How do you make a sequel to a nearly perfect film? Toy Story, the 1995 hit from Disney and Pixar, was not only the first fully computer-animated feature; it was also as brilliantly written and directed a film as any of the classic Disney releases. Pixar did nearly everything right -- from the story, dialogue and voice casting to the impossibly complex choices of visual style. The entire culture of the film's world -- which included many familiar name-brand items, such as Mr. Potato Head and Slinky Dog -- was fabulously worked out, and there were even some grownup metaphysical implications to action-figure Buzz Lightyear's delusions of humanity. The detailed background was full of throwaway jokes that took more than one viewing to absorb.
It's a tough act to follow, but director John Lasseter and his Pixar crew have done about as well as can be expected with Toy Story 2. They've obviously lavished as much attention on detail as they did the first time around, and the story is just as funny and touching. The only problem is the inevit-able one: The freshness -- the novel delight -- is a little faded now. It's the fault not of the filmmakers but of time itself. It's quite likely that if the two films had been released in reverse order, the original Toy Story would be the one that seemed a little less thrilling than its companion.
The story is a variation on the themes of its predecessor, with a dash of 1988's underrated The Brave Little Toaster tossed in. When the toys' owner, young Andy, goes off for a vacation, his mom decides to sell off Wheezy (Joe Ranft), his broken penguin toy, at a yard sale. The rest of the toys are appalled, so cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks), despite having recently sustained a disjointed right arm, sneaks down to rescue Wheezy. In the process, Woody himself is snapped up by Al McWhiggin (Wayne Knight), a toy-shop owner and mercenary profiteer of nostalgic collectibles. He is the one missing piece in Al's otherwise complete set of Woody's Roundup collection. Al intends to ship the whole ensemble off to a toy museum in Japan in return for big bucks. But first he has to get Woody's arm fixed.
At Al's apartment, Woody meets the rest of the collection, including pert cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), the Prospector (Kelsey Grammer) and his faithful horse. They are overjoyed to see him but baffled that he doesn't recognize them. To jar his memory, they show him videos of the old black-and-white Woody's Roundup series. He is amazed to discover that he was a star. Meanwhile, back at the house, the other toys brilliantly solve the mystery of Woody's kidnapping and take off -- under the leadership of Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), naturally -- for Al's Toy Barn, where they assume Woody is being held prisoner.
After multiple adventures, they discover, to their dismay, that Woody -- moved by the fear of eventual abandonment, the needs of the other Roundup characters and the blandishments of stardom -- has decided to desert them (and Andy) for the Japanese museum. Of course, the story can't end that way -- not unless the filmmakers are planning The Bad News Toys Go to Japan -- so we are treated to an exciting chase sequence, à la the first Toy Story.
Once again, though the film features lots of humor accessible to children, there are also plenty of referential jokes that may go over the heads of kids but will keep adults -- particularly film-savvy adults -- in stitches. Little kids may pick up on the hilarious Star Wars digs or even the brief and wonderful Jurassic Park bit. But when Geri, the hero of Pixar's Oscar-winning short Geri's Game, shows up as a new character, how many are going to recognize the sly reference to the Jean Reno/Harvey Keitel character from La Femme Nikita and its American remake, Point of No Return? Or Woody's Vertigo-like nightmare sequence?
Toy Story 2 is loaded with gags for nearly every age and sophistication level. Fans of the original will be glad to hear that nearly all the characters reappear here -- even, ever so briefly, those moronic three-eyed religious zealots from the vending machine. And now Andy's gang has Jessie and a crateful of Barbie dolls for entertainment.
Opens. Nov. 24.