Sometimes when writing these blog posts, especially for movies as famous as Toy Story and its sequels, it’s more interesting to talk about their backstory than it is to talk about the movie itself. After all, Toy Story might actually be the most famous animated movie trilogy of all-time (soon to be a quadrilogy). And while it’s worth talking about Toy Story 2 as a movie, this is definitely one of those cases where the backstory is more fun to talk about.
Talks for a Toy Story sequel began about a month after the first movie released in 1995, and why not? The first movie was a massive success. Hopes for a sequel were helped when director John Lasseter was traveling with his family after the movie’s release, and he spotted a young boy clutching a Woody doll at an airport. I can imagine how good that must have felt.
Disney originally planned Toy Story 2 as a direct to video sequel, which Disney made a lot of in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Aladdin’s own sequel, The Return of Jafar, had recently returned an estimated $100 million in profits, so why wouldn’t they go that route? But with a much smaller budget, it wasn’t clear whether they could even afford to bring back stars Tom Hanks and Tim Allen as Woody and Buzz Lightyear. Thankfully, the test screenings went over so well that Toy Story 2 soon became a full theatrical sequel instead.
This led to some of Toy Story 2’s many complications during its development. First off, as much as people enjoyed the screening, the story needed improvement in order to work as a theatrical release. Lasseter and his writing team redeveloped the entire plot over one weekend. Most Pixar movies take years to develop, yet Disney wouldn’t budge on the established release date of November 24 of 1999. As a result, they needed to compress the production schedule.
From the start, Lasseter wanted a story that respected the original, while exploring the idea of what these living toys would find genuinely upsetting. How would they feel if they weren’t being played with, or when a child would outgrow them. The idea of turning Woody into an antique collectable came from a pitched half-hour short by Pixar, A Tin Toy Christmas, which never got made. The obsessive toy collector Al, who was originally planned for the first Toy Story but was later removed, was added to Toy Story 2 as the primary antagonist.
As they approached the production stage in 1997, most of Pixar’s crew was still busy working on A Bug’s Life. It was unclear whether Pixar would produce the movie, or if they’d need a secondary studio. The Interactive Products Group, with a staff of 95 (including animators, an art department and engineers), joined in to help. This same group had already worked on two CD-ROM games based on Toy Story in one year, which combined, featured about the same amount of animation as the first Toy Story movie.
The team didn’t want to stray too far from Toy Story’s look, but with the advancements in CGI technology, it allowed them to use more complicated camera shots. They also added dust effects, which provided the animators with the challenge of animating dust for the first time in CG history. Figuring out how to animate dust took several months on its own. It not only worked well from a visual standpoint, but it helped to visually drive home some of the movie’s themes.
About half-way through production (and after A Bug’s Life’s release), there was a small dispute between Disney and Pixar over the movie’s production. Many of Pixar’s staff insisted the movie needed to be redone, thinking it wasn’t that great of a movie at that point. Disney not only disagreed, but they insisted that Pixar wouldn’t have enough time to redo the movie to make its release date. Pixar decided to do it anyway, further compressing their production cycle to a mere 9 months. That’s where the chaos began.
During their redo, everyone started working extra hard. There was one incident where one animator forgot to drop his child off at daycare one morning and forgot him in the back seat of his car. To quote David Price in his 2008 book, The Pixar Touch, “Although quick action by rescue workers headed off the worst, the incident became a horrible indicator that some on the crew were working too hard.” Some animators also suffered from repetitive strain injuries or carpel tunnel syndrome during its production. By the end of production, almost a third of the animation staff ended up with some form of RSI.
There was also an incident where someone accidentally entered a command to completely clear the main storage drive that held the entire movie, fairly late in its production cycle too. First, Woody’s hat disappeared. Than his boots. Than Woody himself. When they realized what was happening, they rushed to unplug the computer, but most of the movie had disappeared by then. They tried the backup, but not only was the backup not recently updated – some of it was either corrupted or missing unknown elements.
Thankfully, Galyn Susman (Supervising Technical Director) had been working on the movie mostly from home, due to a recently born child. She carefully drove her computer to the main Pixar Studio with everything they had been working on to that point, saving the production from a complete disaster.
Despite the movie’s many production problems, it released on time to massive success, both commercially and critically. Back then, many critics and fans considered it one of the few sequels better than it’s original. It ended up earning $497 million on a $90 million budget, which is more than any Disney Animation Studios movie had made since The Lion King (1994) and more than any of the main studio’s movies would make until 2010’s Tangled. That also made it the third most profitable movie of 1999, only behind The Sixth Sense and Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. It even beat The Matrix (which earned $463 million). Anyone who remembers when The Matrix craze first hit knows how impressive that is.
Toy Story won a number of awards as well, including seven Annie Awards (mostly for outstanding achievement), the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy, the Grammy Award for Best Written Song for a Motion Picture (as well as multiple other best song nominations), and an award in 2005 from Satellite Awards for Outstanding Youth DVD for its 2-disc special edition.
Personally, I loved this movie when it first released and I still really enjoy it now. While I think the first movie had more heart to it, the themes in Toy Story 2 of toys being abandoned, vs their duty to keep kids happy, are brilliantly explored. It’s hard not to tear up when Jessie the cowgirl talks about how much she loved her owner, only to mourn the day she was donated to a charity.
Jessie’s story gives Woody a harsh dilemma. Does he go back to Andy’s house, leaving his roundup gang to live in storage for who knows how long, knowing that Andy will eventually outgrow him? Or does he abandon his owner in exchange to live in a museum, and with it, a stable life where he’d be admired by nerds and kids for years to come? This is a theme that’s continued brilliantly in Toy Story 3, but we’ll get to that later.
Kelsey Grammer also gives a great performance as The Prospector, another member of Woody’s toy line. In case you haven’t seen Toy Story 2 (in which case, you should), his character is very well ranged, and provides yet another perspective that adds to the movie’s themes.
While I don’t think this movie has quite as much heart as the first, it’s also a really funny movie. There are times when you can hardly keep up with the jokes, and they land almost every time. They reference Star Wars in fun ways, whether it be a play on the Darth Vader reveal or throwing in laser and lightsaber sound effects in what ends up being a Buzz Lightyear video game. The callbacks to the first Toy Story aren’t overblown – they’re just right. Everything about the Al’s Toy Barn sequence puts a smile on my face. In the end, I’m not sure whether I can pick a favourite between the first two Toy Story movies.
Frankly it’s a miracle that Toy Story 2 is as good as it is, considering the compressed production cycle, the rising dispute between Pixar and Disney, and the near disaster where they almost lost the entire movie because of a mistakenly entered data clearing command. But like the first movie, it’s not just worth watching because of its impact on the industry. It’s a great movie that people of any age can appreciate. Children will enjoy the concept of toys coming to life. Adults won’t only feel a touch of nostalgia, but they’ll appreciate its well-developed characters and the drama behind them. Although the environments are still relatively flat and aren’t always detailed, the animation holds up incredibly well today. It still looks clean and crisp, thanks to how Pixar always releases their movies on disc directly from the original source.
Next up is Monster’s Inc., followed by Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. I’m in the middle of Pixar’s own golden age where it seemed they could do no wrong, and I’m sure that if I included Pixar movies in my list of all the Disney movies in order of my personal preference, all three of these upcoming movies, as well as both Toy Story films I’ve looked at, would easily make the top 20. A Bug’s Life would be somewhere in the top half as well, but probably not the top 20.