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Toy Story 2 At 20: Mortality And Acceptance On The Edge Of 30
Karl Smith , November 12th, 2019 10:04

Celebrating the anniversary of a bona fide animated masterpiece gives weight to reflection on the meaning of life itself, far beyond the promise of just another sparky animation, finds Karl Smith

As of time of writing, there are now four, official, full-length Toy Story films. Toy Story, the first instalment, was released in 1995 – four years before Fight Club, and a more concise, emotive and philosophical treatise on the nature and impossibility of individualism under late capitalism and the complexities of male friendship than anything Fincher has cooked up thus far. Toy Story 4, the latest offering from the franchise, was released earlier this year and tackles equally weighty themes of accepting the inevitable and moving on with your life when change, for better or worse, is completely out of your hands.

Given their popularity, both critical and financial (over $3 billion on a combined budget of around $500 million, if you’re wondering), that there should have been three sequels spawned over the course of a near quarter-century is perhaps not so surprising. Or even particularly impressive. Fair enough – it is a pretty glacial release schedule by today’s pacing standards. Even if you only measure it by Disney’s own franchise yardstick, taking into account the speed at which Marvel films have been released and the fact that there are already three full-length Lego movies (including The Lego Batman Movie).

Where the Toy Story quadrilogy does stand out as exceptional, however, is that, of those four films, each of them can very much claim to be exceptional in a unique way. Not only is not one of them “bad”, but not a single one even veers off into “not great”. In fact, the sliding scale of Toy Story critical rankings on Rotten Tomatoes goes from 100% to 97% – not so much a slide at all as the gentlest of stumbles, perfectly styled out.

Of course, it almost didn’t happen that way at all: despite the success of the first instalment, Toy Story 2 was originally intended to be a direct-to-video release, playing second fiddle to Pixar’s apparently more pressing work on A Bug’s Life. Had it happened that way, it’s hard to imagine numbers 3 and 4 being any kind of cinematic event in 2010 or 2019, respectively. Let alone holding such esteemed standing with mainstream and cult critics alike, constantly up there among the best animated films ever made.

In November 1999, when Toy Story 2 was released, I was nine years old, and was lucky enough to have not yet had any kind of close brush with mortality. My grandparents, even my great grandparents (the pair that I had known, at least) were still alive and hadn’t necessarily seemed – at least to my young eyes – to have aged all that much in the time I’d been around to notice. And any suggestion that I was getting older myself had, as does to children, always seemed positive: I was growing up, allowed to do new things, slowly but surely working my way into adolescence.

Less than five years later, all but two of those grandparents would be dead and I would be a teenager. And, in a way, Toy Story 2 – though it’s fair to say I wouldn’t have known this, captivated in the cinema at less than 10 years old – prepared me for that better than anything else. Not as well as an honest conversation might have, perhaps, but as best as an all-star cast of animated toys can be expected to do.

Now, edging dangerously close to 30, my hair continuing to turn grey at a pace far greater than I’d like (or, even just a few years ago, ever imagined), the miniscule lines of expression on my face having lengthened, deepened, and now seeming to have been permanently set in place – Toy Story 2 remains, against all odds, a genuine source of comfort. A reminder of the joy that comes with that most elusive of things: acceptance.

The film begins in media res with toy cowboy Woody, more or less the main protagonist of all four films, frantic yet hair perpetually, perfectly coiffed and clothes as neatly faux-pressed as ever. Having misplaced his signature hat, as living toys are wont to do, I suppose, and with Andy (his owner) due to leave for cowboy camp any second, Woody is inconsolable: his hat, after all, is as much a part of him as his boots, his flannel shirt, or his soulful, painted-on brown eyes. Unlike the painted and glued-on elements, though, the hat can be removed and – much to the chagrin of our favourite polyvinyl cowboy – lost. Some two minutes into the film by this point, we’re already dealing with some of life’s most important questions: if we are, like Woody, the sum of so many detachable, changeable, even deteriorating parts then are we somehow different – less, even – without them?

While Woody is quickly reassured by his ceramic paramour, Bo Peep, that the hat doesn’t necessarily make the man, that Andy will love him just as much without it, this, unfortunately, is far from the end of his existential crises. Not long afterward, during what seems a fairly run-of-the-mill bit of playtime shared between two life-long friends, Woody’s arm is ripped; Andy, disheartened at the sad new state of his favourite old toy, leaves for camp without him. The arm isn’t fully disconnected, but there are bare threads and visible stuffing. And that’s kind of the point: it’s not a fatal wound, it’s not a harbinger of imminent death or complete destruction – nothing so melodramatic – but a small reminder that decay, over time, comes for us all. No matter how loved you are, how much “in the prime of life” you might consider yourself at any one moment, not only could that be snatched away at any second by illness, accident or some episode of fateful biology, you will — regardless of all of that — likely live long enough to see yourself falling apart.

“Maybe we can fix him on the way,” Andy’s mother offers, only for her son, dejected, to decline without reservation. “No,” Andy says, “Just leave him.” It’s a particularly poignant moment, only further crystalised where his mother, looking to offer Andy reassurance, instead punctuates the conversation with something that feels much more potent, more final. “I'm sorry, honey,” she says, “but you know toys don't last forever.”

It’s a one-two emotional punch, simple but effective. Where Woody gets a taste of his own mortality, Andy, too, comes to understand that the people (because that’s how he sees Woody, of course) he loves won’t be around forever: time, uncaring, comes for everyone and everything. To quote another famous cowboy, “Everybody’s gotta learn sometime.”

Without rehashing the entire plot of the film from here on, Toy Story 2 finds Woody in the hands of a nefarious collector. Frightened at first – terrified of being removed from the love of his owner – Woody soon grows accustomed to the perks of being a “collectible”, rather than a toy. Free from the perils of playtime, a collectible can live forever, in perfect condition. Immortality, but at what cost?

It’s a tempting prospect, of course, and one tied to an all-too-familiar feeling. On finding my first grey hair – or the next, or the next – had I been offered a new way to live that might roll back the march of time, would I have taken it? I’d certainly have thought about it. But, Woody learns – as we all must if we are to have any hope of enjoying what years we have in front of us – that taking the living out of life for fear of dying is no way to live at all.

And, for my part, I’ve definitely bought more skincare products in the last year or so than I ever have before. I am 29, not 21. I’ve also changed my diet, and thought more carefully about the ways in which I look after myself. I am 29, not 18. That being said, I have also learned to accept that while my body as I know it – or thought I knew it – is changing forever. Like Woody, I see this happening every day, and I panic every day. That will probably never stop.

Like Woody, too, though, I have learned (with more than a little help from a partner who sees these changes and treats them as positive) that diving through those waves as they crash above you ultimately takes less effort and runs less risk of dragging you down than trying to swim over them does. I am 29, and – if I’m lucky – I will only get older.

In the end, where Toy Story 2 excels – and, indeed, where all the Toy Story films excel – is in its humanity and its subtlety. While warnings of deforestation and climate crises in FernGully (1992) (a film far ahead of its time and which, to be fair, still slaps pretty hard) are more potent now than ever, or where a film like Monsters Inc. is as on-the-nose as can be with its messages about passing sweeping judgement, Toy Story 2 buries its allegory within the character-driven narrative.

More like Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro than some of its more obvious animated peers, the meaning behind the magic in Toy Story 2 is there for the viewer to find. To excavate for themselves and to come, gradually, even begrudgingly, to understand over time.

Stick with it and it will stick with you; you never know when you might need it.