Following the strategy it took with the sequels to "The Lion King" and "Aladdin," Disney initially planned a direct-to-video release for "Toy Story 2," the follow-up to the 1995 computer-animated charmer that was such a lucrative collaboration between the Mouse House and Pixar Animation Studios. It's a good thing the powers-that-be had a change of heart: Arriving in theaters just in time for a Thanksgiving release, the successor to the third-most-popular cartoon feature of all time is every bit as clever, funny and engaging as its predecessor. Maybe more so.
As in the original, the stars are an ensemble of walking, talking toys whose ruminations on their own mortality are often more affecting than the soul searching we're used to from flesh-and-blood actors. This time out, director John Lasseter and his team of writers and technicians have found even greater emotional depth in their Hasbro Hamlets, a development that matches the improved naturalism of the graphics and the cuter pop-culture references.
There's also a fresh emphasis on giving the girls in the audience their own toys to play with. Joining neurotic-but-brave cowboy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), boastful space ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and their crew are a gaggle of sexy-but-shallow Barbie dolls who take part in a showstopping reprise of the Randy Newman-penned "You've Got a Friend in Me," the series' signature song.
"Toy Story 2" opens with a blast -- literally. The valiant Buzz is seen soaring through space, landing on an alien planet and attempting to destroy the evil Emperor Zurg (Andrew Stanton), a Darth Vader-like opponent.That the adventure is swiftly revealed to be part of a video-game competition between Lightyear and self-deprecating dinosaur Rex (Wallace Shawn) matters little in terms of narrative disappointment; what counts is its status as the first of several amusingly on-target nods to the "Star Wars" phenomenon.
As soon as Andy (John Morris), the toys' human owner, leaves for camp, the film's central crisis erupts. In the child's absence, a garage sale is held that allows a greedy, bullet-shaped merchant named Al McWhiggin (Wayne Knight) to abscond with Woody. As unscrupulous as he is slovenly, the proprietor of Al's Toy Barn needs the little cowboy to complete an extremely valuable collection of memorabilia that's bound for a museum in Tokyo.
Why is our Western hero so collectible? As the dilemma unfolds, we learn that he was once was the bona fide star of "Woody's Roundup," a 1950s television show in the mold of "Howdy Doody." In one of the movie's most touching sequences, the displaced Woody is reunited with long-lost family members. The sarcastic Jessie (Joan Cusack) is a tough-but-tender cowgirl who still pines for her former owner (to the strains of a new Newman piece that's sung by Sarah McLachlan). Woody's energetic horse, Bullseye, remains ridiculously loyal to his old master; no such honor, however, can be expected of Stinky Pete the Prospector, a crusty manipulator who's voiced by Kelsey Grammer.
Buzz and Rex, meanwhile, have set out to rescue their missing pal, abetted by such playroom comrades as the wisecracking Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), the generous Slinky Dog (Jim Varney) and the piggish Hamm (John Ratzenberger). The extended chase continues all the way to a whizbang conclusion that's a fitting capper to the smartest, most entertaining family flick of the year. For once, the big kids in Hollywood appear to have learned their lesson: Playing around with videos is an OK activity for a rainy day, but great toys were meant to be shared.