Saving Woody's Piggy Bank

Toy Story 2
area theaters

"If you looked at the source code for all the shaders in this film," says Toy Story 2's technical director Brad West, "you would find that they're nothing at all like they were on [the first] Toy Story. All the internals are different..."

...and snap, just like that, the intricate technical details behind the liveliest movie of the season will have you sleeping deeper than Sinatra. Source code? Shaders? Internals? Is this dude talking about a movie or a goddamned Excel spreadsheet?

Compu-toons kick ass: Woody and Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 2
Compu-toons kick ass: Woody and Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 2

Brad is right, though. In crafting this nearly irresistible sequel, the computer-animation pacesetters at Pixar had a significantly more powerful set of high-tech tools at their disposal than they did on the 1995 original. Even the complex applications put to use on last year's brilliant A Bug's Life are a bit dated by now, soon to be shelved alongside the world's 28.8K external modems and analog cassettes.

Fortunately, as all technology evolves, so do the various methods of concealing its dreary details from the rest of us. This is perhaps truest of all when it comes to a full-length animated feature: While an elite world clique of programmers and digital designers can get a whole new set of jollies chewing on the animators' latest innovations, seemingly bent on expanding the utility of ones and zeros into every cranny of existence, street-level movie lovers have nothing but a ticket taker between them and their thorough enjoyment of this enthralling toy's-eye-view tale.

Lanky li'l sheriff doll Woody and his dutiful-but-diminutive rocketeer buddy Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, respectively) are once again the leading players in a kick-ass compu-toon caper. Whereas Episode I of this saga had Woody lighting out to rescue the endangered space ranger, the followup puts Buzz at the head of a pocket-sized reconnaissance squad when Woody gets ripped off during an unforeseen garage sale. The culprit: An unscrupulous toy trader (Wayne Knight, Seinfeld's despicable Newman, lends his pipes) whose only aim is to complete his set of Fifties Western dolls and memorabilia and sell it off to the highest bidder--in this case, a museum in the Far East. Naturally, nothing is more abhorrent to a goodhearted toy than the prospect of being locked up in a glass case across the Pacific, never again to be treasured and fondled by some slobbering tot.

So what makes this kid-friendly fiasco more engaging than the first one? For one thing, it indulges a dizzying new mise en scène. Ever unwilling to stay cooped up in their young owner's room, the playthings embark on a fast-paced misadventure that leads them into all manner of perilous settings: a shadowy elevator shaft, a busy downtown thoroughfare, a major metropolitan airport, and a mazelike toy store with a chronic case of overstock. Why bother shrinking the kids for the umpteenth time when these personified digital dolls do such a spirited job of enlarging and overrunning our everyday surroundings?

Yeah, grown-up viewers are bound to scratch their heads every so often at the eye-popping progress in computer-generated arts. But the story is at least as essential to the action as the science. Co-screenwriters Andrew Stanton, Rita Hsiao, Doug Chamberlin, and Chris Webb (whose collective résumé includes Small Soldiers, TV's Ellen, and "Looney Tunes" fare) tart up the toys' grand string of mishaps with multiple levels of dialogue and meaning. It's not so much a mix of kiddie gags and adult humor as it is a relatively ageless sense of fun; whether or not your treat-snarfing preschool charge appreciates the film's satirical swipes at video-game addiction, lite innuendo, and digs at the toy biz itself, he'll surely be getting more than just a 90-minute slapstick fix.

Of course, none of this is to discount the absurd volume of human hours that Pixar's mouse-clicking pros put into the project. (According to the press kit, "Even the most skilled artist creates typically four or five seconds of animated footage in a given week.") Their keen eye for texture, cameralike direction, and just-realistic-enough movements are certainly no less inspired than Pixar CEO Steve Jobs's introduction of "flavored" home computers that cost under a grand. But given the choice between a crack team of full-time image renderers and a walking Mr. Potato Head with the voice and temperament of Don Rickles, who would you rather have at your holiday party?

 
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