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TOY STORY 2: The Little Movie That Could

Conceived for video, the sequel heads to theatres instead.

By Mike Lyons     November 24, 1999

TOY STORY 2 should really be subtitled: 'The Little Movie That Could.' The sequel to the computer-animated landmark blockbuster almost never became the can't-miss hit of this year's holiday season, which it now seems poised to be. When the original TOY STORY, a co-venture between Disney and Pixar (a pioneer in computer animation), debuted in November of 1995, raves from many in and outside the industry went, well, 'to infinity and beyond.' After the film grossed a staggering $350 million worldwide, both studios smelled a franchise. Disney had scored a surprise hit with 1994's THE RETURN OF JAFAR, a 'direct-to-video' sequel to ALADDIN, and saw a TOY STORY follow-up as the perfect fit for video, as well.

'It was just a business decision early on,' says John Lasseter, director of the original, who co-directs the sequel with Ash Brannon and Lee Unkrich. 'This was the way they wanted to do it, because there have been very few theatrical sequels to animated films.'

In fact, in a cost-saving move, the video sequel to TOY STORY was all set to utilize the 'video back lot' (in other words, creatively re-use much of the animation from the original that was stored on the Pixar's mammoth hard drives). 'We were handed a lot of restrictions, initially,' says Jim Pearson, art director for TOY STORY 2. 'Despite that, we always thought of this as something that was as good as a full-blown theatrical release. We never thought of it as just direct-to-video; we said, 'This is a movie.''

This attitude became evident to many Disney executives as well. After a work-in-progress screening in 1997, TOY STORY 2 was promoted to theatrical status. Then, this past January, Lasseter came aboard the sequel as co-director, after already serving as executive producer. 'The story deserved the treatment that it's getting now,' says co-director Ash Brannon. 'We all knew that this wasn't going to be a run of the mill sequel.'

'We really had a lot to live up to,' adds the film's producer, Helene Plotkin. 'We knew how much the characters meant to people.'

'There have been an awful lot of sequels made,' notes Lasseter. 'Often times they're made because of the success of the original. Movies are unique combinations of story, characters and personality. Those things come together and you have a really memorable, entertaining movie. Then, the business of Hollywood takes over and says, 'Well, if it was a big hit the first time around, let's do a sequel.''

The filmmakers behind TOY STORY 2 didn't just want their film to be added to the long list of disappointing follow-ups, so they found inspiration in a most un-animated world: organized crime. 'We actually looked at GODFATHER II, as the inspiration for the story,' admits Brannon. 'There you have a sequel that's really a movie unto itself. We felt that the characters could really continue to grow.'

TOY STORY 2 focuses on an area of pop-culture that seems rife for satire: toy collecting. Specifically, the film looks at how mature adults, through hoarding toys, have somewhat skewed the whole idea of childhood playthings.

'One thing that came up during production was the fact that when we were growing up, none of us knew that there was any value to our toys,' says the film's producer, Karen Robert Jackson. 'The only value was that you played with it. Now, kids are growing up with things like E-Bay and Beanie Babies. They know which things are retired and which things are valuable. To think that kids are looking at toys for value is kind of distressing. We're not trying to tell people what's right or wrong in the film. But, it is an interesting dilemma that has been created around something that used to be very simple.'

In the film, Woody (once again voiced by Tom Hanks) suffers a rip in his stitching and is left behind, while his owner, the young boy Andy, goes off to summer camp. Dejected, Woody wanders out of the house and into a yard sale, where a ravenous toy collector, Al McWhiggan (Wayne Knight), snatches him up. Woody, it seems, is not only a very highly coveted collectible, but was once the star of his own show, Woody's Round-Up (a Howdy Doody-like kids show from the '50's).

On the show, Woody had other co-stars: Jesse, the yodeling cowgirl, (Joan Cusack); Bullseye the trusty horse; and the crusty prospector, Pete (Kelsey Grammer). Al has toy versions of these characters and has been searching for Woody to complete his collection. It's now up to Buzz Lightyear, (Tim Allen, also returning) Space Ranger and action figure extraordinaire, along with all of the other toys, Mr. Potato
Head, Hamm the piggy bank, Rex the dinosaur doll and Slinky Dog (Don Rickles, John Ratzenberger, Wallace Shawn and Jim Varney, respectively) to venture out into the real world, in order to rescue their pal.

This very different, and original, idea for a sequel allows TOY STORY 2 to expand upon the character dynamics that were so richly explored in the first film. 'Woody starts questioning how long he's going to last,' says Lasseter. 'If he continues to rip, does that mean that Andy's not going to love him as much? To relate it to an adult world, it's like worrying about growing old and dying.'

The sequel also afforded TOY STORY 2's filmmakers the luxury to introduce more toys. As promised at the end of the original, Mr. Potato Head does indeed take a wife, who is shockingly, Mrs. Potato Head (voiced by Estelle Harris, most famous as George's cloying mom on Seinfeld). 'Obviously, in the first film, Mr. Potato Head had been looking forward to the day that Mrs. Potato Head comes into his life,' says Plotkin. 'Now that she has, we had to make a choice - should we make them this couple that quarrels and nags each other or, should we do the opposite, and make them so lovey-dovey that's it almost sickening for everyone else? We decided to make them super-sweet, because it was just such a great contrast to Mr. Potato Head's orneriness.'

There is also another and even more famous toy star in the film, Barbie (Jodi Benson, who is not only the 'official' voice of the character, but also gave voice to Disney's Little Mermaid). In one of the film's pivotal scenes, the toys venture inside the Toys R Us like superstore, Al's Toy Barn, where they meet a gaggle of Mattel's most famous living doll. Interestingly enough, Barbie was slated to be in the original, until Mattel decided against it. Then, TOY STORY became a phenomenon and Mattel decided again. 'They came to us and said, 'Well...ya know...if you want to use Barbie in the sequel, you're welcome to,' says Lasseter with a winning laugh.

Just one more victory for 'The Little Movie that Could.'

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