*Toy Story 2 (G)
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 parental.
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.
-- Film critic Jim Ridley writes for the Nashville Scene, an alternative newsweekly