Here is the 3rd installment of Tyro’s series, Pixar: The Storytellers. This weeks edition focuses on Toy Story 2.
Toy Story 2
The exact details of Toy Story 2’s development and wrestling between Disney and Pixar still aren’t clear, but the upshot of it is known: Pixar had only months, not years, to craft a story that would stand up to the original. I’m well aware that many people hold the sequel in high regard, some even hold it higher than Toy Story itself, so I may well be courting controversy with this analysis, when I attempt to illustrate why I think it’s a poor story.
I’ll start with some of the lesser problems. First, the opening video game sequence. Now I know it sets up Zurg’s entry for later, and it’s the comic setup for the second Buzz and his abilities and eagerness to catch Zurg, but they’re all minor elements compared to the major story at the heart of the film. It’s not setting up anything to do with Woody, who is the protagonist lets not forget, or any locations, or actions for the final act of the film, or even the theme. Remember how nothing was waste in the opening of the original? Every second of action had major relevance. Sure, this opening is fun and spectacular, but in terms of the story, I found it slightly redundant.
Second is Woody’s dream sequence. Remember how all the exposition in the original was passed to us without us really knowing? It was masterful. Dream sequences aren’t. They’re almost the least cinematic thing you could do, to drive the camera right into the character’s head and not dramatise the turmoil they’re facing. They’re an easy way out. What’s worse, is that it’s telling us facts that we already know. We’ve just seen how upset Woody was at being shelved. Did we need a dream sequence of Woody’s insecurities when Buzz arrived? How does it add to or turn the story? It’s a lazy piece of flat writing, taking us out of the reality of story, written solely for the audience to be spoonfed information that we already know.
Third is Jessie’s flashback. The Randy Newman montage of “Strange Things Happening” to Woody was still carrying the momentum of Buzz’s arrival, itself an event that was so shocking and unexpected we were really with Woody as he was experiencing the change. And it was a change that took him even lower than being knocked off the bed. In other words, it was packed full of emotion and meaning. Jessie’s flashback, however, comes at a relatively slow moment in the story anyway, and, like the dream sequence, is largely unneeded. Would it not have been more moving to see Jessie struggling to recollect this incident? And as she almost breaks down in tears trying to tell Woody, then it presents him with a real dilemma and we’re there, in the scene with them, as it’s happening. But for me, it’s a moment not particularly full of emotion, thus the flashback montage with song comes off as sentimental.
But what happens next my biggest problem with the film, and is related to the nature of sequels. I’ll go more into this with Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, but to truncate my argument: originals work because they’re centred on a deep rooted emotional problem within the character that gives rise to the engaging and thrilling scenes we love in the resulting story and film. At climax of the original, this emotional problem is resolved, thus the entire basis of what made the original work is redundant. Toy Story 2, taking it even further than this, requires a gigantic leap of faith for the audience: we’re asked to believe that, after all Woody went through in the original to get back to Andy, after how much we saw he loved his world and what he put at stake to get back to it, we’re asked to believe he would give it all up. And for what? To be stuck in a Japanese museum. You’re yelling but that’s the point – that’s his character arc! But you can’t just slap an arc onto a character, it has to be natural, endemic to the world of the story. And, at least I found, that Woody agreeing to forsake his world with Andy was just ridiculous, unbelievable, literally incredible – it just was not credible that the Woody we had been introduced to would do that.
I know he had felt rejected by Andy, but what was Andy’s reaction to having to leave Woody on the shelf (and it wasn’t him who put him up there)? He was sad, distraught that he’d be leaving him behind, not overjoyed and glad to leave Woody, not like how he sidelined Woody for Buzz in the original. And yet, this is the problem facing the storyteller when doing a sequel: putting up emotional blocks for the character, so it retains that touching element. The trouble is that often requires the invention of a phoney reason. For me at least, it just didn’t ring quite true.
Also, once Woody did decide to go to Japan, how much antagonism did he face, how much of a battle, an adventure, was there to arc Woody to the positive? How much time was there before he reversed his decision. In order for his change in view to be meaningful, we have to feel it’s something he really wants to do. Getting his top spot back was something he really wanted. Going to Japan? Meh, on a whim. The point is, not only was the decision questionable, but the character change was almost brushed over, so not much meaning about ‘embracing life once we realise the value of living’ or again realising the value of friendship, could be garnered.
Woody realising Andy’s going to grow up, and his reaction and emotional turmoil that throws him into, is such a major opportunity, that it should have been put at the centre of this story, it should have been, in structural terms, the inciting incident – the one event that launches the story. As it is, it’s rushed and so the meaning we get from it isn’t as strong, which means the story it’s built upon can only be of a certain weakness itself.
Finally, for the first time we had a subplot. In Toy Story, Woody wanted to get his top spot back. In A Bug’s Life, Flik wanted to defend the colony. Toy Story 2 however, split the narrative: Woody captured, and the toys going to find him. Although they were indeed linked dramatically, the very best subplots in some way reinforce or contradict the theme of the central plot, to really enrich the story’s overall meaning. I’ll talk more about this with The Incredibles, but suffice to say toys trekking through the city doesn’t have that much in common with Woody pondering his future as Andy’s toy.
These arguments may have been facetious, over the top, and nitpicky. I certainly don’t hate Toy Story 2. I certainly don’t blame Pixar, the time pressure and chaos of the film’s development almost nailed the film’s fate: and under the circumstances, they simply did a remarkable job. And there are of course wonderful moments in the film, but because of the diluting of the theme (is it about Woody discovering he’s famous, or realising Andy’s going to get old?), they’re not as enriched with meaning as, say, the moment Woody and Buzz fall with style.
Given more time, it would have been interesting to see what Toy Story 2 would have become. How will Michael Arndt create a convincing emotional basis for Toy Story 3? I’m sure he will, and I’m sure that with a full three years until its release, Pixar are going to give it everything they’ve got.