As we are all fretting to see how great Inside Out is, I thought I would take this opportunity as well as the 20th anniversary of Toy Story to comment on something that has been bothering me ever since I watched Toy Story 2 again with my son a few months ago.
I had never noticed it until today, as it’s been so well hidden that it didn’t really bother me until I realized how important of a plot point it was. And yes, I will admit right away that Pixar is more about characters than plot; but Pixar is about story, too. And indeed, the first Toy Story was so well written, you would expect the sequel to be as coherent. So, allowing such a major plot hole to stay in the movie is quite a mistake, but you ignore it because of how strong and how emotional the movie is anyway!
I’ve been a fan of Pixar ever since their first masterpiece graced the screen in 1995. I’ll probably write a retrospective on what a great year 1995 was before the end of the year, but the major event of that year was indeed the first ever fully computer animated full-length feature. But how can you describe such a “first” movie, a first “try” really, as a masterpiece? Well, if said movie is the culmination, the acme of 70 years of animation and pays so much homage to marking pop culture events, key cartoon moments, but also paves the way for the next 70 years of animation, then yes, it’s easy to call this movie a masterpiece.
Not only is Pixar the new Disney, but when they came right out of the gate with their masterpiece that was Toy Story, they emulated Walt Disney when his first ever animated feature was also a true masterpiece. Are all first-movers masterpieces? I don’t believe so. That is why, what Pixar’s Toy Story did with the first ever full-CGI animated movie, was so exceptional and still stands today, 20 years later, as such a momentous event!
Despite all this praise, as I mentioned above, there is one huge glaring mistake that the Pixar team did when they wrote Toy Story 2. I’ve tried looking online to see if there were any other reports on this, yet I didn’t find anything. So, to clear my conscious and see if other people agree with me, it is time to lay it out: Woody should have known all along about his past as a TV show star, as well as the existence of the “Roundup gang”.
What does that mean? Simply, that Woody should have known his whole “backstory”, he should not have been surprised at all by the existence of Jessy, the Prospector, and Bullseye. Perhaps finding out he was a TV show character after all, just like Buzz found out in the original feature, could have been something new to him. But finding out all about his past and backstory and friends should not have been news to him. He really should have recognized all those characters but most of all should have known where he was coming from.
Thing about it: when Buzz Lightyear wakes up from his box in the first movie, the only memories he has, the only backstory he knows is the Space Ranger one. His default personality, his default memories, his default settings are all from the Space Ranger TV show. He doesn’t know he’s a toy, and doesn’t even admit it despite all the mounting clues. All he can understand at first is where he comes from, the Space Ranger Academy. It means he believes he is a true Space Ranger. That's what he understands and the only thing he knows. On top of that, he knows ALL the Space Ranger backstory: his enemies, his protocols, his planets, etc.
So, applying that mold to Woody, why would Woody be any different? Yes, Woody knows he’s a toy, but so does Buzz at the end of the first movie. Buzz finally realizes Woody was right all along, that he is a toy. It means his new mission is not be a Space Ranger to save the galaxy from danger, but to be a pretend-Space Ranger to save Andy from boredom. So, in effect, he gains a second personality or backstory, on top of the first one: the one of the “real” Space Ranger, and the one of a toy. But this new personality doesn’t erase his old one, or his “non-toy” backstory.
Actually, if we want to be thorough (or real geeky!) about it, there are three personalities displayed in all the Toy Story movies:
- The “default backstory” personality: The one every toy comes with, the “factory programming” in a way (in English or Spanish!), that informs the character as soon as he steps out of the box, and until he realizes he’s a toy, what to say, how to act;
- The “toy” personality: The new one that comes on top of the default one, when the toy realizes his true nature and mission: to always be “Andy’s toy”. You could call this second personality or “mode” the “educated toy” one. But it’s education, not reprogramming: one personality doesn't erase the previous one, as we see in Toy Story or Toy Story 2 when Buzz encounters factory-set toys: he remembers what he knew as a Space Ranger, but now takes it in stride as a toy.
- The “unconscious toy” personality: This is something that should have been raised for the first episode already: if Buzz doesn't know that he is a toy, why does he pretend to be immobile in front of Andy? Space Rangers are not ashamed: They rock! Buzz should ask Andy for help in rebuilding his spaceship; in defeating Zorg; in reaching the other Space Rangers. Yet Buzz doesn’t do all that in the first movie: he stays immobile and silent in front of all humans. What that means is that deep down he knows he is a toy. It's unconscious, but it's there.
So, looking at all three personalities, at no time should there be a “memory reset” that deletes all the toy’s backstory. When Woody was given to Andy, he should have remembered all his “factory programming”, his “default personality”. This came with all the memories of the Roundup Gang. One could argue that Woody was perhaps manufactured after the TV show got cancelled. But that wouldn’t make sense either, since in Toy Story 2 Al, the toy collector, identifies him as pretty much from the show’s period, but also even if the TV was no longer on the air the default backstory is most likely on the box, and linked to the “catchphrases” Woody spurts out when his string is pulled. Speaking of which, a smart toy such as Woody should have wondered a long time ago where his catchphrases were from. Another hypothesis was that perhaps Woody is occulting repressed memories from his TV show days: perhaps he was traumatized by the show’s cancellation, the loss of his Roundup, or a snake in his boot? But that’s very unlikely. Woody should have known why he was “programmed” this way, why he was talking this way. It just doesn’t make sense he would forget all about it, unless it’s a mistake from the writing team, a selective “ret-con” to make Woody’s discovery of his past and of his Roundup Gang more emotional and more surprising to the audience.
After all, the first film is about a toy being replaced; it's also about the fear the cowboy has of being replaced by a space toy in Andy’s heart. So, in order to make the second film as powerful, the writing team made the sequel about the question of being a “museum toy” or “real toy”; about finding short-term joy by staying with Andy for another few years, or living the high-life in a gilded cage forever in a museum. But it’s also about a cowboy show cancelled because of Sputnik and the Space Age rage.
I appreciate the mirroring of Toy Story 2 with the original one: in the first movie, it’s Buzz that discovers he's a toy via a TV commercial. In the sequel, it’s Woody that discovers he was an old TV hero via a commercial or reruns. In order to create the emotional impact of Woody’s discovery, the toy had to not remember a thing. But it’s an artificial memory loss, or faulty logic.
Of course, even if this is illogic as part of the world’s “mythology” established in Toy Story, it doesn’t change the movie itself and doesn’t take away any of the emotional beats. But it’s just that before that cartoon, and after that cartoon (despite a few lackluster sequels), Pixar has always shown the utmost respect for story and logic and emotions and respect of an established world. The STORY is the most important element. Well, they forgot something in Toy Story 2.
So yes, I'm a geek and I lose sleep on things that make you think I'm a nerd. But I never forget the emotions in those Pixar movies: that's why I ask myself those questions. Because I care.