IN THE TRADITION OF The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, and Bride of Frankenstein, Toy Story 2 is a sequel that's even better than the original. A clear factor of the original film's success was its status as an animated film that not only appealed to the family market, but also struck a chord with adults who'd never even think of having children. As a result, the follow-up film's storyline has been tweaked toward a more adult sensibility (though it'll still be fun for any squalling brats you have as well).

Beneath the original Toy Story's slick, computer-generated veneer lurked a plot that dealt with themes of obsolescence, jealousy, and friendship. Toy Story 2 tackles the even weightier issues of love and death. Our all-American cowboy doll, Woody (Tom Hanks), is forced to confront his own mortality when a bit of rough-housing with his owner, Andy, results in a partially torn-off arm. He's then stolen by Al McWhiggin (Wayne Knight), evil owner of Al's Toy Barn, who, now that he has a complete set of "Woody's Roundup" dolls (including cowgirl Jessie, prospector Stinky Pete, and faithful horse Bullseye), wants to sell them to a Japanese toy museum. Woody then faces a choice between sterile immortality or the rough-and-tumble life of the outside world--where if a toy doesn't wear out, it's ultimately left behind as its owner grows up.

Because this is essentially a kids' film, the outcome's a foregone conclusion. But it's still a total blast, from its trick beginning to its all-is-well ending--even the bad guys don't get punished in a mean way. Though Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) is the ostensible co-star, most of the returning toys have bigger roles. Jessie (Joan Cusack) is the best new character, and surely the first manic-depressive cowgirl in cartoondom. Most ingeniously, Toy Story 2 manages to poke fun at mass consumerism and collector-mania while still inducing a desire to purchase at least one of the film's toys.

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