Toy Story 2 (1999) was an interesting rewatch. I probably haven’t seen it in at least 10-15 years while I’ve seen the other Toy Story films (including Toy Story 4 which just came out in 2019) multiple times. I’ve routinely thought of Toy Story 2 as the worst of the four, although on this rewatch I have a slightly different opinion of it. If I had to rank them, I’d still go 1, 3, 4, 2, but that’s really besides the point- There is still a lot to love about Toy Story 2 even despite its somewhat numerous flaws.
One of my favorite things about the Toy Story movies in general is how they really capture the technological advancements and changes in animation styles from the first to the fourth film (and even more so if you want to nerd out like me and factor in Tin Toy). If you haven’t seen the first Toy Story movie since it debuted in 1995, you’ll surely find the animation quality totally jarring compared to more recent computer-animated films…though it is worth remembering how important these movies (especially the first two and Tin Toy) were for the earlier days of computer animation. Tin Toy, if you’re unfamiliar, is the 1988 Pixar short that follows the misadventures of a baby playing with animate toys. It’s no accident that so many of Pixar’s early projects focused on toys- while Tin Toy was inspired by director John Lasseter’s love of collectible toys, the entire concept of focusing on toys rather than people was the result of humans being much more difficult to animate. (Have you seen the baby in Tin Toy? Because that thing is terrifying.) I bring this up though because it’s really fascinating to use the Toy Story movies as a way to see the way that computer animation has improved over time. While not as crisp and detailed as more recent computer animation, Toy Story 2 did receive critical acclaim for its visuals at the time, and the only really startling areas in that respect are as you’d expect, the human characters. (Particularly Andy’s mom…Andy, Al, even Emily for the brief moments we see her are all fine, but Andy’s mom just looks like she’s struggling. This isn’t a knock against the movie or the animators at all though- animating human characters in 1999 is not at all comparable to what animating them is like today, just an interesting note in seeing the development of the style over the course of all four films. Toy Story 2 also had a lot of production issues with things like budgets and time constraints, especially after a lot of the original work on the film was accidentally deleted and never recovered, so it’s quite possible that something like a minor character like Andy’s mom being so off could have been the result of some of those production difficulties.)
Getting back to the second Toy Story specifically, the movie essentially follows the chaos that ensues when Woody is stolen from the family’s yard sale by Al, the super vindictive and stereotypical toy-collector owner of Al’s Toy Barn. Of course, the other toys travel across town to rescue Woody only to find that he’s been getting to know the other toys that starred in Woody’s Roundup, a TV show that made his character famous and that Al’s intention was to sell Woody to a toy museum in Japan.
What I get the most out of Toy Story 2 is the added character development specifically for Woody and of course the introduction of new characters (Jessie and Bullseye). So much of the story of Toy Story in general centers around Woody’s internal struggle of wanting to be Andy’s favorite toy while simultaneously either growing apart or feeling replaced at times. This first sequel also comes with lots of background for the new characters (notably just Jessie though, because Bullseye is a horse and we never see Stinky Pete again) but coming off of the first film it’s interesting to see what toys that did not always belong to Andy had gone through. For Jessie, this means growing close to her kid, Emily, only to have her leave her in a box of donations after finding her under the bed years after she stopped playing with her. Thankfully, the later Toy Story films have now taken over for me on the emotional turmoil front, but the last time I watched Toy Story 2 when I was probably about 13 or so I was an absolute mess during the song “When She Loved Me” that shows why Jessie struggles with abandonment. I’m perfectly fine not having to reach for the tissues during Toy Story 2 anymore (there are plenty of Pixar movies that still cause that reaction anyway) but I think anytime a movie makes you feel something to that extent it’s definitely worth talking about.
Other parts of Toy Story 2 that really work are the glimpses we get into what other uses there are for toys outside of Andy’s room. We do get some sense of this in the first movie, but half of the time that the toys are out of the house in the first film they’re at Pizza Planet or Sid’s, both situations that are at times extremely stressful for the toys are a little more comfortable and expected than some of the situations that come up in Toy Story 2 (and the later films for that matter…do we even need to discuss the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3…?) It’s a creative take to introduce Woody’s Roundup the way it happens in Toy Story 2, and it really adds some depth to Woody’s character that I think was needed if these sequels were going to work. Then there are some pretty intense action sequences that take everything we’ve seen in the first film a step further, with scenes like Buzz fighting Zurg on the elevator and Woody and Jessie dangling from a plane. Considering the origins of Toy Story and how the first film went, I think these are risks that paid off and the added drama works surprisingly well.
Parts of Toy Story 2 that don’t work…We don’t see enough of Andy. I suppose if you were to watch this immediately after the first one, you probably wouldn’t feel the same way, but I really think any worthwhile sequel you should be able to watch anytime as long as you’ve seen the first film at some point. I’ve seen all of the other Toy Story films more times than I can count, and while trying to think of this objectively to write this review I couldn’t help but do some mental gymnastics thinking about Woody’s struggle to stay with Andy knowing it won’t last when the audience hardly sees Andy. To be fair, Andy really doesn’t show up too much in the other films, but I hazard a guess that he has the least amount of screentime in Toy Story 2 and it makes the plot flow a little weird in that I could easily see a casual viewer either forgetting he exists or forgetting how important the bond between him and his toys is.
Other issues: Outside of very specific moments like “When She Loved Me,” it’s probably one of the least emotional Pixar films in my opinion. At the end of the movie when the toys are all back home, I’m left wanting to feel more than I did. I do think it’s worth noting though that for an animated sequel Toy Story 2 did pretty well with critics and audiences in 1999, so my feelings here may be the product of seeing what comes next in the series.
And lastly, Al’s character is totally unlikable to me in every way possible. Obviously he is the closest thing the film has to a villain, so he isn’t meant to be likeable in that sense, but you can still have a villain that you’d have to admit is a well written character and to me Al just isn’t it. When he’s excited to steal Woody from the yard sale, I wanted it to be because he had a deep love of collecting toys, not just because of the money that the museum would pay him for the collection. Judging by the Woody’s Roundup tapes and the rest of the memorabilia at his place, it does seem like he is a fan, but his character just feels so one dimensional and I’d have liked to have more complexity there for someone who led one of the only major turning points in the plot.
For all of its shortcomings, Toy Story 2 is still a fun time- just not as fun as all of the other Toy Story films. It’s necessary to move the plot along so certain characters can exist in the next film and so we can get a little more context into the ideas of abandonment that clearly concern many of the toys, but at the end of the day it’s probably the least memorable of the Toy Story films.
Other random notes- I totally forgot that in the end of the movie Wheezy gets his squeaker fixed and sings “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”. There is an Audio Animatronic of him singing this at the end of Slinky Dog Dash in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and I totally forgot that happened at the end of the second movie. Also, Tour Guide Barbie is literally every Disney Cast Member ever, especially in the credits scene.