20 years ago this week, Toy Story 2 changed the way Pixar makes movies and forever made audiences cry whenever they hear "Jesse's Song." This is weapons-grade, character-first emotional storytelling right here - and you can learn a lot from Buzz and Woody's second movie.
The production of Toy Story 2 is enough to give any aspiring filmmaker the cold sweats.
Initially conceived as a quickie direct-to-video follow-up in the style of The Return of Jafar, the sequel to the groundbreaking, Oscar-winning Toy Story was rushed into production by embattled chairman Joe Roth. The sequel's story was cobbled together from a number of unused story ideas for the first film, from the idea of Woody being a sought-after collectible doll to a ravenous toy collector. After a rough version was brought in by Toy Story animator Ash Brannon, the movie was both looking better than anyone at Disney or Pixar expected, but also not completely up to par.
Disney was heartened enough to move the project to a theatrical exhibition, but Pixar didn't feel like the story or animation was up to snuff. John Lasseter, veteran Pixar employee and director of the original film, stepped in. With less than a year before the movie was due, Lasseter held a meeting at his house with many of Pixar's chief creative minds -- including Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and legendary story artist Joe Ranft (who tragically died before the release of Cars) -- and drastically overhauled the project. He fired the original producer, brought in Lee Unkrich as co-director, and worked with the team to bring the movie in on time. In The Pixar Story, a terrific Leslie Iwerks documentary currently on Disney+, it's revealed that the entire movie had to be redone in nine months. (Pixar employees were frazzled.) And this is before you factor in the story of how 90 percent of the film was accidentally deleted by a processing error and only restored thanks to supervising technical director Galyn Susman, who was on maternity leave and had one of Pixar's giant computers at home --complete with a back-up of the entire movie.
And yet, Toy Story 2 arrived on time (released wide on November 24, 1999) and garnered even stronger reviews than the original film. Talk about a miraculous turnaround. 20 years later, there are still lessons to be learned from the super sequel and takeaways that can be gathered, mostly when it relates to aspects of emotional storytelling in movies -- how to use it effectively -- and the way it conveyed a grounded, relatable message instead of getting lost in the bloat that consume most follow-ups.
To be fair, Toy Story 2 is a much bigger movie than its predecessor. The original film took place mostly in a series of rooms, with the show-stopping moving van chase saved for the very end of the film. Toy Story 2 has a number of pivotal locations and, more than that, travel between those locations. That element is something that seems downright incomprehensible, given that there was only one film in between the two Toy Story installments (1998's A Bug's Life, which made great strides in crowd simulations and texture mapping). The opening sequence of Toy Story 2, which imagines Buzz Lightyear as the star of his own videogame, is downright dazzling and a reminder of just how far the technology and storytelling had progressed from the original film. (Fun bonus fact: This sequence was originally meant for the first film and was intended to showcase Buzz as the star of his own Saturday morning cartoon series. A year after Toy Story 2 was released, Buzz actually got his own animated Saturday morning cartoon series with Buzz Lightyear: Star Command.)
But as awe-inspiring as some of these showier moments are, particularly the chase at the end of the film, with our characters maneuvering through a major airport, those aren't the moments that stand out when you think back to the film. Instead, what makes Toy Story 2 such a triumph are the quieter, more emotional beats meant to emphasize character development or enrich our understanding of this world.
The biggest, greatest example of this emotion-over-spectacle approach is, of course, Jesse's song, "When She Loved Me". For the first film, Lasseter had '70s songman Randy Newman compose new tunes. But instead of the characters singing these new songs, as was very much in vogue in the mid-'90s, Broadway-influenced Disney animation, the songs would simply be played over montages on screen. It was a very different approach than audiences were used to at the time, and it worked spectacularly well. So it makes sense that Newman would be recruited for the sequel; this time, he wrote a song that he didn't sing himself, instead enlisting Sarah McLaughlan at the peak of her Lilith Fair powers. What makes the moment even more powerful is that it encapsulates the entire backstory of Jessie (Joan Cusack), a cowgirl toy from the same line as Woody, who was beloved by a child and left by the wayside as her child got older. Nothing like that had been attempted before and even looking back on it now, the boldness of its storytelling is just as striking, even if the animation (especially compared with recent marvels like Toy Story 4) is a little wooden and inexpressive.
And here's the thing about Toy Story 2 -- it's filled with these moments: Woody's nightmare after Andy places him on a dusty shelf (next to squeak toy Wheezy, another holdover from earlier drafts of the first film); the moment when Woody realizes that he was part of an old TV series (the shot of him looking up at the standee is amazing); the wordless sequence of Woody getting repaired. Every camera angle, the staging of the characters and their spatial relationship to one another, the way the music comes in (and fades away) were chosen for maximum emotional impact along with the greatest visual punch.
The filmmakers behind Toy Story 2 knew that without that gravitas, the movie would be a bunch of impressive sequences that wouldn't actually resonate with anybody. Filmmakers working on movies, especially movies with the scale of Toy Story 2 (whether or not they're sequels), would be wise to look back on the film. It's a great reminder that spectacle shouldn't be the chief priority and that putting the time into making the characters nuanced and the emotions real, will pay off more than any pyrotechnic feat or computer-generated wizardry.
Toy Story 2 might have been a nightmare to produce but it really is a dream to watch. Again and again and again ...