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TOY STORY/TOY STORY 2:  ULTIMATE TOY BOX

Review by Michael Jacobson

Voices:  Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Annie Potts, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Kelsey Grammar
Director:  John Lasseter
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.77:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Walt Disney
Features:  See Review
Length:  Toy Story 80 Minutes, Toy Story 2 94 Minutes
Release Date:  October 17, 2000

Film:
Toy Story ***1/2

Toy Story was an innovative breakthrough in technology and storytelling in the proudest Walt Disney tradition.  It was the first full length film completely animated by computer, and largely the result of the pioneering spirit of John Lasseter (though he certainly had a lot of help!), whose little computer animation studio Pixar produced a couple of Oscar winning shorts, and who was convinced that such an ambitious project would be worth the time and money spent.  Boy, was he right.

Toy Story is more than a technological triumph, however.  It was a perfect use of technique enhancing a good story, rather than dominating it.  Like all good animated films, this one boasts a perfect cast of voices, which brings out the humanity in the toys and help propel the tale along.

The premise is wonderful:  did you ever wonder as a child if your toys were really alive?  I used to think so, though I never imagined a world quite like Andy’s room in this film.  Andy, like most kids, has a room full of great toys…some of them staples of childhood, like the Etch-a-Sketch, the Mr. Potato Head, the green army guys, the barrel of monkeys, and so on.  And when Andy’s away, his toys come alive!  They walk, talk, interact, and otherwise carry on a ‘normal’ existence in the microcosm of a playroom.

The leader of the toys is Woody (Hanks), a cowboy figure with a pull string.  His friends include the aforementioned Mr. Potato Head (Rickles), a slinky dog (Varney), Bo Peep (Potts), a big green T-Rex (Shawn) and many others.  Right now, Woody is busy organizing the toys for Andy and his family’s moving day, and getting ready for one of the big events of the year:  Andy’s birthday.  What new toys will he receive?  Who will be joining them in the playroom?  Will anybody get replaced?  Woody insists not.  “This is ANDY we’re talking about!” he proclaims with all the loyalty of a favorite toy.

Andy’s birthday, however, means the arrival of a cool new space toy, a Buzz Lightyear action figure (Allen).  He’s the kind of toy every little kid would want.  He has wings, a retractable helmet, lots of buttons and a flashing laser light.  But there are two problems.  One, Buzz seems to be taking over Woody’s place in Andy’s life.  And two, Buzz…well, he has no clue he’s a toy, thinking instead he’s the REAL Buzz Lightyear.  His pomposity doesn’t make him any more endearing to Woody.

Woody, in a moment of desperation, tries to knock Buzz into the toys’ no-man’s-land, behind the dresser, but ends up instead with Buzz going out the window and into the yard of neighbor Sid.  Sid is the kind of kid we all knew.  His biggest pleasure is in destroying toys.  Now, it’s up to Woody to go after Buzz and bring him back safely, before the moving day and before the other toys can get their hands on Woody, whom they now consider a traitor!

This computer animated world makes possible visuals and imaginative worlds never before captured on screen, and brings them all to life through the eyes of two toys on an adventure.  The comedy is inspired and funny, and include lots of little touches (note, for example, the tool box bearing the Binford logo, in homage to Tim Allen’s show Home Improvement).  To call this film an instant landmark is entirely fair, though to be honest, the animation techniques still had a little further to go in making the human characters look human instead of like big toys themselves.

Overall, this picture is a delight for both kids, who will no doubt be caught up in the world of the toys, and adults, who will likely also enjoy the story, but also marvel at just how much work and talent it took to create such a picture.  The time and effort were well spent…Toy Story not only broke fresh new ground, it was a hugely popular hit.  One that cried out for a sequel…

Toy Story 2 ****

It’s hard to believe, but true, that Toy Story 2 started out as a direct-to-video release.  Fortunately, the powers that be, Pixar and Disney, realized they had something much better on their hands, and indeed, the final film is one of the best animated pictures I’ve ever seen, both in terms of the technical quality, which was much improved even over the excellent first film, but also in terms of the story, which is one of the best and genuinely emotional of recent years.

The story starts off with young master Andy getting ready for cowboy camp, a yearly excursion just for he and his trusty toy, Woody.  But he accidentally tears a seam on Woody’s arm at the last minute, making him unable to take the trip.  Andy is disappointed, but his mother tells him, “Toys don’t last forever.”  Woody begins to realize soberly that his time in Andy’s room may just about be over.

To make matters worse, Woody accidentally ends up in the family yard sale, where an unscrupulous toy collector, Big Al, recognizes him as a valuable collector’s item and seizes him.  Big Al’s world is a far cry from the warmth and love of Andy’s room, however.  There, Woody learns he was part of a set called the Roundup gang, a group of toys based on a once-popular TV show.  He meets Jessie the cowgirl (Cusack), Bullseye the horse, and Prospector Pete (Grammar), a real collector’s find:  an antique toy still in the original box…but how sad for a toy, to have never known the love and companionship of a child!

