TOY STORY 2: Pixar’s Improbable Miracle Movie

Pixar's Perfect Sequel Almost Wasn't

Toy Story 2

Between the years of 1995 and 2009, Pixar created an unprecedented and unmatched string of successes. Ten terrific films – critically lauded, commercially successful, instantly iconic. No other movie studio in history has a track record that can compare to Pixar’s golden age, and some filmmakers spend their entire careers hoping to curate a similarly spotless filmography (here’s looking at you, Quentin). What’s more, these films sprung to life from original, often unusual stories…save for one.

Of Pixar’s initial ten films, one could understandably accuse Toy Story 2 of being the safest bet of the bunch. After all, a return visit to a familiar setting and well-loved characters seems like a no-brainer, especially when compared to pitches like “what if a rat wanted to be a gourmet chef?” or “what if an elderly man came to terms with his wife’s death by flying his house to South America using thousands of balloons?” The reality, though, is that, from the beginning Pixar’s first sequel was plagued with problems and the film as we now know it was effectively made in just nine months.

The fact, then, that it turned out to be perfect is nothing short of a miracle.

But before we can talk about Toy Story 2, we have to go back to 1994 – a full year before the original Toy Story was released – and look at another film. Let the record show that I am being profoundly generous by referring to this as a “film.” The “film” in question is The Return of Jafar. This frugal sequel to Disney’s 1992 hit Aladdin was made for roughly one-tenth of the original film’s budget and released straight to video where it proceeded to turn a profit of more than $100 million. Disney had hit pay dirt. Throughout the remainder of the ‘90s and well into the 2000s, Disney commissioned dozens of these direct-to-video knockoffs of their feature animated canon made on television budgets (if even that). It didn’t matter if they were good (they aren’t) or even finished (I mean…), as long as they could fill a display near the checkout stand of your local supermarket, they were deemed good enough to release. In the wake of Toy Story’s landmark success, that’s just what Disney planned to do for the follow up.

There was a bit of back and forth over whether Toy Story 2 would be computer animated at Pixar or hand animated at Disney’s DTV sweatshop, but eventually it was settled on the former choice and Ash Brannon, a directing animator who had worked on the first film, was elected to helm the sequel. That was 1996. By the fall of 1997, when story reels of the in-progress film were screened at Disney, the decision was made to promote Toy Story 2 to a full, theatrical release while maintaining the already agreed upon release date of Thanksgiving, 1999. The oft-cited reason for this change is that, after looking at the story reel, Disney felt the film was too good to be relegated to the direct-to-video trash heap. This is true inasmuch as you consider the word “good” to be synonymous with “expensive.” Even though Disney turned a huge profit on junk like The Return of Jafar, they were only able to amass such a profit because the movie cost approximately eight dollars and thirty-six cents to produce. Pixar, god love ‘em, was incapable of releasing a film that, at least visually, fell below the standard they’d set on the first Toy Story, meaning that, in order for Disney to turn a profit, Toy Story 2 would need to screen in cinemas.

Toy Story 2

It turns out that visual fidelity was not the only thing Pixar had higher standards than Disney on. While all this shake-up was happening on Toy Story 2, John Lasseter was deeply embroiled in the final stages of Pixar’s sophomore film, A Bug’s Life. After directing two back-to-back films, Lasseter was ready to take a much needed break, but when he returned home following A Bug’s Life’s promotional tour he found that Toy Story 2 was far from what it needed to be. Despite already being well into the animation process, the story of the film wasn’t working. The movie needed extensive rewrites, additional sequences, and alterations to nearly every scene in the film. There was no way it would be ready to be released less than one year later. So Lasseter went to Disney and asked for more time to fix the film, but Disney declined. “It’s good enough,” they said.

With Disney unwilling to budge and a broken film careening towards an impossible release date, Lasseter took over the project and brought on Toy Story editor Lee Unkrich as co-director. At Lasseter’s home, he, along with Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and Joe Ranft completely rewrote the film over a single weekend. When they returned to work on Monday, they had a whole new direction for the film… and only nine months to make it.

