When Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios first set the moviegoing public on its collective ear in 1995 with “Toy Story,” some people believed they were seeing the future of computer animation. In the wake of “Toy Story 2"--which opens Friday at Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre, followed by nationwide release Nov. 24--it becomes clear that what was seen four years ago was only the beginning.
“It’s addictive, this pioneering spirit here, always trying to do something that no one’s ever done before,” says Pixar’s John Lasseter, director of both “Toy Story” films. In what will likely be the most resounding refutation of Hollywood’s legendary “sequel curse” since “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Toy Story 2" brings back Woody and Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, respectively, as if you didn’t already know) in a story that revolves around the kidnapping of Woody and his discovery that he is a collectible doll from the 1950s who must now decide whether to remain with Andy, the boy who loves him but will someday outgrow him, or attain immortality in a toy museum.
The film also introduces new toy characters, including cowgirl Jessie (voiced by Joan Cusack), an old prospector named Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer) and a rubber penguin named Wheezy (Joe Ranft, who also served as co-head of story for the film).
More important, the film has enough new miracles up its sleeve to virtually re-create for audiences the “wow” factor of the original. And despite the vast leaps in digital technology since the first movie’s release, the filmmakers maintain that it’s not just about computers.
“I know there’s a fascination because people look at these movies as technical,” says Thomas Schumacher, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, “but we don’t obsess about the technology. It comes down to whether you love the characters and get caught up in the story.”
Whether creatively or technologically inspired (or both), these are some of the most notable (and noticeable) of the new things that will be on display in “Toy Story 2.”
1. Improved Facial Expression and Lip-Sync Animation. The original “Toy Story” was hailed for providing its computer-animated characters the same facial mobility as their hand-drawn brethren. But shading and rendering technology, not to mention animation techniques, had so vastly improved by “Toy Story 2" that virtually all the returning characters had to be remodeled or re-shaded in order to match the new ones.
“We’ve become better at building mouths and facial articulation in general,” says Galyn Susman, supervising technical director for the film. “On the old Woody, the corners of his mouth came to these razor-sharp points that would split if he opened his mouth too wide. Now we have better control over the parts of the lips.”
As for the lip-syncing itself, which appears precise enough to satisfy lip-readers, Lasseter adds, “That’s not technology, that’s the animators getting really, really good at what they do.”
2. Fantasy Elements. Sure, the whole thing is a fantasy, but in the original, the action never strayed far from Andy’s neighborhood. “Toy Story 2" opens with an outer space showdown between Buzz Lightyear and his evil nemesis, the Emperor Zurg, the outcome of which will stun some viewers (“We wanted to start the movie off with a bang and really fool the audience,” notes co-head of story Dan Jeup). Later in the film, we experience a nightmare of Woody’s and a flashback sequence involving Jessie.
“Toy Story 2" also features many more locations--which necessitated 18 separate computer-generated sets--including an airport, the mammoth toy store owned by obsessive toy collector Al McWhiggin (voiced by Wayne Knight) and Al’s high-rise apartment.
3. Heightened Photorealism for Settings. Even the best-trained eyes stand to be fooled by the reality of “Toy Story 2’s” settings, both interior and exterior. “We spent a lot of time trying to understand surfaces,” Susman says. “One thing that we spent a lot of time developing over the last couple years was a three-dimensional paint system, where a traditionally trained painter can feel like they are painting directly onto these 3-D objects. Computer graphics are very perfect, and [the 3-D paint system] gives us the ability to take the edge of perfection off everything and add a level of organic detail to make things feel much more real.”
The backgrounds also feature such detail as leaves on trees gently, almost subliminally, swaying in the breeze. “A lot of the exterior things, like putting motion into leaves, were technological problems that we solved on ‘A Bug’s Life’ and could directly import to ‘Toy Story 2,’ ” Susman says.
4. Selective Focus. Abetting the photoreal quality of the settings in “Toy Story 2" is a heightened sense of depth in the cinematography. “If you watch the first ‘Toy Story,’ we hardly ever made use of depth of field,” says “Toy Story 2’s” co-director Lee Unkrich. “While technically we could havedone it, it would have been computationally expensive and we wouldn’t have been able to render the film on time.” For the sequel,director of photography Sharon Calahan simulated a full range of camera movements and angles with realistic focus, including focus racks that draw the eye to a foreground or background image.
5. Emotion. As with all good films, good animated features have moments of genuine emotion, but in “Toy Story 2" the filmmakers have cranked the emotional level to a pitch not seen before in a major toon feature. “People will be coming to ‘Toy Story 2' expecting all of the humor and action and characters from the first one, but I think the emotion is going to surprise them,” Lasseter says.
