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Nashville Scene Toys in the Attic

Toy Story 2" is a kid's dream--and in some ways a parent's nightmare

By Jim Ridley

DECEMBER 7, 1999:  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.

Unholy mess

Many actors, directors, writers, and producers in Hollywood come from middle-class, middle-American backgrounds, rife with traditional values from which these would-be artists have fled. Perhaps that's why, when it comes to the word "religious," Hollywood is most comfortable if it's followed by the word "fanatic." The cinema of America's West Coast likes religion only when it provides uplifting, non-denominational angels or apocalyptic, superhuman devils.

Hence End of Days, a dreary, exploitative action film in which it's devil time again. The plot has The Dark One entering the body of a callow Wall Street suit (Gabriel Byrne) to seek out a 20-year-old virgin named, of course, Christine (Robin Tunney) who has been predestined to bear the devil a son and bring about a new satanic era. The fiendish plot is found out when a tongueless priest--named, improbably, Thomas Aquinas--spills the beans to a bitter ex-cop turned security expert named, even more improbably, Jericho Cane. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Jericho, who takes it upon himself to protect Christine both from The Man and from a cadre of killer priests who would perpetrate the small evil of murdering the girl to stop the greater evil of "the end of the world as we know it."

Both Jericho and the kindly Father Kovak (Rod Steiger) take exception to the idea of killing Christine, yet Jericho feels no compunction about mowing down dozens of Satan worshipers to protect her. And that's far from the only logic lapse in End of Days. To cash in on Y2K hysteria, screenwriter Andrew Marlowe indulges several misapprehensions about the meaning and relevance of the word "millennium."

Biblically--where this film is supposed to draw its mythology--the millennium is the 1,000 years on Earth after Jesus Christ returns. Popularly, the millennium is any period of 1,000 years that historians choose to measure, though the common measurement begins by setting Jesus' birth at Dec. 25, Year 1 A.D., and counting forward by thousands--which means that the first millennium ended at the end of the year 1000 A.D., and the second will conclude at the end of next year. (Sorry, Prince fans.)

End of Days intentionally muddles things by referring to the number of the beast, 666, and saying that upside-down and backwards the number refers to the year 1999. (Why not 999?) The folklorists in the film also claim that the devil has only a one-hour window before the end of 1999 to impregnate Christine. When Jericho rightly asks if the timetable is on Eastern Standard Time, Father Kovak angrily snaps that the time doesn't matter, then goes on to explain exactly why it does.

So which is it? Couldn't the time scheme just be random, to save the film from millennial purist nitpickers? For that matter, given the remarkable power displayed by Satan in End of Days, why is he bound by any rules, and why is it so hard for him to dispose of that meddling Jericho? These qualms would be excused if End of Days were remotely entertaining. But director Peter Hyams does nothing to brighten up or energize Marlowe's dull, confusing script. Even the "comic relief" provided by Kevin Pollak as Jericho's partner is as grating and unfunny as a Paul Reiser AT&T commercial.

For some reason, religious groups have chosen to picket Kevin Smith's Dogma--a film with a childlike (and childish) view of Christianity--and yet have ignored this film, which shows Arnold Schwarzenegger being literally crucified. Call it the cheap-thrills factor. In the '30s, audiences flocked to sexually charged biblical epics as much for the titillation as for the sermon. In today's post-Columbine culture, perhaps violence has replaced sex as the new taboo, to be couched in "morally relevant" dramas. The message that End of Days is supposed to carry is that faith is more powerful than guns. But it's unlikely the message will be heard over all the automatic weapons fire. --Noel Murray

Moment of truth

In the slapstick teenage movie world of jocks, nerds, and ugly ducklings, it's hard to hear the quiet voices. They're easily overwhelmed by the strident marketing of simplistic, easily digested, fairy-tale plots and ready-to-wear rock soundtracks. Little gems, by their very nature, aren't flashy and don't call attention to themselves.

So it's no surprise that the subdued coming-of-age drama Anywhere but Here isn't getting much attention from viewers or critics. Its storyline isn't amenable to a capsule summary--in fact, a one-sentence plot synopsis will make it sound like the most boring movie imaginable. Teenage girl (Natalie Portman) has love-hate relationship with flaky single mother (Susan Sarandon) as they try to make it in Los Angeles. Where's the prom, for God's sake?

But Alvin Singer's script, from Mona Simpson's novel, keeps the big moments to an absolute minimum and instead lets two sensitive women shine. Portman's luminous fragility is exactly right for Ann, a smart, friendly girl who succumbs to the paralyzing fears of teenagers thrust into situations that call for brains and an outgoing nature. And Sarandon, as her romantic, impractical mother, strikes the perfect balance between outward eccentricity and deep-seated anxiety. The two dance from giggly togetherness to stoic rebellion to resigned solidarity with nary a missed step.

Wayne Wang, who became known in the '80s for his Chinese-American films Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart and Eat a Bowl of Tea, achieved cult status recently for his improvisational Blue in the Face and Smoke. Anywhere but Here could hardly be more different. It's tightly structured without being restrictive--everything plays out in natural time without predictable moves, but the framework has a classic elegance. The realism of Portman's and Sarandon's relationship is worlds away from the artifice of Smoke's setup. Even if their life stories aren't typical--moving every few months ahead of the rent collectors, stealing furniture from alleyways, going to fine restaurants flat broke to raise their spirits--the emotions elicited are never outsized, always true.

Anywhere but Here will probably disappear from movie screens as quietly as it arrived, taking up its space on the video store's drama shelf, destined to be passed over for a teen comedy with "Rockafella Skank" on the soundtrack. For a moment, however, it occupies a still space in the multiplex, a reminder that louder isn't better and truth can be whispered rather than shouted. --Donna Bowman

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