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by: Scott Renshaw

There is no finer comic filmmaker working today than John Lasseter. No one better understands how to choreograph an elaborate sight gag; no one better nails the timing of comic dialogue. He mixes the wild visual sensibility of the Coen brothers, the anarchic pack-the-margins madness of the Zucker brothers, and the sly wit/broad buffoonery tag team of the Marx Brothers. Combine these elements with a genuine warmth and love of character, and you have one of the closest things we have to a pop culture genius in American cinema circa 1999.

Incidentally, John Lasseter directs computer-generated films. If you think that qualification renders such praise moot, shame on you for your short-sightedness. Movies just don't get much more blissfully, intelligently entertaining than Toy Story and A Bug's Life, and I didn't think it would be possible for a sequel to approach Toy Story's heights of savvy family filmmaking. Once again, Lasseter has broadened my thinking. His plaything creations soar again in a story that finds Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) kidnapped from a yard sale by unscrupulous toy store owner and collector Al McWhiggin (Wayne Knight). It turns out Woody is a toy connected to a popular 1950s kiddie television series, and the last item Big Al needs to complete a set including Woody's gal pal Jessie (Joan Cusack) and Prospector Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer). A future behind glass in a Tokyo museum awaits Woody unless Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and company can rescue him.

When you're dealing with a film like Toy Story 2, it's easy to spend far too much time talking about the technology and the referrential gags. Yes, the technology has improved by orders of magnitude even over the original Toy Story, making human characters like Al an even more seamless part of the film, and making possible some dizzying, dazzling action sequences. And yes, you could spend multiple viewings of Toy Story 2 looking for the inside jokes: Tour Guide Barbie (Jodi Benson) admonishing passengers bilingually a la Disneyland to "remain seated please" in a toy car; high-speed channel surfing including Pixar shorts like Tin Toy and Luxo Jr.; a toy repair expert (Jonathan Harris) whose face recycles the star of the Oscar-winning short Geri's Game; genial pokes at Tron, Jurassic Park and The Empire Strikes Back. It's a film that easily could have cruised on its cutting edge, its hipness and the good will of familiar faces.

Lasseter and his writers, fortunately, appear incapable of cruising. Toy Story soared not because it was revolutionary, but because it was a marvelously told film story -- a more human story than 90% of all films actually involving humans. That human touch continues here, from the splendid continuing voice characterizations of Woody and Buzz by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, to Jessie's mournful recollection of how long it has been since a child played with her and loved her. The kidnap/rescue structure of Toy Story 2 may seem familiar, but this film may actually be a bit more resonant than the original. Leave it to Lasseter to turn a family film into a meditation on love: Behind the pure entertainment, there's a story about broken hearts and the risks of potentially transient relationships.

And in front of those themes, there's pure entertainment. The snippets from old episodes of "Woody's Roundup" are a hiliarious homage to Howdy Doody; the toys' adventure crossing an intersection while hiding beneath orange traffic cones approaches Buster Keaton brilliance. It's true that Toy Story 2 is somewhat busier than the original, with a few too many characters to keep up with. Some of the additional story elements -- like Buzz encountering a naïive, fresh-out-of-the-box version of himself in the toy store -- are fun but occasionally distracting. This may not be


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