Prior to Toy Story’s release in 1995, the film’s main story writers—director John Lasseter, the late Joe Ranft, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter—got together for a now-famous lunch to discuss other ideas, optimistic that they might have the opportunity to make another movie. A film about bugs was one of those ideas, and became their next feature film. (The other ideas consisted of monsters, fish, and a robot, respectfully.)
It was a challenge for Pixar not just technologically, but to see if they could be as sophisticated and enthused as they were for their first movie. As with any sophomoric effort, they set out to prove they were serious and caring about the work they did. At the same time, they didn’t want to repeat themselves. This is no different than in Walt Disney’s day and age during the late 1930s and early 1940s, when he and his studio followed up Snow White (1937) with such ambitious projects as Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), and Bambi (1942), in terms of maintaining a sense of creativity and innovation.
With a bug’s life (loosely based on the Aesop fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper”), the filmmakers created an organic and complex world full of color and scale (outdoor, natural environments, presented in widescreen!), witty humor, and a cast of thousands of insects of all shapes and sizes. (No human characters are in this film, for the record.) According to TIME magazine in 2004, “it took 12 times the computer power of ‘Toy Story’ to make [this film].” As with Toy Story, the filmmakers took advantage of an idea that is familiar to the audience, and then took it to a whole other level by telling a story that proved to be, according to advertisements, “an epic of miniature proportions.”
|Flik embarks on an epic adventure|
From the beginning, it’s clear the ant colony is held down by conformity and expectations from the adversary grasshoppers, led by the menacing Hopper. Flik wants to make a difference in his community, but is looked down on for his unconventional ways. At the same time, Princess Atta is in the process of becoming queen, yet stressing and worrying over how her role may impact those around her. Her younger sister Dot has aspirations herself, yet is held back because of her small stature. And the cast of circus performers—including Slim the walking stick, Heimlick the Bavarian caterpillar, Francis the male ladybug, Rosie the black widow spider, Dim the rhinoceros beetle, Manny the praying mantis, Gypsy the gypsy moth, and twin pill bugs Tuck & Roll—all long for meaningful lives. The film displays, both in the story and on the filmmakers’ parts, an amazing amount of team effort and community as the ant colony (and the circus troupe) come together in unexpected ways to show what they’re made of and what they’re meant for.
|Bugs taking to the sky|
This is arguably one of the most under-appreciated films in Pixar’s canon. And even though it was only their second feature, it was nonetheless a challenging and fun effort (as director Lasseter and company recounted years later) that proved the studio wasn’t just a one-hit wonder with Toy Story, and therefore had other stories to tell outside the toy box. For extra fun, Pixar created animated “outtakes” (something they did for their next two films as well).
Following Bugs, Toy Story 2 proved an even greater challenge. Initially made for direct-to-video release by a second-unit team at the studio, the story proved so good that they decided to revamp it for theatrical release. However, Lasseter and company found the current result “not very good” and made the daunting decision to scrap and rewrite the entire film nine months before its scheduled release date of November 1999.
The sequel follows a team effort by Buzz Lightyear, Mr. Potato Head, Rex the dinosaur, Hamm the piggy bank, and Slinky Dog to rescue Woody from a greedy toy collector, who plans to ship Woody and a collection of “Roundup Gang” dolls (newcomers Jessie the cowgirl, Bullseye the horse, and Stinky Pete the Prospector) to a toy museum in Japan. Woody finds the notion of living forever in a museum tempting, as he has begun to fear that his owner, Andy, will someday outgrow him and he won’t be played with anymore. One could argue that a theme in this film is choosing between what is popular (being a prized item in a museum) and what is real (being loved by a child).
|Buzz and company are out to bring Woody home|
More importantly, Toy Story 2 tells a deeper story involving the relationships between toys and their owners, and what the former are meant for. Jessie’s backstory scene, featuring “When She Loved Me” by Sarah McLachlan, is especially bittersweet and heartbreaking, and arguably set a new benchmark for Pixar in terms of emotional resonance beyond the medium of animation.
|Cast of Toy Story 2|
To reiterate what Lasseter said during the first Toy Story, “It’s the people that created this picture” (my emphasis). Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull agrees, “The important thing is not the idea. The important thing is the people. It’s how they work together.” And it was this message and lesson that would lead to the creation of a new studio where everyone at Pixar could work, interact, and play under one roof, and give other filmmakers opportunities to bring their own stories to life.