Thirteen years have elapsed between the first Pixar film, an Oscar-nominated two-minute short about an adventurous lamp called “Luxo Jr.,” and the current “Toy Story 2,” the elaborate successor to one of the highest grossing animated features of all time. But less has changed than you might think.
For what “Luxo Jr.” (newly visible as part of a brief Pixar promo that precedes all “Toy 2" showings) and the new film have in common, aside from the gleeful guiding hand of director John Lasseter, is their pleasingly clever and fiendishly inventive sense of humor. Whether it be the first “Toy Story” or last year’s “A Bug’s Life,” to see a Pixar film is to know that the comedy will be as smart as the visuals are impressive. “Toy Story 2,” thankfully, is no exception to that rule.
Lively and good-humored with a great sense of fun, “Toy Story 2" picks up the story where its predecessor left off. Improvements in computer technology have made for advances like greater use of depth of field, but the characters of frontier sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks), over-motivated spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the rest of the toys in young Andy’s room are just as we remember them.
It’s one of the gifts of the gang at Pixar (which includes screenwriters Andrew Stanton, Rita Hsiao, Doug Chamberlin & Chris Weber and story folks Lasseter, Peter Docter, Ash Brannon and Stanton) that they’re able to come up with convincing dilemmas for toys to contend with and us to care about, surely no simple task.
This time, the scenarios intrigue on both a psychological and an adventure level, making light and lively work of unexpected but accessible themes like the mortality of playthings and, believe it or not, the very question of what it means to be a toy. When Lee Unkrich (a co-director along with Brannon) is quoted in the press notes about “plumbing the depths of a toy’s psyche,” he is not really kidding.
After an amusing “Star Wars” opening focusing on a scary new Buzz Lightyear video game, “Toy 2’s” scene shifts to the familiar confines of Andy’s bedroom, where Woody is preparing the gang for the few days he will be absent. He’s accompanying Andy to one of the boy’s favorite activities, a weekend of Cowboy Camp.
But everything changes when a tear in Woody’s arm causes him to be unceremoniously left behind, bringing on a toy-sized midlife crisis accompanied by nightmares and whispered repetitions of the fatal words, “Woody’s been shelved.”
Still wounded, Woody is brought out of himself by the even graver dilemma of Wheezy (Joe Ranft, the German caterpillar Heimlich in “A Bug’s Life”), a squeak toy penguin who’s lost his squeaker and is about to be consigned to hell on Earth for toys: the garage sale. “We’re only a stitch away,” he says gravely, pointing to Woody’s arm and the sale table, “from here to there.”
In an attempt to save Wheezy from that unkind fate, Woody comes to the attention of the rotund Al of Al’s Toy Barn (Wayne Knight), an unscrupulous collector who pilfers Woody when he realizes how valuable a toy he is. A bit like current literary star Harry Potter, Woody has never known anything about his own illustrious past.
Back at Al’s apartment, he watches tapes of “Woody’s Roundup,” the super-popular “Howdy Doody"-type TV show he was the centerpiece of, and gets exposed to so much Woody paraphernalia, from lunch boxes to record players, it’s all he can do to respond, “I’m officially freaked out here.”
Helping in Woody’s education are his fellow “Roundup” toys, long-lost collaborators he never knew he had, such as his horse Bullseye, irrepressible cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) and the canny old prospector Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer), still, Jessie says in awed tones, “mint in the box.”
Woody also learns that Al is planning to sell the “Roundup” gang to a posh Japanese toy museum, a situation that leads to many of “Toy 2’s” most engaging dilemmas. What does Woody owe to his “Roundup” compatriots, who will have to experience the horrors of storage if he breaks up the set? What does he owe to Buzz and the rest of his posse, who are even now moving heaven and Earth to try to rescue him? What does he owe to Andy, the owner he loves and who dearly loves him back, given the inevitability that Andy will grow up and abandon him? What the heck is a toy to do?
Even if the existential despair of toys has never previously interested you (that probably covers most of us), “Toy Story 2" makes it all irresistibly comic as well as surprisingly emotional. Fast-moving and busy, piling jeopardy on top of jeopardy but still finding time for an amusing subplot involving a Tour Guide Barbie, “Toy Story 2" may not have the most original title, but everything else about it is, well, mint in the box.
* MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: The opening Buzz Lightyear video game may be briefly scary to youngest viewers.
‘Toy Story 2'
Tom Hanks: Woody
Tim Allen: Buzz Lightyear
Joan Cusack: Jessie
Kelsey Grammer: Stinky Pete
Don Rickles: Mr. Potato Head
Jim Varney: Slinky Dog
Wallace Shawn: Rex
John Ratzenberger: Hamm
Wayne Knight: Al
A Pixar Animation Studios film, released by Walt Disney Pictures. Director John Lasseter. Co-directors Lee Unkrich, Ash Brannon. Producers Helene Plotkin, Karen Robert Jackson. Executive producer Sarah McArthur. Screenplay Andrew Stanton, Rita Hsiao, Doug Chamberlin & Chris Webb. Original story John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Ash Brannon, Andrew Stanton. Cinematography Sharon Calahan. Editors Edie Bleiman, David Ian Salter, Lee Unkrich. Music Randy Newman. Production design William Cone, Jim Pearson. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
Opens exclusively today at the El Capitan Theatre, 6838 Hollywood Blvd., (323) 467-7674. Opens in general release Wednesday.