Film discussion

Unbelievable Scenes! – When Emily Loved Jessie (Toy Story 2)

Unbelievable Scenes! is a new series at Set The Tape zeroing in on, well, unbelievable scenes. 

As Pixar’s Coco hits UK theatres, Nicholas Lay examines an early example of the studio’s ability to jerk those tears loose through music and song…

When it comes to near-catastrophic cinematic productions, Toy Story 2 is right up there. A classic tale of art from adversity, Pixar’s follow up to its breakthrough 1995 hit survived an initial direct-to-video development, insane timelines featuring immovable deadlines, and an animator almost wiping out the entire project by hitting delete on the film’s root folder.

By the time John Lasseter and Toy Story‘s original development team were parachuted in, the studio had nine months to draft and execute a completely new story in time for the 1999 release date set by Disney. When they somehow pulled off the impossible, Lasseter and his team just so happened to have produced one of the finest animated pictures of all time.

A hilarious heartstring-tugger, Toy Story 2 builds on its predecessor with an impeccable script, the core of which is reserved for the in-depth development of Woody (Tom Hanks) – in the wake of his toy-napping at the hands of slimy collector Al of Al’s Toy Barn (Wayne Knight) – and the lighthearted banter between Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and Co. as they seek to rescue their cowboy chum from an eternity in a Tokyo toy museum.

One of the film’s standout moments, however, is reserved for a new character: Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl (Joan Cusack). As Woody attempts to justify his plan to return home to Andy, thus condemning Jessie to a life in storage, he is surprised to find that, through her bitterness, she is able to describe Woody’s exact feelings for his lost owner. How does she know? Well, it turns out Jessie once had an owner too…

And that is when the room starts to get a tad dusty. Sarah McLachlan’s beautiful vocals recount Jessie’s former life with Emily, a little girl who, like Andy, saw the doll as her best friend; someone she could always depend on. Someone to love. But then Emily grows up.

Woody’s potential future with Andy and the core theme of his (and a toy’s) place in this world is laid bare in a haunting jump through time that sees Jessie gather dust beneath Emily’s bed, before finally being left on the side of the road; donated to the next generation. The girl who was her whole world had abandoned her and she, like Woody, simply cannot contemplate how that could be.

There is no doubt the sequence becomes more emotional the older one gets. For all we remember of our youth, so much more has likely been forgotten. Jessie is part of the latter, and although she laments that toys do not forget kids like Emily or Andy, the flashback deliberately cuts around Emily’s face, keeping the focus on Jessie. It is her memory, but to us it is obstructed, either because Jessie herself is unwillingly forgetting due to the length of time the two have been apart, or because her clearest memories are now too painful to experience up close.

The song itself, written by series stalwart Randy Newman, demonstrates the composer at the top of his game, and was unfortunate to lose out on the Academy Award for Best Song to Phil Collins and his work on another Disney feature, the traditionally animated Tarzan. Now, almost 20 years on, “When She Loved Me” has more than stood the test of time; remaining one of Pixar’s saddest and greatest moments.

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