Finding Pixar- A Skeptic’s Journey: Toy Story 2 (1999)

This is the third part of an eleven part (maybe twelve part) series in which I chronologically explore the films of the Pixar Animation studio for the first time in my life while also exploring the studio’s history and what it was that kept me disinterested in it all these years.

The year 1997 was of massive importance to my development as a movie buff, because at the tender age of ten it was the year that my mother allowed me to rent Tim Burton’s 1989 version of Batman.  It wasn’t the first PG-13 movie that I watched (I’d watched a couple with my parents like Forrest Gump which I didn’t really “get” at the time), but it was the first one that I’d really loved.  With a new ratings bracket open to me I began to indulge in all sorts of “adult” movies like Independence Day, Rush Hour, Men in Black, and the James Bond series.  In retrospect I’m not particularly proud to have loved some of those movies, but they were the start of something, it was the beginning of a journey that would soon lead me to real adult movies later in life.  It was also the year that I set aside the childish movies of my youth and never looked back… until now.

You’ve got to understand that when you’re first being introduced to things like Kate Winslet’s topless chest in Titanic or dudes getting ripped in half by dinosaurs in The Lost World: Jurassic Park it’s really easy to stop caring about animated movies with talking animals.  Those movies just seemed like the crap I watched while I was waiting to have Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich come along and blow my mind, much as those picture books I once read began to just seem like things for people who didn’t know how to read and my old action figures began to seem like a big waste of money.

You’ll also note that if you’re going to pick a year to discard animated children’s movies from your repertoire, 1997 is pretty much the perfect one to pick if you’re going to end up missing the boat on Pixar.  I wouldn’t even know that other people had stuck with this stuff until somewhere around the Finding Nemo era of the studio’s development; in 1999 when Toy Story 2 came out I didn’t think anyone over eight would even dream of seeing one of these things.  I’m not exactly sure why other people who were my age around the same time didn’t also discard these movies like I did.  My best guess is that other people around my age at the time had younger siblings, cousins, and/or nephews that dragged them along to these movies and hooked them.  I didn’t have that; I was an only child with most of my extended family living in a town a few hours away from where I was located, my movie viewing choices were entirely dictated by my own wants and whims, and those whims most definitely did not include Toy Story 2.

You’ll notice that I didn’t go through this long explanation for not seeing Pixar’s movies in my last installment about A Bug’s Life.  That’s partly because I had other things to talk about there, but it’s also because it didn’t take a whole lot of resisting in order to skip that movie at the time or in the immediate years since then.  Toy Story 2 on the other hand is a movie that never seems to go away.  Every time someone writes a list of the best film sequels, Toy Story 2 will inevitably be sitting in the top five, sticking out like a sore thumb alongside movies like The Godfather Part 2 and The Empire Strikes Back.  Like its predecessor it stands at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes (and that score is based on almost twice as many reviews as the first film’s score is) and when I first got Netflix I’d see the movie sitting near the top of my “suggestions” list for years.    In spite of all the praise, this is one of the movies I’ve been less excited about seeing for this endeavor.  After all, the first film seems to have as much hype behind it as this one, and my response to that was middling at best; so I had little reason to believe that this film’s hype was any more justified.

Starting the film I was a bit taken aback by the film’s look, which seemed in some ways like a step back from the progress that was made in the look of A Bug’s Life back into the sometimes jarringly dated visuals of the first Toy Story.  There were elements of the film that did seem improved, for one, that puppy that Andy received for Christmas at the end of the first film is in this and he looks a hell of a lot better than Sid’s freaky looking dog from the first film.  The progress in the realm of human models that was shown in the short Geri’s Game also seems to have been incorporated into the film (in fact Geri himself makes a cameo here as a toy repairman).  Aside from this progress though, the film almost feels like its recycling the old and problematic tech from the first film.  The environments still look rather strange, in fact they look even more jarring here because the scope has been widened beyond a couple of suburban houses, a gas station, and a pizza place.  There are wide cityscapes here and they aren’t pretty, at times it looks only a little bit better than the average PS2 game.

