The moment when Pixar caused a cultural shift in mainstream animated cinema wasn’t, as you would expect, with the release of their first film, Toy Story. That film inspired a shift in the animation industry, but the way in which general audiences’ response to animated films changed occurs roughly halfway through Toy Story 2. This film and Monsters, Inc. both represent the old and new in Pixar, a slight blend of honest and often-unexpected emotion along with clever and witty gags aimed at the pop-culture-literate members of the audience. Both, like A Bug’s Life, featured outtakes during the credits, a commentary on the prevalence of painfully similar blooper reels in live-action films; and both have a powerful moment that inspires the adults in the audience to tear up and reach for a tissue.
So, yes, this is yet another “Pixar Moment” column, and there’s no better place to look than at the first real Pixar Moment, from Toy Story 2, as Sheriff Woody learns why exactly his cowgirl counterpart Jessie has such a chip on her shoulder. Her tale of woe is simple enough: a long time ago, she was the favorite toy of a young girl named Emily. But, as with every child, Emily grew up and matured past playing with cowgirl dolls and toy horses, moving on to talking to her friends on the phone, putting on makeup to impress boys, and listening to pop music. One day, long after she’d carelessly tossed Jessie underneath her bed, Emily once again found Jessie and promptly brought her to a Goodwill donation truck near the forest and left her there for good. Eventually, Jessie was salvaged by “the Chicken Man,” better known as Al, the owner of local toy store Al’s Toy Barn, so that she could be part of a Tokyo toy museum’s display dedicated to “Woody’s Roundup,” a 50s-style TV show featuring our hero before he was the main fixture in Andy Davis’ bedroom.
Up until Jessie’s flashback, the character is arguably less than sympathetic; she’s new to the series and instantly turns Woody off with her aggressive enthusiasm, which transitions into almost-literal aggressiveness when she realizes that this golden goose Al found after years of searching wants to head back home as soon as possible. Finally, after the acrimonious arguing, Woody gets Jessie to explain how she sees his owner Andy as being very much like Emily: another kid who showers you with love until they don’t need you anymore. Wisely, the flashback is dialogue-free, bookended by Jessie’s alternately bitter and wistful memories of Emily. Instead, the scene is scored to Randy Newman’s sole new song in Toy Story 2, “When She Loved Me,” sung by Sarah McLachlan, a piece of music that’s so depressing that it makes her recent ASPCA ads seem happy-go-lucky. That song does a lot of the heavy lifting here; as with the “Married Life” opening of Up, it’s truly impressive that the Pixar animators and filmmakers were able to pull off the trick of making us feel for this character, who we’ve just been introduced to, as opposed to empathizing with a familiar favorite like Woody or Buzz. (The final film in the trilogy, of course, ends with a lengthy payoff to our relationship with those characters, as well as their friends.)
No doubt, “When She Loved Me,” just as a song, is heartbreaking and almost (but not quite) insultingly manipulative, emotionally speaking. An equal reason for why the scene has such power—even now, nearly 15 years after the film’s release—is the collective guilt it inspired in its audience. One of the common themes in the entire Toy Story trilogy is a subtle discussion about the right way and the wrong way to deal with childhood toys. Should we play with them in an energetic but friendly fashion, as Andy and Bonnie do? Is it wrong to have toys simply so we can take them apart and put them back together in twisted ways, as the evil Sid does? And at what point is it all right, or appropriate, for a child to outgrow toys like Woody and Buzz and move on to video games, comic books, and other acceptable pop-culture detritus? At one point in Toy Story 2, Stinky Pete (before he’s revealed to be as much a villain as Al is) asks Woody, “Do you really think Andy’s going to take you to college?” Although Stinky Pete has darker machinations in mind, his question is on point—even if Andy nearly does take his toys to college with him at the end of Toy Story 3. Even now, as childhood nostalgia has become more widely accepted in the Western world, it would be more than a bit off-putting to be college roommates with a guy who still plays with stuffed animals far removed from his early years.
