Thursday, June 16, 2016

Theory Thursday: "Toy Story 2" is Pixar's Best Movie

Scene from Toy Story 2
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Finding Dory is released in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Toy Story 2 is Pixar's best movie.

With over 20 years to their credit, it has become increasingly difficult to come to a consensus on what is Pixar's best movie. The studio that revolutionized CG animation has such an impressive track record that one could make the point that your favorite says something deeper about you. You could like superheroes (The Incredibles), cooking (Ratatouille), robots (WALL-E), or even fish (Finding Nemo). In fact, there's a good 10 movies that constantly pop up. All are warranted, and to suggest that this week's entry is stone cold fact may be a bit deceptive. My favorite Pixar movie likely has the advantage of being there when I was a child for excessive rewatching and endless marketing. I'm sure there's an audience that is 10 years younger than myself who can say this about any film from the first decade of the 21st century. I won't fault you, and I encourage you to share your personal favorites in the comments section.

Yet for me, the answer will always be Toy Story 2. There was a certain trepidation that I had towards seeing Toy Story 3 largely because of how connected I was to the first two. There was a time when I could recite the first 10 minutes of the first movie from memory. There was also Tom Hanks - who remains integral to my childhood as well thanks to movies like Big. While I can safely say that Toy Story 3 did nothing to change my relationship to the beloved toys, I have to admit something controversial: it's my least favorite of the trilogy for reasons that I will later get into. However, it did finally make me assess why I loved Toy Story 2 the most. It wasn't an easy revelation, and one that could potentially be overthrown by Monsters Inc. depending on my attitude. However, Toy Story 2 is the one thing that Pixar hasn't done right since: the perfect sequel.

It's hard to remember that in 1999, Pixar could've been a fluke. Toy Story was a phenomenal debut, but A Bug's Life has largely faded into obscurity for the studio. The idea of returning to the tried and true well made sense, but even its road to the big screen was plagued with production issues. The chances of it being a success weren't guaranteed, as Disney's hand drawn animation was enjoying its last breaths of fresh air in the face of the still novelty style. It wasn't even guaranteed that the studio would have great box office openings. Yet Toy Story 2 is the film that defied most expectations by making the story bigger while expanding on themes established in the original. While the 1995 original was a limited story largely taking place inside two houses, Toy Story 2 would create a journey to rescue beloved toy Woody (Hanks) from a nefarious toy collector. Unlike the following sequel, it had most of the original cast of characters in tact, all providing a perfect blend of broad humor and deeper emotional cues.

The first film is itself an impressive anomaly on Pixar's later style. It was hostile and somehow darker for a studio who thrived on depressing moments. It was an exploration of identity, fads, and a subliminal commentary on America's transition from cowboys to space culture during the 1950's and 60's. With some of composer Randy Newman's most undeniable numbers like "You've Got a Friend in Me," it's a film that holds up surprisingly well despite its somewhat dated animation. It also established a great dynamic between cowboy doll Woody and spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) that would only continue to build in the following films. Most of all, it established a universe that made perfect sense for the era, or at least from a marketing department where each character could be sold as actual toys.

The sequel builds on the various themes of value in society. Much like how Buzz loses his arm in the first movie, Woody is made obsolescent by a tear in his arm that mistakenly puts him at a garage sale. Once he is sold to a toy store owner who wants nothing but to make an easy buck, he meets the gang from his old series Woody's Roundup, which includes Jesse (Joan Cussack), her horse Bullseye, and Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer). The story becomes about value of living life or watching it pass by. There's an allure to both, especially with Woody mistakenly believing that his owner Andy disowned him at the first sight of wear. Meanwhile, Buzz and the gang go out to rescue him. This includes stops in a toy store that introduces several new characters that will appear in some form throughout the series. What's more impressive is that Buzz's fictional villain Zurg was actually referenced in the first film, showing a certain care for continuity that also comes in small motifs and references that dedicated fans will recognize.