I won’t quibble too much more over the film’s tech though, the medium was still a work in progress when this was made and I’m sure it looked fine at the time, besides that’s not what’s really important here.  The real question is a simple one: is this an improvement over the first Toy Story?  I’ll just come out and say it: The answer is “yes,” in fact I’d say it’s a resounding “yes,” this is a substantial improvement over both Toy Story and A Bug’s Life.  For the first time I feel like I can see why people are taking this animation studio seriously.

What differentiates Toy Story 2 from the original?  A lot of things, but let’s start with the fact that it’s ten minutes longer.  That may not seem like a lot, but if you consider that it also doesn’t need to introduce all the characters and the basic concept behind the series, the movie feels a lot longer.  Unlike the first film, which moved at such a fast pace that it felt very small and rather insubstantial, this one has time to really explore what it means to be a toy.  Of course the basic rules of this world of talking toys still seems rather ill-defined in this installment. For instance it still isn’t explained why some toys like Woody’s new horse Bullseye are mute while other animal toys like say, slinky the dog, have humanlike personalities and are capable of speech.  The question of why Buzz wasn’t self aware coming out of the box is not addressed but is actually exasperated by the fact that the whole toy line apparently has this problem.   Most importantly the film seems rather confused about exactly what the lifespan of these toys is.  It’s explained in the film that this whole time Woody has been a rare collector’s item from the 50s, which on its hand is a good thing because it shows that the film’s writers aren’t unaware of the fact that Woody is an oddly anachronistic toy to be living in the late 90s, but it’s never explained why he doesn’t have any memories of his past while the other toys in the line did.

What really works about the films examination of toy-dom (for lack of a better term) is more philosophical than it is logical.  Particularly, I admired that the film was willing to explore the fact that these toys are doomed.  This really comes into play when Woody meets the other western themed toys at the Wayne Knight character’s apartment.  These toys haven’t been lucky enough to have been living in an idyllic suburban household all these years, they’ve been through the ringer and have seen what really happens to toys as children grow up.  This glimpse into the eventual fate of the toys is fascinating in that it basically says that being a toy sucks: you’re treated like shit and then you end up in the trashcan. All this is made all the more curious because it’s not an issue in the real world; real toys are inanimate objects that will earn no sympathy from me, but in the context of the story it provides some real drama to the proceedings which is something that was missing from the first Toy Story.

The core dilemma that Woody faces in the movie is whether he will selfishly abandon the western toys in Wayne Knight’s apartment, damning them to an eternity in storage, or is he going to return to Andy’s house a choice that is a return to a comfortable status quo but one that won’t last forever.  Eventually Woody makes a decision to go ahead and join the western toys in the Japanese museum, but is he really doing this to save his new friends or is he once again trying to be the center of attention as he was at the beginning of the first Toy Story.  Central to all this is Stinky Pete, the most fascinating and sympathetic character of the whole film.  This is a toy that has suffered the indignity of being trapped in his original packaging and hasn’t lived the life of privilege that these other toys have, in the movie he’s fighting to finally have a shot at some happiness albeit at the expense of the other character’s free will.  In short Stinky Pete (I can’t believe I’m taking a character with that name so seriously) is a wonderfully nuanced villain, leaps and bounds more interesting than, say, Hopper from A Bug’s Life and the real tragedy of it all is that he’s right; while the film provides the characters with a happy ending of sorts which seems to negate the central dilemma, this happy ending is only a temporary one and these characters really are in for a rude awakening once Andy grows up.

While all this is going on there’s a B-Story happening in which Buzz and some other toys go on a journey to save Woody, and while none of it is as compelling as the material between Woody and the western toys, it does serves the purpose of giving the film an adventure arc to go along with the real character development in the A-story.  Of course this big escapade is completely inconsistent with the reality established in the first film (in which being lost at a gas station is a mortal danger for toys) and I also didn’t buy some of the more outlandish activities that the toys seem to accomplish like driving a car, but mostly the thread works and the finale in the airport blows away the RC car chase from the first film.

