(Infinity and Beyond is a regular bi-weekly column documenting the 25-year filmography of Pixar Animation Studios, film by film. In today’s column, writer Josh Spiegel highlights Toy Story 2.)

The 1990s were a decade of change for the Walt Disney Company. Executive shakeups, outside acquisitions, and more made the company much more massive by the close of the 1990s than they were at the start. In 1990, Pixar Animation Studios was able to see its computer technology on display for a brief minute or two in the hand-drawn animated film The Rescuers Down Under. By 1999, Pixar had proven that it just might be the powerful new kid in town in the animation industry.

And it was all thanks to a sequel that nearly got trapped on the small screen.

My Source of Power

1990 was also the year when the Walt Disney Company released its first theatrical animated film from a different studio, one largely focused on small-screen properties. The film was DuckTales The Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp, a spin-off of the well-liked TV series starring Scrooge McDuck, and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Like the show, DuckTales the Movie was not given a high budget; the studio making the film, dubbed Disney MovieToons at the time (before being renamed as DisneyToon Studios later in the 1990s), was based in France and worked primarily on Disney’s TV shows. 

In spite of the low budget, and the fact that plenty of kids knew what DuckTales was, the film made just a modest amount of money at the box office. DisneyToon Studios has had a number of other theatrical releases, such as the mid-90s film A Goofy Movie, but they mostly focused on making feature-length films that would only ever live on home media. Four years after DuckTales The Movie, they released The Return of Jafar, the first direct-to-video sequel to a Disney animated classic. It’s important to reflect on The Return of Jafar in context with Toy Story 2, because the success of the former inspired Disney to sequelize a lot of other animated films, just for the TV screen. (The Return of Jafar sold nearly 5 million VHS copies in its first week alone.)

By the end of the 1990s, a number of other Disney Renaissance-era films had gotten the DTV treatment from DisneyToon Studios, such as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Pocahontas. Thus, it may have been a natural notion for Disney executives to want to do the same to the first computer-animated film ever released, especially since Toy Story wound up as the highest-grossing domestic release of 1995. Though discussions of a sequel, per the David Price book The Pixar Touch, began as early as December of 1995, there wasn’t a whole lot clear at the outset of what the film would look like (would it be computer-animated or traditionally animated?), who would direct it, or even if stars Tom Hanks and Tim Allen would return. But the man who had replaced Jeffrey Katzenberg at Disney, Joe Roth, was very clear on one thing: Pixar should try to make the sequel direct-to-video.

Big Bucks, Bucks, Bucks!

In March of 1997, Disney announced that it was producing a sequel to Toy Story, even though the story elements were just coming together. Some of the aspects of the story were cobbled together from earlier versions of the original film, dating back to when Pixar simply had aspirations of making a 30-minute TV special called A Tin Toy Christmas, not a feature film about toys. Where Toy Story was all about Woody having to rescue Buzz, the latter of whom needs to appreciate that he’s just a toy, Toy Story 2 flipped the script. Woody (still voiced, of course, by the incomparable Hanks) learns that back in the 1950s, he was one of the biggest stars in all of entertainment, on the same level as Howdy Doody. Yet in the modern era, the toy is so rare that a nefarious toy-store owner (Wayne Knight) steals him from a yard sale and tries to sell him along with the other characters from the 50s-era show Woody starred in, to a toy museum in Japan. It’s up to Buzz and the other toys from Andy’s room to rescue their friend.

Knight’s character, Al McWhiggin, was also taken from an early version of Toy Story; Lasseter would later say that the slovenly character was based on…him and his extreme love of toys to the point where he would sometimes get bothered when his own kids tried to play with them. (It’s not the most flattering comparison, since Al isn’t a very complex character.) Bits and pieces throughout the film would be stitched together – even the opening scene, which is eventually revealed to be a video game within the movie itself, starring Buzz Lightyear at his most comically heroic, was a riff on an idea from the original film and how the audience would first be introduced to Buzz.

In the period when Toy Story 2 was still headed for video first, it was being handled by the previous Interactive Products Group at Pixar, which had handled computer games for the studio based on Toy Story. Midway through production, Steve Jobs nixed that division, folding them into the proper production of the sequel; Disney had requested that a new producer be installed on the film, at the same time that everyone began to mull whether Toy Story 2 was more appropriate for the big screen. Part of the reason was that the story reels were impressive to Joe Roth and fellow Disney exec Peter Schneider. But part of the shift was cost. Where the DisneyToon Studios films could be made cheaply, the same wasn’t exactly true of Toy Story 2. Since the sequel was still being made by Pixar, and not farmed out to another studio, the salaries for the people on the latter project were already higher than Disney would’ve otherwise wanted. More importantly, Pixar wasn’t interested in cutting corners visually or technologically.

