"Toy Story" (1995) made history as the first completely CGI animated feature. But "Toy Story 2" (1999) is also one for the books. Why? Because it's one of the rare Hollywood sequels that's equal to the original . . . or better.
I happen to think it's better, and one word sums up why: Al.
That's Al (Wayne Knight), as in Al of Al's Toy Barn--the balding, portly, middle-aged slimeball who steals a rare Sheriff Woody doll from a garage sale because it was the last character from the old "Woody's Round-Up" TV show he needed to broker a big deal with a toy museum in Japan.
You look at Al's hairy arms, his porous skin--everything but his deliberately exaggerated cheese curl-stained stubby fingers--and you have to marvel at how far the Pixar CGI animators had come since "Toy Story" . . . and how quickly. In just four years the Pixar bunch really learned how to draw CG humans, and they were suddently embracing the kind of patterns and textures that would have been forbidden on TV from the era in which this animated film was set, because it would have been too noisy. Yet, you look at tight weaves and repeating patterns in this film and there isn't a hint of noise. Partly it's the transfer to 1080p, but mostly it's the precise CGI artwork and backgrounds that are responsible. Same with the dog in this film. Compare it with the dog in "Toy Story" and you'll see much more fluid movement and hair that's considerably more realistic looking.
And while "Toy Story" had a little fun with American pop culture, "Toy Story 2" has an all-out party. Barbie dolls get into the act, and the whole idea of toy collectors and values gets a proper roasting here--whether it's black-and-white segments of the old "Woody's Round-Up" TV show that both pay tribute to and poke fun of the old simple marionette children's TV shows or the squeaky toys that invariably break and lose their squeak, "Toy Story 2" takes the concept of "what can you do with a toy in a movie" and takes it one step further in this sequel--including some deliciously wicked self-referential humor (including a cameo by a few characters from "A Bug's Life").
It's déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say, when the gang runs into a brand-new, updated Buzz Lightyear toy who, like the original Buzz, harbors the delusion that he's really an intergalactic hero, not a toy. And with the characters already introduced, this installment gives the creators a chance to have a little more fun with them by exploring their personalities.
Joining the familiar crew of Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Slinky Dog (Jim Varney), Rex the Green Dinosaur (Wallace Shawn), Hamm the Piggy Bank (John Ratzenberger), Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Woody (Tom Hanks), and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) are Mrs. Potato Head (Estelle Harris), Tour Guide Barbie (Jodi Benson, the voice of Ariel), and Wheezy the Penguin (Joe Ranft).
The newest main toy characters are a trio from the old "Woody's Round-Up" TV show: Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl (Joan Cusack), Bullseye the Wonder Horse (no voice), and Stinky Pete the Prospector (Kelsey Grammer). Alas, it's the latter that seems a bit miscast. Not only does he sound more velvet-voiced than the grizzled old prospector we see on the old TV segments, but Grammer plays it pretty straight, so it's hard not to hear Sideshow Bob from "The Simpsons" when he speaks. To my way of thinking, that's the only misstep in the second outing, which continues the trip down nostalgic toy lane by adding such favorites as Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots and introduces a little satire on the "how to win at" video game books. "Toy Story 2" is much richer in allusions (including a hilarious "Star Wars" spoof) and satirical elements, and since it's also stronger in CGI graphics and equally solid in storyline, that makes it a better film in my book.
My kids thought the plot was more involved, though it too seems to follow the Pixar formula of separating someone from the rest, putting them in peril, and setting up a series of mishaps and misunderstandings along the way. In "Toy Story 2," Woody anticipates going to cowboy summer camp with his child owner, Andy (John Morris), but his arm is accidentally ripped off, forcing Woody to stay behind. Meanwhile, Andy's mom (Laurie Metcalf) is having a yard sale and Woody tries to rescue Wheezy from the castoffs. That's when toy collector and profiteer Al sees him and tries to buy him. Told it's there by mistake and not for sale, he grabs it when Andy's mom isn't looking. And just like that, the adventure begins.
