April 18 at Doc Films: “Toy Story 2″

What makes a good sequel? When Pixar Studios produced Toy Story 2, showing at Doc Films at the University of Chicago on April 18, they provided what is one of the better answers to this question in film to date.

Originally conceived as a direct-to-video sequel to Pixar’s smash-hit Toy Story (1995) (and possibly related to the slew of direct-to-video sequels partner company Disney was producing in the late ‘90s to early ‘00s), director John Lasseter and his team eventually decided the project was better realized as a full-fledged feature film. They rewrote the plot over a single weekend, rushed it through development to meet the established release date, and the film opened to widespread acclaim in the fall of 1999.

So what makes this sequel so good? To start, on its most basic level, a sequel should expand the universe of the previous film, both answering questions fans had been clamoring for and addressing the things no one had previously thought of. Toy Story 2 covers some of this ground immediately when it opens deeply immersed in Buzz Lightyear’s space world. Buzz is shown flying in his spaceship, using the gadgets on his suits, and even the evil Emperor Zurg is finally revealed, only mentioned verbally before this. Whereas Buzz’s world is only a delusion in the original Toy Story, this film is quick to show where his “reality” originally lay.

However, more important than Buzz’s reality is the revelation that Woody himself has a separate world beyond Andy’s room. In the original film, Woody was already set in his understanding as a toy, the moment of understanding occurring so long in his past as to no longer sit in his memory (Andy’s mom refers to Woody as “an old family toy”), so the thought that he might have a context isn’t raised at all. Therefore, when Jessie, Bullseye, and the Prospector appear, as well as the literal mountain of memorabilia devoted to “Woody’s Roundup,” it’s an unexpected, but very welcome surprise.

This revelation also allows the film to make a comment about the cultural status of certain toys. The first Toy Story’s focus was on the purpose of toys as child playthings, and that is ultimately the message of the second movie as well, but it also detours through toys viewed as icons and collector’s items. In this view of the world, held by relatively tame villain Big Al, the Prospector is kept in his packaging in order to stay “mint,” tears and scuffed are fixed to out-of-the-box condition (and by an elderly man suspiciously similar to the star of an earlier Pixar short Geri’s Game), and toys are to be put on display in museums as relics and icons from a historical past.

Next, a sequel must stand on its own as a film, such that anyone watching it can understand it and enjoy it without having seen the previous film. Andy is not in Toy Story 2 much, and without the first film that could raise questions as to why the toys feel so connected to him, but the idea of a child and his toy is universal enough that anyone can recognize and feel that connection. Additionally, the emotional high point of the film, Jessie’s montage memories of her owner, Emily, establishes the connection between a toy and her owner in a way easily applicable to the way Woody and company feel about Andy.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t nods and mentions to the previous film. At one point, the original Buzz directly quotes to Woody a line from the first film (originally yelled by Woody at Buzz) about Woody being “a child’s plaything” in an interesting moment of role reversal. Furthermore, the theme song of Toy Story, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” appears twice: once sung by Sheriff Woody on the TV show and again as a jazzy number sung by the squeaking penguin Woody saves at the beginning of the movie.

On top of everything, the biggest element to Toy Story 2’s success is the fact that it’s just flat-out entertaining (an element too many sequels are, surprisingly, missing). Some favorites include the second Buzz renaming all of the original toys (“slotted pig” for Hamm, “vegetable man” for Mr. Potato Head, and “wooden captive” for Woody), and his fight with Zurg where neither realize they are only a toy and their weapons actually do nothing. The jokes continue well into the end credits, where some of the film’s best moments reside in the form of “outtakes” from the actual film, including a small crossover with A Bug’s Life (1998), Pixar’s previous movie.

For more information about Doc Films, visit docfilms.uchicago.edu.