The set is being sold to a toy museum in Japan, and though Woody misses Andy and his friends, he slowly begins to realize that Andy won’t be young forever, and this might be the best opportunity he has available.  At least in a museum, kids will always love and appreciate him.  Jessie’s story about once being a favorite toy but then being brushed aside when her child grew older convinces him, and I have to tell you, it was such a beautiful, well constructed and emotional sequence, it brought real tears to my eyes, and I doubt I’ll ever forget it or the beautiful, haunting song “When She Loved Me” by Sarah McLachlan that accompanied it. 

Meanwhile, Buzz and the toys only know that Woody was stolen, and embark on a dangerous mission to rescue him.  This is an even better and more visually spectacular adventure than was featured in the first movie, as the toys have to deal with the perils of crossing busy streets, hazardous elevator shafts, and a giant toy warehouse where Buzz meets up with another Buzz doll, who, like in the first film, is equally convinced he’s the genuine article.  It’s pretty funny to see our Buzz getting a taste of his own medicine this time around!

Ultimately, Woody and his new friends have to make a choice about their futures, and thanks to Buzz, using some of the same rhetoric Woody gave to him in the first film, they become convinced that it is better to be truly loved for the short length of a childhood than to be admired forever from a distance and under glass.  But this decision is not the end of the story by far.  Next comes the daring escape attempt, which involves an airport baggage machine and a taking off jumbo jet.  Thanks to the marvelous and detailed computer animation, we’re treated to sights we’d never otherwise see.  They are indeed incredible!

In the end, Toy Story 2 joins the rarest of all cinematic breeds:  the sequel that surpasses the original.  I’m glad that all involved, from the voice talents to the animators to the studio heads, recognized they had a jewel on their hands and decided to devote the extra effort into making this a big screen adventure.  It’s one of the best animated films ever made.  Heck, it’s one of the best overall movies of the 90’s.  It’s definitely not to be missed.

Video ****

Toy Story looks great, Toy Story 2, even better.  Animation and DVD is a terrific combination, surpassed only by computer animation on DVD.  Discs like ANTZ and A Bug’s Life raised the bar for digital video quality, and this set can easily sit beside them in the ranks.  These anamorphic widescreen DVDs are gorgeous and of reference quality.  Images get the full benefit of computer rendering:  they are amazingly sharp and detailed throughout, no matter how big or small or how deep they appear.  Colors are as beautiful as you might expect:  bright, bold, and well contained, using the full palate of the imagination.  Nowhere did I notice any image break-up, grain, shimmer, or chroma noise…they just aren’t there.  I say the second film looks a little better than the first, but largely because the technique was better:  more sub shading and in-between colors, more detail, more truth to the illusion of depth.  Overall, DVD fans can’t ask for much better.

Audio ****

Again, both films earn top rating, but Toy Story 2 earns a slight edge just for having a bolder, more involved and more layered soundtrack that shows off 5.1 digital sound a little bit better.  However, you can’t go wrong using either film as a demonstration disc.  These are fully staged audio tracks, making plenty use of the six discreet channels.  There is plenty of action that involves crossovers from side to side and front to back, and these are all handled with clarity and smoothness.  The .1 channel kicks in plenty of times, adding bottom end and dynamic range to a lively listen.  Randy Newman’s music sounds perfect on both discs, as does the dialogue, which is always clear.  These discs put you right in the middle of the action and keep you there!

Features ****

I hope I don’t miss anything, but I’ll try my best, because this set is as loaded as they come!  Disc One features Toy Story and also includes a commentary track by Lasseter and his crew, the Oscar winning short film Tin Toy that would provide the inspiration for making Toy Story, a multi-language reel that demonstrates how the movie’s audio played for foreign audiences, ‘interviews’ with Buzz and Woody, a collection of all the ‘treats’ created for ABC Saturday morning television, and a 5.1 effects only track.

Disc Two contains Toy Story 2 along with another Oscar winning short, Luxo Jr.  There is another commentary track with Lasseter and company (and both of them are good, entertaining listens, as these guys are funny and informative!), the outtakes from the film, which are hysterical, a sneek peek at the newest Disney/Pixar film, Monsters, Inc., and another 5.1 effects only track. 

That’s enough right there to earn a four star rating, but this set features a bonus third disc with extra supplements for both films!  After an intro by the filmmakers, you can cruise through the histories of the projects, the character design, location design, story development, movie making secrets, music and sound design, abandoned concepts (including the original looks for Woody and Buzz), deleted scenes, early tests, original treatments, the storyboard pitch, storyboard to film comparisons (including multi-angle presentations), animation production demos, trailers, TV spots, posters and artwork, music videos, original song demos, a guide to hidden jokes, and 3-D tours of the sets.  In other words, you’re going to be busy for days, and you won’t ever be bored!

Summary:

This set boasts not only two terrific and revolutionary animated films that the whole family will enjoy, but also one of the best overall DVD presentations I’ve ever seen.  The video is superb, the audio is extraordinary, and there aren’t enough adjectives to describe the extensive and exhaustive extras package.  If you only want the movies, you can get them in a double disc set with equal quality but no bells and whistles, but if you’re interested in the details of these landmark computer animated pictures, you really need to treat yourself to this box set.