Sequels represent a risk in Hollywood, and they’re the kind of risk that the industry just can’t get enough of. Audiences love the original story, so they’re given a second story that offers more of the same in the hopes that those same audiences will buy even more tickets. The 2010s have allowed and enabled studios to find new ways to dredge up the past — sequels are now joined by remakes, revivals, re-imaginings, reboots, and more. Within the Walt Disney Company, any attempt to keep intellectual property going has been largely welcomed. Drilling down further, though, it’s worth pondering the effect of the sequel on one of the company’s most unassailable brands, Pixar Animation Studios. For a long time, it was easy to treat Pixar synonymously with the concept of originality. The studio’s addition of so many sequels in the 2010s was so distressing because it felt counterintuitive to what Pixar was known for: unique, distinctive stories.

That is, except their third feature film, which was a sequel.

Ride Like the Wind

Toy Story 2, leaving aside its quality as a sequel, nearly wasn’t released in theaters. And then, it was nearly not even made. The success of Toy Story, Pixar’s debut and the first fully computer-animated film ever, guaranteed that Disney would be working with the Emeryville, California-based company for a long time ahead. The 1995 film garnered the studio an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay, became the highest-grossing title of the year at the domestic box office, and was widely beloved all around. At the time of its release, Disney was in the habit of making sequels to its recent animated films — but all of those sequels were headed straight to video.

There was a time when Toy Story 2 would have suffered the same fate, joining the questionable camp of films like The Return of Jafar and The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride. (Admittedly, a couple of the home-media sequels are decent, but those are few and far between.) But it became clear early on that Toy Story 2, like its predecessor, was a different sort of animal. The film, celebrating its 20th anniversary this month, barely arrived at all — it’s now a source of perverse pride at Pixar that the film we all know came together in just nine months. (As in, the nine months leading up to November 1999.) The finished product, in which Sheriff Woody (voiced again by Tom Hanks) learns that he was once as popular a toy as Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) is in the present, and considers the possibility of being a museum piece in Japan, is rightly considered one of Pixar’s best films, and one of the best sequels of all time, in any medium.

Just as Toy Story was a massively influential film in the medium of animation — computer animation is now the norm, and hand-drawn animation is sadly seen as a tool of the past — so too was Toy Story 2. Pixar now has become as well known for its franchises as for original films like Coco and Inside Out, but it’s far from the only studio defined by its intellectual property. The entirety of the world of mainstream animation is typified by the ability, or failure, to turn one film into two, two into three, and then some. And while Pixar didn’t spearhead the ability to sequel-ify its stories, they led the charge without even realizing it.

A Child’s Plaything

On the face of it, you might presume that Pixar didn’t lead the charge at all, but it was a competitor instead. That would be DreamWorks Animation, headed up by ex-Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. His studio made a couple of animated films in the 1990s (including the Pixar copycat Antz), but they became a juggernaut with the 2001 animated comedy Shrek, a riff on fairy tales like those Katzenberg had helped revive back in the early 1990s at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Shrek was a massive hit, and just like his fellow executive Michael Eisner would do with Pixar’s titles, Katzenberg drove to make one film into a series.

DreamWorks, for a long time, was a studio that seemed designed to have two aims at most: either create new films that could become series, or create new entries in a pre-existing series. Shrek 2, the 2004 sequel, was the highest-grossing animated film of all time at the domestic box office for over 15 years. The film that supplanted it as the top dog? Pixar’s Finding Dory, before Pixar’s Incredibles 2 topped it in 2018. For a long time, though, DreamWorks was far more laser-focused on its sequels. Between 2007 and 2012, for example, they released twelve films, six of which were sequels or prequels to prior entries.

Now, the sense of the sequel reigning over all in mainstream animation has shifted. DreamWorks is now owned by Universal Pictures, which also owns the animation studio Illumination Entertainment. That studio, which has largely succeeded by making low-budget animated films with easy hooks and recognizable stars, has released ten features in the decade, including three separate follow-ups to the first Despicable Me, with a fourth on the way. That’s not to exclude this summer’s sequel to The Secret Life of Pets, or the upcoming sequel to Sing. Originality is not found often there.

