Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.
Although the original Toy Story was a huge success and a major catalyst for the shift from hand-drawn to computer animation in feature films, 1999's Toy Story 2, released four years after the first movie, is really what cemented the series' reputation as Pixar's crown jewel and a wellspring of melancholy emotion. In the first movie, the toys were a little concerned about being usurped in Andy's favor by new arrivals, but it was a relatively minor issue that was mainly a plot device to generate conflict between Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). The sequel is all about the fear of mortality and obsolescence, with Woody experiencing an existential crisis after his arm gets torn and he's accidentally put out at a garage sale.
Before Woody can get back to the other toys in Andy's room, he's snatched up by greedy toy collector Al (Wayne Knight) and placed in a display case in Al's apartment for imminent sale to a vintage toy museum in Japan. It turns out that Woody is based on an obscure children's TV character from the 1950s, and any toys of the characters from Woody's Roundup are now sought-after collector's items. While the first movie provided plenty of back story for the Buzz Lightyear character, the sequel does the same for Woody, including giving him a group of supporting characters. The toys for Woody's pals Jessie (Joan Cusack), Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer) and Bullseye the horse are already in Al's possession, just waiting for Woody to arrive so they can be a full set suitable for museum display.
Jessie has become an integral part of the Toy Story franchise, and she has lively chemistry with Woody, who of course just wants to get home to Andy. The other toys mount an extensive rescue mission to save Woody from Al's high-rise apartment, taking a detour to Al's Toy Barn, where they encounter new friends and foes. The rescue operation and the new toy-filled environment are the core elements of each movie in the series, but this movie offers probably the best versions of them, especially in the aisles of the toy store. What happens when kids leave their toys behind has emerged as the central theme of the franchise, and Woody's big decision here is whether to join the museum display or return to Andy's room and risk eventually being discarded.
Al and Stinky Pete are both worthy villains, especially since Pete's motives are not hard to understand (he wants the Roundup gang to stay together so they aren't put back into deep storage). The mission to infiltrate Al's apartment is fun and suspenseful, and the balance between humor and pathos is well-maintained. Even just four years after the original movie, techniques for computer animation have improved dramatically, and the opening Star Wars-style sequence of Buzz's adventures in space (as part of a video game) is still pretty awe-inspiring. Toy Story 2 has often been cited as the rare sequel that improves on its predecessor, but all of this movie's strengths come from the groundwork laid in the first installment. It's an expert expansion on an elegant, resonant concept.