This year seems to be the celebration of a lot of animated film anniversaries. One that I can’t forget, is the 15th anniversary of one of my favorite animated features.
It’s hard to believe, but in the wake of a superhero story with heart, a rat wanting to buck trends and follow his dream, not to mention a lonely little robot who is a hopeless romantic at heart, one film from PIXAR that was released in 1999, trumps them all in my book. Even its emotionally-charged three-quel couldn’t dislodge it in my mind.
Toy Story was a film that almost all of us recall seeing in 1995. At the time, the rendering of plastic-like computer graphics proved to be an ideal place to go for PIXAR’s filmmakers. It became a surprise hit that winter, impressing critics, and making toys from the film fly off the shelves (something several retailers were not prepared for!). Toy Story was an event film that did for animation, what Jurassic Park did for the visual effects community.
Like many, I was excited when I saw the teaser trailer for Toy Story 2 before Tarzan in the Summer of 1999. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the film would become my favorite PIXAR production many years, after many viewings, and readings on its production. And so, I thought I’d share, the Top 5 reasons, why the film resonates with me:
5) Jessie’s Song
Nowadays, it seems almost every PIXAR film has one major emotional scene. To me, this was the first of them. Told with no dialogue, but infused with Sarah McLachlan’s vocals sounding like a distant, but sad memory.
We see Jessie the cowgirl doll, as the toy of a little girl named Emily. But as time goes on, and Emily grows up, her interests and world around her changes (the scene is almost reminiscent in a low-key way to the song/montage “Strange Things” in the first Toy Story film). Eventually, Jessie is retrieved from under the bed by her owner, and for a brief moment, it looks like Emily hasn’t really forgotten her. But at the end of the song, Jessie is placed in a donations box, and watches as Emily drives away.
I will admit this was the first PIXAR moment that made me shed tears, and I think helped elevate the studio in my eyes. I always marveled at how a bunch of pencils, ink and paint could make people cry when it came to the death of Bambi’s mother. Here, it’s just a bunch of computer data, but the audience doesn’t think that…they believe in these characters that don’t exist. That to me, was always the amazing thing about animation: you can make people “believe.”
4) Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue!
While many loved psychotic/deranged Buzz in the first Toy Story, I was not that enamored with his ‘real space ranger’ act. With Toy Story 2 , I really enjoyed how Buzz and Woody had become friends, sharing the duties in running Andy’s Room. Plus, it is Buzz who really goes above and beyond in trying to get Woody back to the toys and Andy. Though to me, one of the shining moments comes when the roles from the first Toy Story are reversed.
In one scene in the first film, Buzz is prattling on about Woody delaying his ‘rendezvous with Star Command,’ causing Woody to snap back: “YOU! ARE! A! TOYYYY!!!!”
In Toy Story 2, Woody is going on to Buzz about how he was the star of a TV show, and how he’s a valuable collector’s item. This causes Buzz to almost recite verbatim what Woody told him in the first film, leading to a forceful build-up of “You, are, A TOY!!”
Woody responds that he doesn’t know how much longer he has. If he gets ripped or torn again, he could be thrown away.
“Somewhere in that padded stuffing is a toy that taught me life’s only worth living if you’re being loved by a kid,” responds Buzz. “And I came all this way to find that toy…because I believed him.”
This is one of the strongest moments of the film to me. We get to see how ingrained Buzz has become regarding Woody’s ‘philosophy,’ and in this case, the student tries to make the master remember the reason why those lessons were so important.
3) Jessie, PIXAR’s first step into strong female character territory
In 2010 at a screening of Toy Story 3, I got the chance to say hi to Joan Cusack, and eagerly told her how all these years later, Jessie was still my favorite female character from the PIXAR library (beating out other great female characters like Mrs Incredible, Collette, and Dory). So why is this little cowgirl doll still a big deal to me?
Up until this point in PIXAR‘s films, there hadn’t really been a strong female presence in this boy’s universe of toys. Sure we had Bo Peep and Princess Atta, but they never really became major figures in my mind. Sure, Atta’s younger sister Dot got a bit more screen-time (and I think became one of my youngest sister’s favorite characters, as she watched A Bug’s Life quite a bit on VHS), but none of these characters really stuck…until Jessie.
Jessie is a character that has numerous moods, but is also one of the most complex the filmmakers had made at the time. Her abandonment by her owner has mentally affected her. Though she is supposed to be a very exuberant character, the thought of being alone again or ‘going back in the dark,’ causes her to hyperventilate and panic. I still remember the panic attack was quite a shock to me, the first time I saw it.
Even when Woody offers Jessie the chance to come back with him to Andy’s, Jessie is hesitant, unsure if she’s willing to take a chance that things may be different. All of these extra layers make Jessie a well-rounded personality, but even Jessie’s voice-actress Joan Cusack gave her some extra material. In the big rescue at the end, it was originally Woody who would save Jessie from slipping as they attempted to escape from an airplane. But in the recording booth, Joan suggested that it be the other way around!
2) Mortality/Immortality, and going out and living life
If you look further into Toy Story 2, it is surprising how the filmmakers have intertwined thoughts regarding life and death, with a world comprised of toys. This is pretty heavy stuff that little Johnny or Suzie probably wouldn’t get, but one can see it come out wonderfully for those of us who want to smack people around and tell them, “animation does not always mean just for kids, dipstick!”
When Andy accidentally rips part of Woody’s arm, it’s a sign that nothing will last forever. It’s like those of us who look in the mirror, and see that first gray hair. For much of the first half of the film, Woody is determined to get back to Andy, but then hears about Jessie’s sad tale about how she was loved, and then abandoned. This casts a whole new bit of doubt in Woody’s mind, and as he gets ready to venture down a dark air vent to head back to his owner, the Prospector’s voice is heard:
“How long will it last, Woody? Do you really think Andy is going to take you with him to college? Or on his honeymoon? Andy is growing up, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s your choice, Woody. You can go back, or you can stay with us, and last forever.”