I enjoyed this movie significantly more than the first two Pixar movies but there were still things about it that annoyed me a lot.  For one, that fucking dinosaur toy is every bit as annoying in this film as he was in the first film.  Why the hell couldn’t they have left that thing back in Andy’s room?   The film also ends on a head-slapping stupid karaoke rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” performed by a penguin which completely negates a much more poignant use of the song earlier in the film and ends the whole thing on a really sour note.  Also I could have done with a few less tacky homages to the films of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Stanley Kubrick; that stuff is Bush-League and would have felt more at home in a Dreamworks movie.

There are other things I could nitpick (why does it take the toys so long to realize they have the wrong Buzz? What happened to the scar Sid gave Woody in the first film?  What’s up with that weird video game opening sequence?), but all that’s getting pretty far from the real meat of the film. Toy Story 2 is not a perfect movie but I’m finally kind of seeing how these movies can maybe be used to bring some interesting themes to the table.  I have no idea why anyone would still hold the first Toy Story up on a pedestal above this, and I stand by my aversion to that film all the more now that I’ve seen how much better this material can be handled.  Hopefully next time they can make all of the plot threads great and discard some of the stupid stuff, then they’d really be on to something special.

The Short Program: Red’s Dream and Tin Toy

Toy Story 2 was put into theaters with Luxo, Jr. attached to it rather than a new short, but since I decided to look at that short in this column’s debut post, I’ll instead use this slot to examine a pair of shorts made by Pixar in the 80s which were never attached to a theatrically released film.  The first, 1987’s Red’s Dream, is probably the most obscure of Pixar’s official shorts.  This four minute short about a unicycle that dreams of upstaging a clown through Loony Tunes-esque antics didn’t get Luxo, Jr’s buzz in the animation community, it was never attached to a home video release like the second short I’ll be looking at today, and it didn’t earn any major awards.

The short’s obscurity might be because, in spite of being almost twice Luxo, Jr.’s length, it’s inferior on almost every level.  This is largely because it’s a much more ambitious work than Luxo, Jr. was; while that film was tailor-made to hide the limitations of computer animation, Red’s Dream isn’t.  The film takes place in a fully animated environment rather than using a black background, it has an (freakish looking) organic human character.  In short, the film looks like a PC game from the early nineties (granted this was made in the late eighties), and what’s worse it isn’t just on a technical level that the film fails to improve on Luxo, Jr.  Though the film is able to give emotional body language to inanimate objects in much the same way that the prior film did, it didn’t really do it as well.  The company was still decidedly in tech-demo mode, so I probably shouldn’t judge too harshly, but it doesn’t surprise me that Lasseter and co. decided to sweep this under the rug.

Their follow up, 1988’s Tin Toy was clearly a step up especially in terms of industry recognition.  The film won the studio its first Oscar and it was even chosen by the Library of Congress as a culturally significant accomplishment worthy of preservation.  The animation is still primitive and the baby in the film (another poorly rendered organic model) looks disgusting.  The film’s environment is more detailed than Luxo, Jr.’s but is also (to its benefit) more Spartan than the one in Red’s Dream.  Overall it’s a better looking film than Red’s Dream but it still doesn’t quite look as good as the highly controlled and limited Luxo Jr.

The real attraction of the film to modern eyes is that this is clearly a precursor to the Toy Story series, featuring a crew of living toys and their relation to a child.  However, the key difference between Tin Toy and that series is that the toys in Tin Toy realize that being played with by a large child is something to be feared rather than desired.  The windup toy at the center of the short is terrorized by what is to him a giant drooling baby before seeking shelter under a sofa where all the other terrified toys have been hiding.  What the film lacks is a satisfying climax, when the toy comes out from the sofa to help the baby who was crying after a fall, he gets assaulted and then begins running, then the film just sort of ends.  I wouldn’t call this as impressive an achievement as Luxo, Jr. but it marks an important step, this seems to me like the first time that Pixar was looking to make more than a glorified tech demo and then succeeded to some extent.