Nine months out of what was intended to be a three year process. Calling this impossible doesn’t lend proper gravity to the Herculean challenge Pixar faced. Yes, by that point animation had already begun, so assets like character models and environments had already been created, and beyond that Pixar pillaged their library of assets from their two previous films to fill in whatever gaps they could, but there was still a lot that would need to be built from the ground up. The opening of the film – a fake-out introduction set within a Buzz Lightyear video game – and the montage depicting Jessie’s tragic backstory were among the several entirely new sequences added to the film, and characters like Wheezy, the broken, squeak toy penguin, were not present in earlier iterations. Even the scenes that could be salvaged for this new version underwent tweaks from lighting and subtle performance changes all the way up to changing entire locations, like the toys’ road crossing moving from an interstate highway to the heart of downtown. This was well beyond the realm of what would traditionally be considered reshoots.

Toy Story 2

All this stress took its toll. At one point someone accidentally ran the command line that erases everything from the server as fast as possible, and when backups were found to have failed, the only thing that saved the movie was the fact that technical director Galyn Susman had a backup on her personal computer thanks to her having to work from home while she took care of her newborn child. Another animator forgot to drop his baby off at daycare before work, inadvertently leaving the kid in the backseat of his car for hours before remembering what had happened. The kid ended up being okay, but it forced Pixar to examine what was happening with their team. It turns out employees were disregarding overtime limits, working far beyond what they were supposed to. There was rampant exhaustion along with bouts of wrist strain and carpal tunnel syndrome. As Steve Jobs later reflected:

Everybody was so dedicated to it and loved Toy Story and those characters so much, and loved the new movie so much, that we killed ourselves to make it. And it took some people a year to recover. It was tough. It was too tough.

The fact that, in spite of these gargantuan hurdles, Toy Story 2 was even finished in time for its release is an incredible feat in-and-of-itself. That it also turned out to be perfect is nothing shy of miraculous. Toy Story 2 is not only a perfect film, but a perfect sequel. The former is a rare enough thing, but the latter is practically mythical in its scarcity. It’s not just that Toy Story 2 is a better film than its already excellent predecessor, but that in addition to improving on the first in terms of sheer storytelling proficiency, it manages to imbue themes from the original with greater depth and meaning, all while standing as a narratively and thematically complete work all on its own. If the original Toy Story is a film about finding and accepting your place in the world, Toy Story 2 is about embracing the fullness of life – its joys and its sorrows – because the fleeting happiness we can give to someone else is worth infinitely more than our own abstract notions of an immortal legacy.

The original Toy Story is very much a two-hander, giving nearly equal narrative weight to the arcs of Woody – Andy’s favorite toy who fears being replaced – and Buzz – a toy who has to confront the existential dilemma of not realizing he’s a toy. Toy Story 2, however, is much more explicitly Woody’s story. After being damaged, Woody is left at home while Andy is away at cowboy camp; banished to the dust-covered upper shelf of children’s books Andy’s aged out of and a long-forgotten penguin toy with a broken squeaker. Woody has nightmares that his injury makes him damaged goods, garbage, undeserving of affection from the kid he loves. These anxieties about his brokenness, though, are rooted in a deeper fear – the crushing reality that as Andy ages, his relationship with Woody will change and, eventually, he’ll be outgrown altogether.

These are fears that are picked at once Woody is stolen by a toy collector. In the possession of Al McWhiggin, Woody learns that he was the star of the “Woody’s Roundup” TV serial from the ‘50s – literally a relic of another time. It’s also here that he meets the rest of his Roundup Gang: Jessie, an emotionally turbulent cowgirl who was abandoned by her child, and the Prospector, a seemingly wise, fatherly figure, still sealed in his original packaging. Jessie’s traumatic past reflects Woody’s anxieties about his own life, while the Prospector gradually exploits Woody’s fears, gaslighting him until he can no longer separate reality from his own paranoid worries. The alternative solution that the Prospector offers is to join them as permanent exhibits at a toy museum in Japan. Preserved, in peak condition, never to be abandoned again.

