Size Does Not Matter
Near the end of the film The Matrix, Neo (Keanu Reeves) begins to understand his own power. When he realizes that everything he is seeing is a computer program, the payoff shot for this knowledge shows the screen filled with the “1"s and “0"s which make up the objects and people previously seen. The shot is stunning, and lays bare not only the program within the film’s narrative universe, but also the computer work necessary to create the effects in The Matrix.
As the shot in The Matrix reminds us, computer-generated effects (CGI) are literally mathematical formulas. Such effects allow filmmakers to do some things a little more easily than before. But films which are completely computer-generated face particular difficulties. They can feel as impersonal and calculating as the formulas which put them on the screen. The Phantom Menace is a perfect example of a film that never makes the transition from program to film.
Toy Story 2 is in theaters, calculated and programmed like any CGI film, but also delivering everything that the first Toy Story (1995) and today’s TS2 marketing have promised: humor, adventure, and real warmth, the likes of which Jar Jar Binks and his friends can not imagine. Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) who became friends in the first film now confront an evil toy collector (Wayne Knight). As in the first film, the toys including Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Ham (John Ratzenberger), and Slinky Dog (Jim Varney) must pretend not to have consciousness in the presence of humans. This means that their efforts to return order to their universe must be made in secret.
Despite and because of humans’ ignorance of their own intentions, the oversized world presents the toys with a series of entertaining obstacles. Human-size doors are constantly slamming shut right in their faces and the toys must try to keep speed with cars and even a jet plane at the conclusion of the film. Like The Incredible Shrinking Man and other films with minuscule protagonists, this one delightfully presents the world we think we know, from another perspective. In the end, size not does matter, only friends.
The pleasure of Toy Story 2 comes not from such reductive messages, however. Rather, it comes from the way it takes full advantage of the many opportunities afforded computer-generated films. Unlike non-CGI films, Toy Story 2‘s production schedule never had to be adjusted to accommodate ailing actors or rain. The voice actors had to do their jobs effectively (and they all do here), but they are not so crucial to the film’s success as the fully fleshed out animated bodies on screen, created by many sleep-deprived young men and women sitting in front of their computers for days and days. The many individuals who worked on the film have created the best computer-generated effects yet; the film looks much better than the first Toy Story, Antz, and A Bug’s Life. Its characters are flawlessly embodied, and its jokes, both visual and verbal, are very funny.
For one thing, TS2‘s allusions to other films are often hilarious. There are visual references to Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark, sound effects lifted from Star Wars, and an extended parody of The Empire Strikes Back which acknowledges its own silliness and is funnier than Spaceballs and more good-humored than what Lucas is doing these days. The filmmakers indulge their nostalgia for these other films in an engaging manner. While other media aimed at children “and their parents,” such as Steven Spielberg’s animated TV series Animaniacs, seem to wink at the adults over their children’s heads, Toy Story 2 never seems willfully to neglect the children who are (supposedly) the intended audience.
I can truthfully write even if it sounds like I’ve been paid off by Disney that “Children of all ages will love Toy Story 2.” In fact, adults and kids did enjoy the film at the screening I attended. A child directly behind me made a couple of comments that demonstrated both his enjoyment of the film and his engagement as a consumer. About twenty minutes into the film, this young boy said, “That’s my Woody!” Later he said, “That’s my Buzz!” I imagine that after leaving the theater, he talked his parents into buying him the latest in Toy Story toys.
Like the films that it evokes and parodies, Toy Story 2 is, in one sense, one big commercial for tie-in toys: it provides some of the finest product placements ever committed to film. But TS2‘s self-marketing is unusually creative and surprisingly endearing. The toys on display in this film are not electronic games and gadgets; these toys require children’s imaginations, more than the simple training of reflexes required for many currently fashionable electronic toys, to come to life. There is a scene early in the film when we witness the toys’ owner, Andy, playing with his toys, making different voices for them and envisioning an adventure scenario. The entire film is, finally, about a boy sitting in his room, imagining personalities and voices for his toys and pretending that each day will end happily, with or without a Randy Newman song. (And despite a song about the doll Jesse [voiced by Joan Cusack], this film, like the first, depicts a boy’s world.)
The happy ending for TS2 may be that the tie-ins will sell like crazy, the effects will be labeled the finest ever, and the work of the voice actors (some of whom have not been this funny in a long time) will be lauded. I would add praise for director John Lasseter, co-directors Ash Brannon and Lee Unkrich, and the writers, Andrew Stanton, Rita Hsiao, and Doug Chamberlin & Chris Webb, working from a story by Lasseter, Pete Docter, Brannon, and Stanton. They should be acknowledged as responsible for everything about this film that is pleasurable. Whatever you think of Disney as a studio or institution, Snow White is the work of dear old Uncle Walt. In the same way, Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 2 are the work of these many Pixarians . Their work is not up to the standard Walt established with Snow White, his first full length animated feature, but then, Walt never reached that standard again himself.
It’s no coincidence that the Disney castle logo in Pixar films looks shinier and cleaner than it does at the beginning of Snow White and other Disney films. Literally, the castle looks great because it is computer-generated. But it can also be understood as a symbol of Pixar’s very good work: its films add luster to the logo and to Disney itself. Pixar is making films that Disney is no longer capable of making, but for which it gladly takes the credit.