Woody at first chooses this path, but when his friends come to rescue him, he declines to go back to Andy’s. But just when they are about to leave, Buzz sheds light on something the Prospector didn’t consider.
“I don’t have a choice, Buzz,” says Woody. “This is my only chance.”
“To do what, Woody,” asks Buzz. “To be watched from behind glass and never be loved again? Some life.”
And now, Woody is faced with a realization:
-He can go back, serve his purpose as a toy, and be loved by his owner…with the possibility of one day being cast aside, or outgrown.
-He can go with Jessie, Bullseye, and the Prospector to Japan to be displayed in the toy museum…but he’ll just be a display piece, and never truly be loved.
In a way, Woody’s relationship with Andy is almost like that of a parent. As parents, many people often look at their child as they grow up, and can still remember just yesterday when they were still learning to talk, or riding their first bicycle. And like all parents, there will come a time where your child will become an adult, and leave you to pursue their own goals and dreams in life.
Like a parent, Woody comes to terms with this, and tells the Prospector, “You’re right. I can’t stop Andy from growing up, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world!”
There’s a beauty in how the people at PIXAR tied this all together: life/death, mortality/immortality, toys/parents, it’s just mind-blowing when I consider it!
Though what also makes the film for me, is one of the final shots as the toys celebrate. Woody walks away from the festivities and looks out over the front of the house, seeing Andy playing with his Mom and Molly. As he watches, Buzz joins him.
“You worried,” asks Buzz.
“About Andy? Nah. It’ll be fun while it lasts,” says Woody, willing to let life roll onward, no matter what may happen.
“I’m proud of you cowboy,” says Buzz.
“Besides,” says Woody, putting an arm around his best friend, “When it’s all over and done, I’ll have my old pal Buzz Lightyear to keep me company…for Infinity, and Beyond.”
1) “We killed ourselves to make it”
That line in the picture caption above, was mentioned by Steve Jobs in the documentary, The PIXAR Story. When you look at Toy Story 2, it looks so effortless. But in truth, probably even to this day, it was a feature film that tested not only what the PIXAR name stands for, but how dedicated its staff were to putting out the best product they possibly could.
Originally, Toy Story 2 was scheduled as a direct-to-video release, and was assigned to a B-team group (the A-team group, composed of Toy Story vets like John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Andrew Stanton, and many others, were working on A Bug’s Life).
Eventually, word came that Disney would like Toy Story 2 to be released theatrically, and set a Thanksgiving 1999 release date for it. However, as time began to dwindle down, the A-team at PIXAR began to hear word that the sequel was not working out.
After they returned from their promotional tour of A Bug’s Life, John Lasseter and his friends sat down to see what was happening. Though it has never fully been disclosed to the public just what that original idea was, it was a consensus among the head guys at PIXAR that the film currently in production, was not up to their level of quality.
Eventually, they corresponded this to Disney, but were told that their request to start-over again was impossible. With the film due for release in 9 months, Toy Story 2 was locked in, and the company was just going to have to live with a product that was ‘good enough.’ Well, for John Lasseter and his cohorts…’good enough’ was not good enough.
Even though he was spent from his time finishing A Bug’s Life and promoting that film, Lasseter took the reins of Toy Story 2, and after reformulating the story at a week-long retreat, the company set out to completely storyboard/animate/render/etc the feature film that we know today…all in the span of 9 months! Ordinarily, it takes 3-4 years to develop an animated feature (the only other exception I know of, is that Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was completed in under 2 years).
The making of the film definitely took its toll on a lot of people. There was a story about how one guy was supposed to drop his daughter off at daycare…only to realize shortly after he had been working at his computer, that he had gone straight from home to the studio, and his daughter was still in the car in the studio parking lot! In the end, some animators suffered severe wrist injuries, and one of those person had a wrist injury so severe, they couldn’t continue to work once the film was over.
Like all films, Toy Story 2 got a wrap party and screening for the crew. At the Fox Theater in Oakland, CA, John Lasseter took to the stage, and looked out over all these people who had worked their butts off to turn a film that was ‘good enough,’ into one that proudly displayed the PIXAR logo.
“I am so sorry,” he said. “We are never, doing that, again.”
And in truth, it sounds like John stayed true to his word. There have been no more reports of 11th hour revisions on any PIXAR films since then, and the studio took great care to make their workplace not into a sweatshop, but into a place where their creative members were treated with a level of pride and dignity.
Of course, as many of us know, Toy Story 2 became one of the biggest hits of the fall/winter season of 1999. It was a hit with both fans and critics alike, and its improvement over the first film, had people comparing it to other ‘2’ films like The Empire Strikes Back, and The Godfather, Part 2.
One of the team’s most well-deserved moments, came at the Golden Globes on January 23rd, 2000. though it failed to win the award for Best Song that night, the highlight for me, was when they won for Best Comedy/Musical, beating out such films as Being John Malkovich, and Man on the Moon. I can only wonder how those people who gave their all for the film felt that night, when it won.
When I visited PIXAR in December of 2011 for the Cartoon Art Museum’s yearly benefit, I was so happy to see this award in person (see the picture to the right), displayed in a case near their main entrance. This wasn’t a ‘special honorary Oscar,’ or a ‘Best Animated Feature’ award. To me, this award showed that PIXAR had the clout to stand toe-to-toe with much of the live-action work out there.
And I’m pretty sure after Toy Story 2, I was cemented as a fan of PIXAR, eager to see what they were going to give us next, and eager to study animation, hoping one day, my path might lead me there.