Toy Story 2

The flip side, though, is that they’ll never be abandoned because they’ll never again be loved, a fact that doesn’t concern the Prospector because love is something he’s never experienced. The terrific irony of the Prospector is that he’s a purveyor of wisdom who has never actually experienced the world. The mint condition that makes him so valuable as a collectible also literally separates him from the rest of the world, as well as making him bitter and broken. He’s never experienced love or meaning or friendship and so has convinced himself that these things are bad. The old axiom of “‘tis better to have loved and lost,” personified. Where the villain of Toy Story was a kid who mistreats toys, the villain of Toy Story 2 is, effectively, a life devoid of love – immortality devoid of purpose. It’s the central thematic conflict of the movie wrapped up in a single character. Even more unique, unlike Sid, or even Toy Story 3’s Lotso, the Prospector’s just desserts could also, conceivably be a happy ending. In being given to a kid (albeit against his will), perhaps he’ll finally get to experience what it’s like to be loved.

That, ultimately, is what Toy Story 2 is about. It’s not only the central idea of the movie, but the underlying theme of the entire Toy Story trilogy. If you boil these movies down to their essence, they’re meditations on mortality and the purpose of life. The purpose of life, these films argue, is to be loved. The sadness, the heartbreak, the sorrow, the unrelenting march of time is all made worthwhile by the joy of being loved – of making someone else happy. It’s a simple theme, but a powerful one, and it’s one Pixar would explore throughout their canon of films, from WALL•E to Up to Inside Out. In fact, more so than perhaps any of their other films, Toy Story 2 feels like a mission statement. The original Toy Story may have introduced Pixar, but Toy Story 2 is the film that defined them. The miracle studio that, for fifteen years, seemed incapable of making a bad movie. The miracle studio that tells profoundly meaningful stories that are equally appealing to adults and children. The miracle studio that made one of the best movies of all time almost from scratch nine months before it was released.

  • Andrew Clark

    I don’t think I knew this story! Amazing.

    It’s so easy for me to sit here taking for granted that I grew up with how good these movies are. But still, it’s something to look back on and appreciate. The lessons in storytelling, humor, drama, and pure cinema are not to be denied.

    I remember watching UP with a group of kids a few years back and seeing them become enthralled by that opening montage. The power of storytelling is wonderful to behold.

    • I think that’s the reason I’ve been so frustrated with Pixar’s mostly mediocre output the past few years. Growing up there was this idea that Pixar was this unstoppable creative force, that they had mastered the magical formula of storytelling in ways rarely seen and seldom maintained, culminating in three of the most boldly ambitious and profoundly personal films I’ve ever seen (RATATOUILLE, WALL•E, UP).

      Regardless of where they are now, though, the studio has ten or so near-masterpieces in their catalog in just over twenty years. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

      • Andrew Clark

        Truly. And sometimes you really do have to figure out how to reinvent the wheel. Even if you have a formula and a team that works, at a certain point, things just need to change. Creative growing pains. Hopefully they’ll rise again to that level. We’ll see!

      • Phillip Bastien

        I feel like the reason that Pixar Succeeded so often early on was because they didn’t have a formula at all. They built their films through brute storywork, working and reworking until it was deeply honed.

        I feel like the problem with many of the post Disney purchase Pixar Movies is that they are heavily reliant on formula (namely the Save the Cat Structure seems to be popping up more and more) and established concepts and tropes of what a “Pixar” movie is.

        Also for insight into Pixar’s story, creative and technical processes, They have free tutorials on Khan Academy
        https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/pixar

  • Fantastic read. Such a poignant film, turned like a dark Jedi from the darkness that was Disney Straight-to-DVD.