I’m Officially Freaked Out Now

That was the good news: Toy Story 2 would be headed to theaters, where it belonged. And the film would avoid the eventual stigma associated with DisneyToon Studios releases (specifically, that they’re lazy, creatively defunct, and visually unpleasant). The bad news was twofold: the story needed work if it was going to be a theatrical release, and Disney was unwavering on when they wanted the film to arrive, in the Thanksgiving holiday of 1999.

The shift for Toy Story 2 was also a shift that would gradually set the gears in motion for a fierce battle in the years to come between the folks in Burbank and Emeryville. To wit, Pixar and Disney had made their initial distribution deal for original films only. When Toy Story 2 became a theatrical release, a new deal was struck, in which Pixar was on the hook for five films. Five original films, thus meaning that Toy Story 2 wouldn’t be part of that overall deal. (For now, consider this information foreshadowing.)

Jobs told the Pixar staff of the update in February of 1998, with the November 1999 release date looming ahead. That was all well and good, but the post-production and release of A Bug’s Life meant that Lasseter – once again credited as director, but with Ash Brannon and Lee Unkrich working as co-directors on the project – wasn’t as involved in the story development of Toy Story 2 until it was just about too late. After he wrapped up the marketing tour in Europe for A Bug’s Life, he came back to Emeryville and couldn’t help but be disappointed at what he saw. He and the rest of the Pixar brain trust agreed: they wouldn’t be proud of a second Toy Story unless they could figure out the story in full and redo it entirely. Disney wouldn’t budge on the release date, however. 

So the solution was unavoidable: after a story summit with a handful of creatives, Lasseter and the rest of the team would…have to re-complete Toy Story 2 in just nine months.

Your Angry Eyes

Before you marvel at the fact that a film often held up as one of the best Pixar ever made was essentially made in just nine months, consider the harsh reality of how that had to happen. At the time, Pixar wasn’t quite a fledgling start-up, but it also wasn’t the unstoppably dominant studio we now consider it. There were only so many people working on the production, and only so much time in the day. 

David Price’s book recounts a horrifying anecdote: one unnamed animator, on a day during the ramped-up production, was tasked by his wife to drop their infant child off at daycare. He assented, only to realize hours later in the office that he had forgotten to drop their child off, and the infant was still in the car. Fortunately, the infant was fine. But it was a sign that Pixar’s workers were overstressed, overtired, and pushed to impossible limits. On a larger level, roughly a third of the animators on the project were eventually felled by carpal tunnel syndrome or repetitive stress injuries due to their workloads and compressed schedules.

The workloads were larger because the canvas for the story was larger, too. Toy Story mostly took place in just a few locations: Andy’s bedroom, the bedroom of his toy-destroying neighbor Sid, a local restaurant called Pizza Planet, and a few vehicles. Toy Story 2 would incorporate Andy’s bedroom once more, but the action was bigger: it would climax with a car chase that begins at an apartment building and ends on the runway of a tri-county airport. 

Some of the setpieces were visual proof of how far technology had come. The manic car chase of the first film’s finale was echoed in a clever, sharply witty action sequence in which Buzz, Mr. Potato Head, Hamm, Rex, and Slinky Dog try to cross the street to enter Al’s Toy Barn, without realizing that by doing so, they’re causing a multi-car pileup that causes a light pole to fall from its foundation and land on the road. As Lasseter described in the film’s commentary track, though, some of the seemingly simplest details were hardest to accomplish. In the early going, when Woody is placed on the top shelf in Andy’s room because his arm has been torn from some roughhousing, he’s shocked to see an old penguin squeaker toy, Wheezy, who’s been up on the shelf for much longer. The dust particles ended up being a Herculean task for the animators, especially since there were two million particles to animate.

It’s Really You!

Leaving aside the technical problems, Toy Story 2 is a film that’s not content with just being the same story. Though some of the same themes are played off here — in revealing Woody’s past, the film leans very much into the unspoken truth that he’s a very old toy who likely predated Andy by decades, and from the nefarious Stinky Pete the Prospector (Kelsey Grammer), we learn that Woody’s popularity dimmed with the arrival of the Sputnik rocket in 1957 — the story pushes Woody in new directions. 

While the first film is largely about the bliss of being played with by a child, Toy Story 2 poses harder questions that come with the passage of time. Stinky Pete, though he’s the villain of the film, asks the obvious question: “Do you really think Andy’s going to bring you to college? Or on his honeymoon?” (In 2020, because of the prevalence of toys in the adult set, that question might be thornier than the filmmakers could have expected.)

And those questions are all the harder for Woody to handle because of the presence of a female counterpart, Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl, voiced masterfully by Joan Cusack. Jessie is bubbling with energy from her first appearance, though that energy can turn nasty and spiteful quickly, as it does when Jessie realizes that Woody is still owned by a child and seemingly wanted by said tyke. It’s only once we learn about Jessie’s past that Woody softens to her, for a time even deciding to stay with the rest of the Woody’s Roundup gang and be carted off to Japan.