In the first film it was Woody and the toys who tried to rescue Buzz, but this time Buzz and Woody change places. Complicating matters is that once the gang tracks Al to his Toy Barn courtesy of a TV ad and gets inside, Buzz encounters a newer model of himself who overpowers him and imprisons him in the box. As the other toys think Buzz is his old self, they keep trying to rescue Woody. Meanwhile, Woody has a situation of his own developing, as he's introduced to the "gang" from the old "Woody's Round-Up" and is show episodes and memorabilia from the TV show. Which life to choose? The immortal life and constant fan adulation of a toy museum doll, or the temporary happiness toys get with their child owner, who one day will outgrow them in "Puff, the Magic Dragon" fashion? Will the gang be able to rescue him, and will they find out who the real Buzz Lightyear is? There are more dramatic questions in this installment, and more action as well. The result is a film that works every bit as well as the first, and might even be better. In fact, John J. Puccio wrote in his earlier review that it's "an unqualified improvement over its predecessor in every way." Except for the casting of Grammer, I'm inclined to agree. It's more complex, certainly, and more accomplished in a number of departments. Put it this way: "Toy Story 3" has an extremely tough act to follow. But at least the Pixar gang has had another 10 years of experience to help them meet the challenge.
"Toy Story" was a wow in Blu-ray, but "Toy Story 2" was a WOW. And in 3D, it out-3Ds "Toy Story 3D," even though it wasn't originally made for 3D presentation. It's stunning, visually, with signature scenes like the Zurg-Buzz battle really popping out. The textures and level of detail are astounding, with almost every scene offering more to marvel at. When I visited Pixar Canada and interviewed chief technology officer Darwin Peachy, whose background includes 3D work, he told me that not every movie should be in 3D, but there are some films that are enhanced by it. The whole "Toy Story" trilogy falls into that category, but "Toy Story 2" is the most eye-popping of the three in 3D.
The MVC-MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc is flawless, with zero artifacts and a foray into textures and surfaces that leaves you marveling in almost every scene. The film's clarity comes from the original CGI work, and it's something to behold in Hi Def, and even more impressive in 3D. It's easily the kind of demo disc you'd pop in to show off your set-up to friends or family. In the scene where Buzz battles a multitude multi-headed creatures you can really see how Pixar cranked it up . . . not one notch, but dozens. Colors are brilliant, detail is incredible, and the 3D experience is consistently impressive and immersive. "Toy Story 2" is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is also flawless, with a dynamic English DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack that's as lively as it comes, with a full range of rich tones. The bass has real presence, and the directionality of sound channeled across the effects speakers seems wonderfully natural. There's a nice wide spread across the front speakers, too, so the sound doesn't hang near the speaker source. Everything is clean and precise, too, whether it's a whisper or an explosion. And boy, does Randy Newman's soundtrack put the cherry on the whipped cream.
Disney-Pixar also provides an English DTS-HD, English DVS 2.0 Dolby, and Spanish and French Dolby Digital EX 5.1 tracks, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
"Toy Story" had more carry-over bonus features from the previous DVD release, and so there aren't as many extras here. But the combo pack is complete, with Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital Copy included. Ported over from the previous
--A character sneak-peek of "Toy Story 3"
--Buzz Lightyear Mission Logs: Episode 2: International Space Station (with Buzz reporting back about his adventure to the International Space Station)
--Paths to Pixar: Technical Artists (a series of shorts that has Pixar artists talking about their career paths)
--Studio stories (three more anecdotal features about life at Pixar, including "Toy Story 2 Sleep Deprivation Lab," "Pinocchio" sessions involving toys thrown at the ceiling, and "The Movie Vanishes," which shares how a technical error almost erased all of TS2 from the computer system. Ouch.
--Pixar's Zoetrope (a look at the creation of the live-action zoetrope that Pixar created to capture the principles of animation in a live sculpture)
--Celebrating our Friend Joe Ranft (a very nice and appropriately long tribute to the late Disney-Pixar story man, who was regarded as one of the industry's most gifted story artists)
Those features run just over half an hour. Then there are carryovers from the previous DVD release, presented in standard definition. In addition to an extremely lively audio commentary featuring Lasseter, co-directors Lee Unkrich and Ash Brannon, and co-writer Andrew Stanton (which I highly recommend), there are close to two hours more of bonus features, including a making-of featurette, a very brief John Lasseter profile, an equally brief feature on TS2 characters, outtakes, deleted scenes, a collection of promo artwork and materials, and three more substantial short features on design, production, and music and sound design. As with "Toy Story" on Blu-ray, this is also BD-Live enabled. Included as well is a video/audio calibration tool for fine-tuning your home theater set-up. And this disc includes an audio/video calibration tool to help you maximize your home theater experience.
Except for a smooth-sounding prospector, "Toy Story 2" hits all the right notes and proved that sequels don't have to be inferior. And in 1080p and eye-popping 3D it's really something to see and hear. It's one of the best 3D presentations of the year. Even if you don't own a 3D TV (yet), these combo packs make sense, because you get the Digital Copy too.