But the same can be said, frustratingly so, at Disney and Pixar. Of course, Walt Disney Animation Studios was never founded on the sense of letting original storytelling do the work. So many of their classics are adaptations of beloved fairy tales, and so few are wholly original and not based on some other work. (You could use both of your hands to count the number of Disney films not based on or inspired by some other work, and you’d still have fingers left over.) Yet the 2010s has been marked by the presence of sequels, with follow-ups to Wreck-It Ralph, Finding Nemo, Cars, and of course, Frozen

Upstart Space Toys

From a fiscal standpoint, it’s easy enough to see why so many of these films get made. As mentioned above, the two highest-grossing animated films at the domestic box office are Finding Dory and Incredibles 2, both of which were long-anticipated sequels that thrived thanks to pent-up demand for new stories with these well-liked characters. And seeing as Frozen was an instant phenomenon, the cynical viewpoint might be that it’s only surprising to see how long it took for Disney to greenlight a sequel. (We’ll see if Frozen II can top those Pixar sequels before the end of its release.)

Financial cynicism was arguably part of the decision to turn Toy Story 2 into a theatrically released film instead of a solely in-home experience. In 1999, it was still largely not the standard for Disney to make sequels in theaters to its own films. The year 1990 marked their very first theatrical sequel, The Rescuers Down Under; creatively, it’s a mixed bag, but it was a straight-up flop at the box office. And while many of Disney’s classics had built-in audiences of all ages, they were crafted in such a way to have a definitive, happily-ever-after ending. Making a theatrical sequel might have seemed, at the time, tantamount to remaking it. (And remaking an earlier animated film would certainly never happen at Disney. Cough.)

Toy Story 2 felt different. As incredible as it is to ponder that this movie was cobbled together from both a storytelling and technological perspective in the literal nine months before it was released, Toy Story 2 manages to sidestep the problem that most sequels are plagued by and feels driven by a genuine creative need. Letting Sheriff Woody grapple with his previously unknown past fame is a clever inverse of his original character arc. Reversing things so that Buzz has to rescue Woody, and Woody has to deal with the existential argument at the core of the entire franchise, makes for an emotionally rewarding experience. Couple that with more breathlessly paced action, witty comedy, and heartbreaking pathos (who can forget the “When She Loved Me”-scored flashback to Woody’s TV pal Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl?), and Toy Story 2 was all but guaranteed to become the rare sequel that’s as good as its predecessor. (For my money, the first film is still the best, but I know lots of people would pick this instead.)

Infinity And Beyond

The problem is not that Toy Story 2 inspired other studios to go all-in on sequels to animated fare, just as it wasn’t a problem that Toy Story inspired studios to gradually move away from hand-drawn animation in favor of computer technology. The medium of animation can be utilized to tell any number of wondrous, thoughtful, compelling stories, and some of those can be continuations of the same. (I will happily go on record as saying that Toy Story 3 is also excellent, and both Incredibles 2 and Monsters University are pretty great, too.) But when the decision is made to make a sequel, without figuring out if there’s a new story to tell, it’s equivalent to deciding to make a computer-animated film because “that’s what audiences want” instead of the story itself requiring that technology.

From the outside in, it’s impossible to imagine the level of stress permeating through Pixar Animation Studios when they were working on Toy Story 2. Making any movie come together in nine months is an insane task; making a movie like this come together in that timespan seems like a Herculean effort, and it remains next to implausible to marvel that the animators at Pixar ever pulled it off. The subtext of why this is so remarkable is what’s missing from so many animated sequels: they were busting their collective asses because they knew this was a story that had to be told.

That, in effect, is what makes Toy Story 2 special, and what can be so hard to find in many other animated sequels of the last 20 years, even the very good ones. This film needed to be made, because this story needed to be told. Just as its predecessor was made with modest means and with no sense of possibility of where the world of animation would shift, the same was true of Toy Story 2. We are now awash in an ocean of animated sequels, reboots, revivals, and remakes. And for good or ill, the path that led us here began in Emeryville and in the bedroom of a little boy making up all sorts of playtime fantasies with a toy cowboy, spaceman, and more. Those fantasies needed to be shared, but so few of the sequels inspired by Pixar’s early success can say the same.

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