Everything Was Beautiful

Hyperbolic though it may seem, “When She Loved Me” is one of the most important sequences in Pixar’s filmography. In some ways, it seems like a bit of a double-down on the emotionally tinged song from Toy Story, “I Will Go Sailing No More”. That song, performed and written by Randy Newman, plays as Buzz Lightyear sees a TV commercial for himself, realizes that Woody has been right about his toy identity, and attempts and fails to fly for real. With just a few words of dialogue, Buzz goes through an existential identity crisis. It’s a sweet moment, but not exactly gut-wrenching.

“When She Loved Me” is different. The song, written by Newman but performed by Sarah McLachlan, accompanies a wordless flashback that explains what it is that’s made Jessie such a bitter toy. She, like Woody, was once loved by a child, a girl named Emily. But unlike Woody, she had to experience what happened when her child grew out of playing with toys, relegated to being underneath Emily’s bed for years…until an older Emily picks her up, takes her on a drive, and promptly donates her to a goodwill organization, abandoning her forever. As performed wistfully by McLachlan seven years before any of her music was used in those twinkly, heartbreaking ads for the ASPCA, “When She Loved Me” is nothing short of emotional terrorism. 

You can (and should) consider that to be a high compliment. “When She Loved Me” is a beautiful, achingly sad song accompanying animation that managed to hit hard with a lot of adults because it moved beyond the existential reality of a toy who thinks it’s a space ranger. In that moment, some parents could see themselves as Jessie, being abandoned by their children as they grow up. And other adults could be guilted into seeing themselves as Emily, dropping off a toy after years of companionship. It’s a brilliant sequence that serves as a template for future gut-wrenching sequences in Pixar’s filmography.

We Are Eternally Grateful

Surrounding that sequence is a film of uncompromising excitement, of quick wit, and of fast pace. Toy Story 2 clocks in just past 90 minutes, and manages to serve its many characters very well. Rex, as we see from the opening, is obsessed with besting a Buzz Lightyear video game, which he’s able to do in real life during his adventure in rescuing Woody. Mr. Potato Head, as the end of the first film teased, is now a “married spud”, with Mrs. Potato Head (voiced by Estelle Harris, bringing that Mrs. Costanza energy to animation) matching his shrill personality beat for beat. 

And Buzz has a new wrinkle in his identity crisis. When he and the other toys arrive at Al’s Toy Barn, he finds himself in an aisle dedicated to Buzz Lightyear toys, of a slightly improved model (offering a new utility belt). That’s all well and good, until Buzz realizes that one of the model toys on display is awake, just like him. And just like him at the start of the first film, this Buzz thinks it’s a space ranger. That leads to some hilarious mix-ups, with the other toys not quite getting that the second Buzz isn’t their Buzz until it’s too late. (It’s hard to choose the exact funniest moment in Tim Allen’s committed dual performance, but when the second Buzz dubs Hamm “slotted pig”, it’s pretty great.)

Jessie isn’t the only new female character in the mix, either. Writer Joss Whedon had always wanted one of the most famous toys of all, Barbie, in the first Toy Story. But while Mattel was resistant originally, upon the first film’s success, there was no hesitation. So now, we get Tour Guide Barbie, voiced by Jodi Benson, best known as the voice of Ariel from The Little Mermaid, whose ebullient attitude is a nice rejoinder to the back-and-forth bickering of our heroes. (It’s also to the film’s credit that an early gag in which both Hamm and Mr. Potato Head are very attracted to Tour Guide Barbie isn’t repeated more than once.)

A Friend In Me

Toy Story 2 was, like many Pixar films, not the kind of film to gradually get an audience. As with the original, audiences and critics knew instantly that this was something special. Not only was it a third solid film from Pixar, but it was that rarest of sequels: something as good as the original, if not better. Among critics, it’s widely beloved, being one of the truly unique movies of the modern era: it has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, something few other films can claim. The film was also a big hit at the box office, outgrossing the two previous Pixar films with $245 million domestically and just under $500 million worldwide. Though Toy Story 2 couldn’t claim to be the highest-grossing film of the year, it was one of Disney’s biggest success stories. (As luck would have it, it wasn’t even Disney’s biggest hit in 1999: that was The Sixth Sense.)

Pixar’s animators had somehow pulled off the impossible. They had been tasked with overhauling a feature film with just nine months to go, a big cast, overworked schedules…and they managed to do it all. Pixar was now three for three — not all of their first few films were perfect, but they were consistently impressing critics and audiences the world over. They still had some new stories to tell, original ideas to push forward. Pixar’s next film would hopefully push them further creatively.

That is, if they were legally allowed to release it.

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Next Time: Learn about how the world of Monstropolis was nearly held up by a lawsuit.

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