Hanna(4/24/2011)

            Question: when did it become okay to show kids killing people again?  I’m not criticizing, I’m just asking: what’s with all the movies about killer kids all of a sudden.  It seems like not long ago when, in the wake of the Columbine tragedy, movies like O and Pups that dealt with the issue of youth violence were being pulled from theaters.  Now we’ve got movies like Kick-Ass and Let The Right One In which deal prominently with the vaguely disturbing sight of children in the midst of adult violence, and in the case of the former film it’s practically a joke.  What’s happened to make this image no longer offensive?  School shootings are still happening from time to time and the basic view of violence in the media hasn’t changed, and yet movies that feature children in the midst of said violence are now passé.  Again, I’m not criticizing, I’m just curious; and no I don’t really have an answer either.  What sparked this little discussion with myself was the latest film from director Joe Wright, Hanna, which places a young looking sixteen year old child in the middle of a violence espionage plot.

            The titular character, Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), begins the film living with her father Erik Heller (Eric Bana) in a snowy Scandinavian wilderness where she has learned numerous survival skills like martial arts and sharp shooting.  Hanna is sixteen but seems oddly younger in a number of ways, in part because she’s been isolated from other people her age and has little knowledge of the outside world.  As we look at her life we realize that she’s being prepared for danger, a danger that will come because her father is being hunted by the CIA.  The long term plan that heller has had was to use his highly trained daughter as an assassin to kill his CIA rival, a ruthless operative named Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), an act which would finally allow Hanna to have a normal life.  After some consideration tells her father she’s ready for her mission and the father hesitantly agrees to send her off.

            The big flaw in Heller’s plan is that Hanna really isn’t all that good of an agent; her hand-to-hand fighting skills could give Jason Bourne a run for his money but she’s less than competent at pretty much every other element of spycraft.  She doesn’t understand half of the things in the outside world, she doesn’t know how to keep a low profile while traveling, and maintaining a cover proves to be pretty difficult when for someone who’s never really spoken to anyone other than her father in her entire life.   There’s a scene early in the film where Hanna tries to check in to a crappy hotel room and is unable to handle all of the electronic devices in the room. 

I was surprised to see the film to be as interested in Hanna and her inability to function in the world as it was.  The setup seemed like the fodder for a exploitation action film about a flawless super-agent, but I suppose that wasn’t quite the right thing to expect from a movie with an A-list cast from the director of Atonement.  Still there were a lot of elements to the film that still seemed rooted in exploitation thrills like the title cards, Cate Blanchett’s over-the-top Southern-accented villainess and The Chemical Brother’s throbbing techno score that all seemed well rooted in the exploitation movie that this could have been.  All of that give the impression of a rather bi-polar movie that doesn’t exactly know what it wants to be: a thoughtful character study or an action romp.

All of this becomes even more confused when a lot of really strange comedic characters begin to be introduced latter in the film like a family of strange English tourists, a ambiguously gay assassin, and another character that seems to be really obsessed with Grimm’s fairy tales.  I don’t want to be too hard on the film for including all of this stuff, because it’s quirks like these that at least succeed in differentiating the movie from the many other cookie-cutter post-Bourne spy movies that are out there, but they really do a number on the film’s already confused tone and kind of turn it into a complete mess.  It’s hard to see Hanna as a true fish out of water when everyone around her is also a weirdo, and meanwhile we’re also seeing all these crazy action scenes that would probably be all the more fun if the movie was also kind of trying to root itself in some kind of reality.  See what I mean about the tone being all over the place. 

Hanna is a movie that is sporadically enjoyable but which never quite congeals into the fun ride that it could have been.  I appreciated elements like Cate Blanchett’s performance, the film’s cool art direction, and some of the better action sequences but as a whole it just strikes me as a failure.  That’s unfortunate because if it had just committed to either the serious, the ridiculous, or the absurd it really could have been a great little cult classic, instead we’re just given a schizophrenic little trifle worthy of little more than a mid-afternoon cable viewing.

**1/2 out of Four