[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Story: John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, Joe Ranft; Screenplay: Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen, Alex Sokolow | Director: John Lasseter | Aired: 11/22/1995]
“The toys! The toys are alive!”
It all began with Toy Story. Or did it? Pixar Animation Studios had been around since 1985, a full decade before Woody and Buzz made their debut, and had made a minor name for itself with a string of computer-animated short films. (One of these films, the Oscar-winning Tin Toy, would inspire the basis for Toy Story itself.) A few other animation studios had also experimented with computer animation in the early ’90s (Disney, which would buy stock in and later acquire Pixar, had used samplings of CG-enhanced animation in films like The Rescuers Down Under and Aladdin.) And around the same time, live-action films had unlocked the goldmine of computer-generated imagery, made popular thanks to blockbuster hits like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park.
So Toy Story did not materialize entirely from the ether. Yet there was still something undeniably new and fresh about the film when it premiered to mass audiences in the fall of 1995. At a time when every new non-Disney animated film was viewed as a cheap and disposable cash-in, Toy Story made people take notice.
Looking back on the film over two decades later, when computer animation has eclipsed hand-drawn as the norm, one posits the question: What was it about Pixar’s first feature-length venture that so arrestingly caught the attention of its audiences? Was it the new style of animation? Or was it something more?
It’s difficult to argue that the animation was entirely a non-factor. But imagery alone is hardly enough to make a film stand out and capture the attention of a national audience for eighty full minutes. Therefore, I must give mention to the aspects of Toy Story that go beyond the mere visual: The characters, the humor, the emotion – and of course, the story.
Over the years, Pixar has earned a reputation for its ability to weave stories that simultaneously appeal to fun-loving children and intellectual adults. It does this not through pop-culture references or veiled innuendoes, but by giving us challenging stories in easily digestible packages. By playing with subtext and metaphor, Pixar skirts a delicate line between the young and old, and its best films have a broad appeal can invoke laughter and tears from any age group.
Toy Story represents this invocation of metaphorical storytelling in its most concentrated form. The film is based around one of the great joys of childhood: toys. Specifically, it is centered on the concept of toys that spring to life when their owner leaves the room –essentially wish-fulfillment for the millions of youngsters who invest time and emotion in their playthings as though they were living acquaintances. But from this basic setup springs forth an incredibly nuanced and mature story about friendship, favoritism, and the fragility of childhood.
Andy and Sid – next-door neighbors, yet worlds apart. Both love their toys, but to entirely different ends. Andy cherishes his plastic pals, letting his imagination run wild as he sets them up in constantly changing shifting and environments. Sid, however, gains pleasure from enacting physical changes on his toys, turning them into miniature Frankenstein monsters for him to deconstruct and reassemble to his whims.
Had the tale been told from the perspective of these two children (Boy Story, if you will) it would have doubtlessly had very different feel. But it’s important to recognize the polar opposition of the film’s two most integral human characters, the better to understand how well Toy Story captures both the productive and destructive minds of the precocious child.
In Woody and Buzz, we find a different set of polar opposites. Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) is an old-fashioned cowboy doll with no decals outside of a pullstring. Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) is the Hot New Thing, an outer-space action figure equipped with wings and flashing lights and a retractable helmet. The differences, however, do not end there. Woody, like Andy’s other playthings, is aware of his function as a toy; Buzz, on the other hand, believes himself to be a legitimate “space ranger,” and scoffs at Woody’s attempts to convince him otherwise.
It’s Buzz’s ignorance regarding his own identity that gives Toy Story an extra layer of drama. The setup is straightforward: Woody, once Andy’s most cherished toy, is shunted aside when Buzz enters the picture. In lesser hands, Buzz would be made unlikable – perhaps even villainous – to allow Woody our full sympathy. But Lasseter and his team of writers cleverly subvert our expectations – not only is Buzz a likable character, but he has no interest in being, as Woody puts it, “a child’s plaything.” His lack of interest in being Woody’s rival (coupled with his naiveté regarding Earthly customs) makes the interactions between the film’s two leads a joy to watch. It also paints Woody as the more vindictive of the two – his sympathetic despair slowly phases into petty jealousy – particularly when he semi-accidentally knocks Buzz out the window.
It’s inevitable that Woody and Buzz will come to befriend and respect each other by the story’s end, so it’s to the film’s credit that it keeps plot contrivances to a minimum. It certainly seems coincidental that Sid would happen along to Pizza Planet’s claw-machine just as Buzz and Woody have clambered inside, but the great turn the story takes from there more than compensates. By confining Buzz and Woody to the home of Andy’s next-door neighbor, it gives them reason to ally with one another, against both toy-torturer Sid and his initially fearsome playthings.
Yes, Sid’s room is in many ways the antithesis of Andy’s – dark, messy, cluttered, and filled with the sort of stitched-together toys that would have fascinated HP Lovecraft. In the film’s most frightening moment, Woody comes across what he believes to be an adorable baby doll, which is slowly revealed to be a grinning boyish head perched atop a spiderlike array of mechanical metal arms. In that one moment, the childlike innocence which has defined so much of the film evaporates, replaced with a hellish terror that gives new meaning to “playtime.”
