with as a parent. I have a few ambitions of my own, like writing and podcasting. Life is always getting in the way of me accomplishing anything on the personal front. It can be frustrating, but if I just manage to remember, when it comes down to it, that my children and my love for them are far more important and meaningful than any accomplishments I may achieve. I try to make enough memories with my children so that when I'm old and forgotten, I can call them up, and remember what a great life I've lived. After all, I can write stories at any point in my life, but the children are only young once. I can't imagine anything worse, than being old, and thinking back to the times I had with my children, and realizing that I'd completely squandered the opportunity that I had to live my life with them.

The humor in Toy Story 2 is nearly on par with that of the first film as well. Joss Whedon had no part in it, as far as I know, unlike the first film, and his absence shows a little. But the movie is still very funny. Visual gags and silly lines abound. I don't quote Toy Story 2 as much as I quote the original, but I still quote my share of lines.

Randy Newman delivers another well done score. The new themes were nice. The sci-fi cue that played for Buzz Lightyear's earlier exploits in video game land was memorable, and Woody's heroic cowboy cue was great as well. Memorable music is all I ask, and Newman delivered. The one song that I couldn't get out of my head for weeks after seeing the film, though, was the theme to the cleaner. That tune bounced around inside my skull until I finally had to go out and buy the CD.

Okay, so I've talked about how inspiring the film can be and how funny it is, now I'm going to air my complaints. The biggest fault this film has is its derivative nature. Of course it hearkens back to the first film, at times, quoting Toy Story's most memorable lines word for word. I guess you can expect that from a sequel, but I think the better the sequel is, the less it relies on its predecessor.

When the toys jump into the Pizza Planet truck to steal it and drive to the airport, they encounter some old friends from part one. The goofy, three-eyed aliens from the claw game are hanging from the rear-view mirror. "Strangers! From the outside! Ooooooohhh!" At this point, Buzz and the gang are supposed to pause for the studio audience to cheer. Except this isn't a crappy sitcom involving Erkle, Kramer, or Arnold Drummond. On our podcast, Rish and I ranted about sitcoms with characters who have a line that they have to say every show. The best example of that, I think, is Gary Coleman pulling out his, "What you talkin' 'bout, Willis." No one was happy on that show until the line was delivered. These green alien guys in Toy Story 2 are another example of that weakness. Almost none of the lines the stupid guys said were original to this film. They were nearly all repeats from the original story. It made me sad to see, I really loved their contribution to the first movie, but I wish that they had just left those guys out of this one.

Similarly, when Buzz tries to convince Woody to come home with him, and he shouts, "You are a child's plaything, YOU ARE A TOY!" I cringe. Sure the line was a classic, a very popular moment in the first film, but do we have to go there again? It just strikes me as especially weak. I just expect Buzz to turn to the camera and give us all a little wink at that moment.

In my Toy Story post, I complained about the toys doing things that would eventually give their existance away to the human beings in the world. Toy Story 2 takes it to a new level, but I already ranted on that score, so I'll not subject you to it again.

My personal choice for the worst shortcoming of the film is when Zurg, whose design is already a rip-off of Darth Vader anyway, appears to challenge Buzz on the elevator. It seemed to me that the writers of the film went with the first idea that popped into their heads.

"I'll never join you. You killed my father."

"No, Luke...I mean Buzz, I am your father."

It's such a tired old idea. It's been parodied a thousand times. Couldn't they have found a better way, maybe tossed around a few more ideas in a few more story meetings. I know how impressively creative the folks at Pixar can be. I wish they'd given it a little more effort. Who knows, though. Maybe they'd always meant to do it that way. After all, Buzz's speech from the first film about the weapon with enough firepower to destroy an entire planet is obviously referring to the Death Star. Perhaps his backstory has always been a Star Wars rip-off.

Worse yet, the joke takes a turn for the utterly ridiculous, as Buzz plays catch with his Dad afterwards. I guess the writers were trying to put their own spin on the tired, "I am your father," bit. For me, at least, it just didn't work at all, but I do know people who love that joke.

Anyhow, I'm happy to spout the old platitude, "to each his own," when it comes to this movie, or most anything else. In my opinion, Toy Story 2 is on of the weakest of the ten Pixar films, for the reasons that I've mentioned here. I've heard and read other people say it's the best, or the in the top two or three. Everyone has their opinion. Rish, when he hears me state my complaints, thinks I don't like the movie at all, and I want to stress here again that I don't like the movie, I LOVE it. It may be weak among Pixar films, but that's because Pixar films are so very strong. It's still better than the best CG Animated film from any other studio.

Also, here's my favorite Pixar trivia question. In Toy Story 2, Woody's origin is Retconned (a word from comic book folks which is short for retroactive continuity. Basically, when they need something to be different than it was originally, they just change it, and pretend that it was always that way). Woody is now a toy from an old '50s TV show similar to Howdy Doody. It wasn't always that way, though. If you pay attention in the first Toy Story, you see what show Woody originally came from. It's on a poster on the wall in Andy's room just before he redecorates to an all Buzz Lightyear theme. So the question is, what show was Woody from before he was retconned for Toy Story 2. The answer is ABC Roundup. Not a big change, but originally he was supposed to be a contemporary toy from a cheesy kids show.

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