For a 34-year-old who's about to be grandfathered out of his coddled
18-34 demographic, watching the pop-culture agenda skew steadily younger is
like living in Menudo Nation--a land where the members are routinely
drummed out and replaced once they're old enough to shave. Whenever I
encounter some inexplicably popular slasher-movie retread or pre-fab 'N
Sync tune, I feel one step closer to whittling outside some retirement-home
bunker labeled Sunnydale. Just because you're not old now doesn't mean
you're not old enough to become culturally obsolete.
In an odd way, that explains why almost every adult I know responded so
strongly to Toy Story--and why they responded to it so differently
from kids. Kids and adults both were tickled by the zany pace, the shiny
look, and the ingenious gimmick of what toys do when their owners aren't
looking. But adults seemed to identify with the toys a lot more than
younger viewers did.
Kids are possessive of toys, sure. Adults, though, are sentimental about
them, and that isn't remotely the same thing. In its most poignant scenes,
Toy Story reminded grown-ups of all the toys they'd left behind--the
detritus of last year's passing fad or obsession, like the rings in a tree
trunk. It's no major leap from there to getting left behind yourself.
That's a pretty depressing way to describe one of the funniest movies in
recent memory. But if the Toy Story sequel manages to construct even
wilder gags, and to stretch even further the idea of the secret life of
toys, it also leaves an even more bittersweet aftertaste. Like the first
film, Toy Story 2 is partially organized around the idea of
obsolescence--only this time around, adults will feel its pang a lot more
sharply. At its most heart-wrenching, this chipper cartoon is also a
parent's stricken fantasy of being outgrown.
At some level, being a parent means anxiously treasuring each moment of
a child's development, while realizing ruefully that each new step is
charting his eventual departure from your life. In Toy Story 2, that
fate is represented by "the shelf"--the dingy ledge reserved for discarded
toys. In a single tear of his toy sleeve, the cowpoke Woody (voice of Tom
Hanks) is suddenly sidelined from a week at cowboy camp with his
freckle-faced owner Andy. Instead, he's left to gather dust with Wheezy, a
squeaky penguin who don't squeak so good no more.
Woody saves Wheezy from a fate worse than the shelf (yard sale!)
only to wind up in the clutches of a maniacal collector who sees toys as
untouchable commodities, not playthings. It's in his sterile care, however,
that Woody discovers that he has a history: He was once part of a matched
set with a wonder horse, a cowgirl named Jessie, and a grizzled prospector
sidekick. When the reunited set goes up for sale, Woody is faced with a
toy's version of an existential crisis--either be enshrined behind glass
for eternity in a museum display, or enjoy what few years he has left with
Andy before the boy outgrows him.
As hilarious as the slapstick rescue efforts of Buzz Lightyear (Tim
Allen), Mr. Potatohead (Don Rickles), and Woody's old pals are, it's the
former scenes that give Toy Story 2 its peculiar resonance. In the
movie's most affecting moment, Jessie (voiced ideally by Joan Cusack)
recalls getting left behind by an owner who simply grew up. The scene is
shot from a toy's point of view, but the primal fear it expresses--of
fading from a child's memory as he or she grows older--is only too
This montage didn't affect the tykes in the audience much (not the ones
kicking my chair, anyway). No surprise there: What does the passage of time
mean to an 8-year-old? The adults around me, on the other hand, wept like a
Scout troop at Old Yeller. Somehow, that made watching Toy Story
2 an even more poignant experience. It brought the gulf between young
and old into startling view, even as we sat enjoying the same thing.
Toy Story 2 draws a distinction between toys as pristine works of
art and as rough-and-tumble playthings. The movie itself is the latter: It
backs off from some of its more painful themes, and it stretches out its
delirious airport climax a bit too long. But its mix of silliness,
affection, and piercing nostalgia--and yes, artistry--keeps the separate
halves of the audience engaged simultaneously. Kids experience their toys
in the present tense, while adults eventually view them only in the past.
As delightful as these movies are, they stand a good chance of being part
of everyone's future.