Indeed, only the stoniest of viewers will remain unaffected by a show-stopping moment from Jessie, centered around the Randy Newman song “When She Loved Me,” sung by Sarah McLachlan. It encompasses the film’s key message, and frankly, there are Oscar winners out there who would be hard-challenged to match the performance in that scene, jointly created by Cusack and animator Tasha Wedeen.
That moment also demonstrates an example of perfect animation casting, according to co-director Ash Brannon. “It doesn’t hurt that we have a lot more women animators since ‘Toy Story’ started,” he says, “and it really helps to have a woman animating Jessie. Tasha animated that shot and I don’t think anybody could have done her better.”
6. Human Characters. While “Toy Story 2" features humansmore prominently than the original did, it does not go for complete photorealism. “Technologically speaking, the closer you get to trying to do something that’s really,accurately human, the farther away it’s actually going to be,” Susman says. But even within this nether world of half-toon, half-photorealistic character, Pixar has pushed the envelope toward reality, particularly in the case of Al, whose cartoony design belies the lifelike detail in his face--right down to the razor burns on his cheeks.
Says Lasseter: “We developed a lot of knowledge on how to create humans better than we had in ‘Toy Story’ through ‘Geri’s Game’ [Pixar’s 1997 Oscar-winning short], and those were all applied in ‘Toy Story 2.’ ” So, for that matter, was Geri himself, who makes an in-joke cameo in the film as the Cleaner (with veteran actor Jonathan Harris providing the voice).
7. Buster the Dog. Like the human characters in “Toy Story 2,” Andy’s puppy, a dachshund named Buster, stops short of being dead-on photorealistic, although in design and rendering he represents a giant leap in digital animal technology. Whereas Scud--the vicious bull terrier of the original film--appeared to be made of plastic with only an indication of hair, Buster has 4 million hairs, the result of fur software that was developed as the film progressed. (The importance of characters such as Buster to Hollywood at large, however, goes beyond the animated film and implies that those “No Animals Were Harmed . . .” tags at the ends of credit rolls will soon be replaced with: “Don’t Worry, Toto Was Digital.”)
8. Barbie! Although the world’s most famous toy was conspicuously absent in the original “Toy Story,” she had originally been slated for a cameo. Mattel ultimately vetoed her appearance, reportedly on the grounds that the depiction of Barbie was uncharacteristically tough and action-oriented (for the record, she was to have appeared in bad kid Sid’s room in her pink Corvette, order Woody into the car, then race outside to save Buzz).
“They [Mattel] were very protective of her and I don’t blame them,” Lasseter recalls, “but when ‘Toy Story’ became the No. 1 movie of 1995 and the No. 1 video of 1996, they were kind of kicking themselves. So when we talked to them [about the sequel], they were like: Yes! Yes, use Barbie! Please use Barbie!’ ”
In “Toy Story 2,” Barbie appears as an entire crowd of “Block Party” Barbies and turns up individually as “Tourguide Barbie,” delivering one of the best lines in the movie (at least for anyone who was a parent during Christmas season 1995).
9. Action Sequences. The original “Toy Story” had its share of action scenes, notably the climatic chase with Buzz and Woody trying to catch the moving van, but the action sequences in “Toy Story 2" approach the level of a summer movie. “We made a conscious decision to give the Buzz side of the story a lot of action,” Brannon says. “If we were going to go back and forth between the Woody plot [where Woody has been kidnapped by Al] and the Buzz plot [where Buzz leads the rest of the toys on a rescue mission], we should balance it out with some action scenes.”
10. The Sophistication/Hipness Factor. Even more so than the original, “Toy Story 2" plays to adults on a variety of levels: emotionally, humorously and even cinematically. “The startling experience for me was how well this movie plays on a level of sophistication,” Schumacher notes. “The whole carpe diem theme with Woody is a very sophisticated idea set in a movie that is so charming and winning.”
So are many of the jokes. At the risk of tipping some of the gags, a couple of guys named Steven and George are in for some good-natured ribbing, and moviegoers with laser vision might be able to spot Heimlich, the caterpillar character from “A Bug’s Life,” crawl through part of one scene. Then there’s Robert Goulet singing the “Toy Story” theme song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” How hip can you get?
In the final accounting, though, Lasseter feels the chief difference between the two films boils down to experience. “This is now the third movie we’ve made,” he says, “and the people really know these characters and they’re at the top of their game.”