While Toy Story cannot be accused of playing it light, the core of Toy Story 2 essentially is the first evidence of what Pixar would try to do with more melancholic narratives. This comes most prominently in the character of Jessie, whose abandonment issues make her a tad unstable. It's hard not to feel emotional when a flashback shows her relationship to her owner set to the Oscar-nominated "When She Loved Me." The feeling of inferiority and separation become painful to experience, especially as the montage shows a different progression from youth to adulthood, where the phrase "It's time to put away childish things." is taken too literally. It creates the sense of selling your life for fame as something appetizing though eventually hollow, as presented in the third act when Stinky Pete expresses his true motives.

Where the film could easily skid by on a deep and rich text about abandonment, it plays against it by having Buzz inevitably rescue Woody in a way that expresses importance. This is done through several comical scenes, such as when the toys cross the street underneath cones only to diverge oncoming traffic. The film is full of some of Pixar's best action beats and shows a fluidity that reflects what family entertainment should be. While a little reaching, the final airport scene is itself riveting because of how it plays into the theme of overcoming expectations while cleverly upping the ante for Toy Story's moving van finale. Of course, it ends on a happy note, but it also ends with a certain assurance that perfectly completes many characters' arcs while also adding many crowd favorites to the line-up, such as Barbie (Jodie Benson). The film may not have as many iconic songs outside of "When She Loved Me," but it does have the deep, emotional core mixed with upbeat action that Pixar would continue to explore over the next decades.

Yes, one could argue that there's other films that Pixar did this better with. However, this feels like the first time that it was done to their future standard. While Toy Story is itself arguably as great, it was the scrappy first film that could. While many could argue that Toy Story 3 has marketed itself into ridiculous directions with various shorts, Toy Story 2 actually did it first with Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: an animated series based around Buzz's space program. It introduced several new characters that wouldn't be seen elsewhere. This is neither a good nor bad thing, as spin-offs shouldn't impact judgment. However, it is being expressed here just to explain the limitless potential of the Toy Story franchise and how it is capable of adapting to various different stories. What's more surprising is that it's one of the rare Pixar films to branch out into TV.

The truth is that Pixar has never, or rarely, been creatively bankrupt for ideas. The time between 2000 and 2010 is maybe the most impressive run for a studio of any caliber. However, there's something about Toy Story 3 that feels a little inferior to the previous entries. While it has one of the most horrific endings to any film in Pixar's canon, it has some other conflicting elements that have made revisiting it a bit diminishing. As strong as the story is and how poignant the final 10 minutes are, the remaining film feels like a bit of a retread from the tonal smoothness of Toy Story 2. It has all of the beats, such as a teddy bear who is abandoned by its owner. However, it is mixed in with some action beats that are a tad too silly, such as when Woody escapes the first time from the daycare. While the motifs are consistent, the presence of Spanish Buzz is itself a big detractor for me, as well as the presence of Lincoln log jokes and an uneven homage to The Great Escape. It's still a good movie, but it has too much going against it to necessarily be as good as the previous two. It's a farewell to beloved characters (at least for then), and it unfortunately doesn't have as nearly as many memorable new characters. The one plus is that it ends on a very strong note.

So while the question about which Pixar movie is the best may be hard to properly answer, I do want to suggest that for me, it is Toy Story 2. It's just a perfect blend of family entertainment that manages to have plenty of great laughs alongside a dark story about value. It has great new music and characters that expand upon the mythology. It has everything that Pixar would later be known for, but better condensed than anywhere else. While it may be difficult to suggest how many animated trilogies are as amazing as Toy Story's rich series, it definitely will be hard for some to agree even on which is the best of them. That alone is a testament to craft. While I have made my say that this is the best, just know that there's plenty since that I genuinely love, including Monsters Inc., Up, and last year's Inside Out (which is in the running for Top 5 favorites). It's difficult to decide, but at the end of the day I always put on Toy Story 2. Now the question is to you: Which is your favorite?

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