So on one hand, we may understand why a girl like Emily—whose face we deliberately never see, if only so we can transpose ourselves into her place—would reach a certain age and find a cowgirl doll less alluring than chatting with friends or listening to disco music. (One note: though the Toy Story series, for the most part, avoids dating itself with time-specific pop-culture references, the way in which this scene establishes how many years it must have been since Jessie was Emily’s most treasured friend is brilliant. As time passes, we see how Emily’s room is now adorned with Day-Glo posters and a couple Flower Power-themed designs, which were vogue in the early 1970s. Jessie was left to her own devices for a long, long time.) But as the “When She Loved Me” scene progresses, it’s difficult to not be overcome with an awkward level of guilt; we understand Emily’s choices because we’ve been Emily, and in doing so, we’ve never considered how painful it would be for those inanimate objects to be left on the side of the road for good. It is to Pixar’s credit that the scene works precisely for that fact: these toys are inanimate objects. They don’t have life. We shouldn’t feel bad that we’ve been like Emily, that we’ve ignored or thrown out our toys. And yet, the scene’s so well constructed and universal in its tone and scope that it works.
Relatability is not required for a film to work; sometimes, it’s a lack of relatability that makes a certain story or character stand out. We can’t relate, perhaps, to Jessie’s specific plight, though we might be able to make a metaphorical connection. (The basic idea that someone ignores and then leaves us once we are no longer useful to them applies to most of us, with or without toys involved.) Here, by seeing how Emily’s callous yet totally reasonable decision has affected Jessie, we get a kind of reverse relatability. Placing ourselves in Emily’s shoes—and though some readers may not get pangs of guilt while watching this scene, we’ve all been a teenager who acts cooler-than-thou about their old kiddie toys—allows us to gain empathy for Jessie. “When She Loved Me” doesn’t ask us to relate to Jessie, but to see the damage we can wreak when we think only of ourselves, not of those around us.
What’s more, “When She Loved Me” helps inform Jessie’s neuroses, which far exceed anything Woody ever experienced in the first film. She’s all but hyperventilating at the thought of being put back into storage (though it is interesting to consider that she’s made her peace with her future as a museum piece, always behind glass instead of being embraced physically by a child), barely able to function. Once we get this flashback, we better understand her as a character; even better, the rest of the franchise doesn’t ignore Jessie’s fears of abandonment. In Toy Story 3, once it’s clear that Andy won’t be taking his toys to college, she instantly dreads living in a box for the rest of her days and is, logically, one of the first boosters for staying at Sunnyside Day Care. And the recent TV special Toy Story of TERROR! builds on the mythology of the series, by having Jessie confront those fears head-on, as she’s separated from the other toys in an initially terrifying motel in the middle of nowhere. One of many reasons why “When She Loved Me” is still so poignant and emotional, thus, is because Pixar has not shied away from Jessie’s past, but continued to remind us of those dark days.
That, too, is why “When She Loved Me” stands out as the prototype for the Pixar Moment: it emphasizes the bleakness inherent in these characters, instead of coddling them or the audience. Arguably, the impact of “When She Loved Me” in Toy Story 2 is slightly separate from the overall film’s success. The shift from a manically fast-paced adventure to a tearjerking flashback, and then back to the adventure, is enough to give you cognitive whiplash. Of course, some of the best Pixar Moments (among those chronicled here in the past) are marked by how unexpected they are in their respective films. We don’t go into Up expecting to see, before a house flies to Venezuela, the rise and fall of a happy marriage in suburbia; we don’t expect Ratatouille to climax with a minor dissertation on the purpose and necessity of criticism; and we don’t expect Finding Nemo to tug on our heartstrings via a wacky sidekick. What separates the similar scene in Toy Story 2, then, is that it’s slightly less integrated into the whole. It represents the template for how Pixar would make movies guaranteed to make adults cry (and often only adults, as the emotional impact is somewhat lost on the youngest of audience members), and as such, isn’t as polished as future examples.
But without question, the “When She Loved Me” sequence in Toy Story 2 is a fine beginning for the continuing series of so-called “Pixar Moments.” We’ve barely begun to know Jessie the cowgirl, but by the time the last notes of the song play on the soundtrack, she’s as beloved as Woody, Buzz, Hamm, Rex, or any other toy we’ve known for more than one movie in the series. The combination of Randy Newman’s song, Sarah McLachlan’s performance, and achingly beautiful animation—the repeated image of sun-dappled trees greeting Jessie in both happy and tragic times is a little heartbreaking in and of itself—has helped this scene achieve an iconic status in both the world of Pixar and the world of modern animation, and deservedly so.