Sid is clearly a violence-obsessed child (he even names his dog “Scud”), but he also possesses a childlike sense of creativity. There is nothing all that intimidating, for example, about a toy crane or a Barbie doll. But splice the top half of one with the legs of the other, and you get a confounding image that unsettlingly correlates two wholly different items of childhood entertainment. Sid’s delight in physically mixing-and-matching his toys provides us with a more concrete example of childhood imagination than Andy’s temporary, isolated flights of fancy, but it also shows us the destructive power that comes when one’s outlets for imagination are irreversibly tampered with. (For a more detailed study on this subject, I recommend checking out Warner Animation’s The Lego Movie.)
Late in the game, Toy Story dusts off a “don’t judge a book by its cover” message by revealing that Sid’s toys are not, in fact, cannibals, as they work to put a pair of mutilated new toys back together. It’s another testament to the film’s credit that it doesn’t pile on the sweetness – Sid’s toys retain their strange appearances (and never utter a word), but their appearance grows friendly and largely comical. (Seriously, it’s a toy crane with Barbie legs! How can you not laugh at that?!)
Questions about the humanity of toys are brought up – through Buzz’s insistence that he is a real “space ranger” and through Sid discovering that his toys aren’t quite as inanimate as he’d thought. But Toy Story doesn’t dwell on these issues beyond the services they provide in-story. (Buzz eventually comes to grips with the fact that he is an action figure who “falls with style”; Sid apparently learns to “play nice.”) The film measures out its themes carefully, just enough to whet the appetites of adults without boring the kids.
Toy Story suffers a bit from its insistence to maintain tension even after Sid exits the story. The film features several more climactic moments (as Buzz and Woody attempt to evade Scud, before trying to get aboard a moving van) – quite a lot, in fact, for a film that barely crosses the 80-minute mark. But through it all, Toy Story remains highly entertaining, straight up to its quite literally explosive finale.
It’s even more impressive once you consider the film’s development in retrospect. “Toy Story” – the very title sounds like a marketing department’s dream. But while the film certainly had its fair share of merchandising, it in no way feels like a corporate cash-in. (In fact, the most recognizably marketable toy in the whole film – Mr. Potato Head – is also the most obnoxious.)
No, Toy Story is far more than a mere feature-length commercial. It is the start of a franchise that will analyze a score of themes relating to childhood and the difficulties of growing up. Love, mortality, abandonment, family, individualism, replacement, damage, rebirth – the first film only hints at these messages, which will be explored in greater depth (and with greater emotional power) in the two sequels that follow.
The first Toy Story is thus merely an introduction to the franchise’s world – but what an outstanding introduction it is. The film is marvelously entertaining, with great characters and a well-developed story that holds up just as well on repeat viewing. (And indeed, I’ve repeated my viewing of it many times, enjoying it again and again.)
Toy Story remains an animation milestone, and in the same vein as Disney’s premiere film, Snow White, it was given an honorary award at the annual Oscar ceremony. (The Academy didn’t create an official “Best Animated Feature” category until 2001; the only film to get a Best Picture nomination before then was Beauty and the Beast.) But as CG animation grows steadily sharper and more eye-popping, the visuals in the 1995 film now look somewhat dated. Still, this only strengthens my original argument. To this day, children are discovering Buzz, Woody, and friends for the first time, and falling in love with the characters and story, even as the computer-animated visuals are continually outdone by Pixar’s later work (and that of its competitors). The power and impact of the film go far beyond its visual palette.
Since the release of its first film, Pixar has released over a dozen more animated films, ranging from the brilliant to the mediocre. Over these next few months, we’ll be going through each of these films chronologically, observing and studying the many works of the once-fledgling animation studio. It promises to be quite a journey – and as Toy Story has proven, it’s a journey that starts very well.
A commercial mentions that Buzz Lightyear figures are available at “Al’s Toy Barn” – a location which will play an important role in Toy Story 2.
Buzz also mentions Emperor Zurg and the Galactic Alliance. Zurg (or a toy replica of him) will appear in Toy Story 2, and the exposition in general becomes the basis for the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command TV series.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Tin Toy gets a brief shout-out – it’s one of the books on Andy’s shelf. (The author is “Lasseter.”) Andre and Wally B. (the first Pixar short ever) appears to be the name of another book.
+ The ball from Luxo Jr. makes a few appearances – it rolls towards the toy soldiers as they prepare their surveillance, and Buzz later bounces off it during his first flying (or “falling with style”) scene.
+ Buzz’s space-based terminology gets funnier with each viewing. I particularly love his initial reaction to Andy’s bed: “Terrain seems a bit unstable.”
+ Terrific use is made of the characters’ small size throughout the film. They’re nearly crushed by larger objects (balls, globes, tires), and a semi-sharpened pencil qualifies as a weapon.
+ For those who don’t remember, the little green aliens were basically the Minions of their day. They were freaking everywhere in the late ‘90s, on all kinds of merchandise. That said, I do find them pretty funny.
+ “Made in Taiwan.” Aww.
+ The Battleship game. Heh. Poor Potato Head.
+ “Hakuna Matata” plays on the car radio during the climax. I assume Disney just wanted to get it stuck in viewers’ heads all over again.
+ The “A 113” license plate. For those who don’t know what I’m referring to, look it up to learn about one of Disney/Pixar’s greatest long-term in-jokes.
– If Sid’s toys can put Buzz back together (not to mention Janie and the pterodactyl), why don’t they try fixing each other?