In 1988, a short film called Tin Toy won the Oscar for Best Animated Short. It was produced by a little company called Pixar, formerly an effects studio before being bought out by Steve Jobs. The short was directed by a former Disney animator called John Lasseter and it was made completely by computer, something never before done for an animated film. The short got the attention of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg at Disney, but Lasseter refused to return out of new loyalty to Pixar. Katzenberg realizing the gold mine in this new form of animation, eventually negotiated with Jobs and Lasseter for a partnership between the two studios and the development of Tin Toy into a feature film. With Pixar scribes Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and Joe Ranft, Lasseter formulated a story, and hired among others, Joss Whedon to work on the script. When the animation process began, there was a definite risk that such an ambitious project, the first feature-length CG animated film, would fail. But Pixar and Disney reckoned it was a risk worth taking.
That risk paid off, as Toy Story was not only a groundbreaking movie, but a great one that critics and audiences, especially kids, loved. I watched this movie a lot on home video as a kid, and it was one of mine and my brothers’ favourites, to the point we actually had Woody and Buzz toys (this film was genius for marketing -the characters are literally toys!). With a movie so rooted in my nostalgia, I’m very happy to note it holds up incredibly well.
Woody is a cowboy doll and favourite toy of six year old Andy. He and Andy’s other toys though stationary when he plays with them, come alive when nobody’s around. Everything changes when on Andy’s birthday, he receives a new toy: hot spaceman action figure Buzz Lightyear. And soon Woody fears he’s being replaced by Buzz who believes himself to be an actual space ranger. As Woody grows jealous of the usurper, the two are eventually forced together in a dangerous adventure, when they have to escape the clutches of the trouble kid next-door, Sid, whose enjoyment entirely derives from torturing and destroying toys.
The story is a very simple buddy-movie plot, but it’s perfect for the subject matter, and utilizes the premise to its fullest. Some elements like the moving subplot and the detour to Pizza Planet aren’t needed necessarily, but the film is all the better for them, as they make for very entertaining sequences. There’s a lot of creativity on display here, not just in the toys but the action and nature of the world. Right off the bat when the toys first come out of hiding, the film takes the time to settle into its concept, showing them interact off each other and setting up the situation. That sequence of Buzz demonstrating his ability to fly though clearly an excuse to show off the animation, also works incredibly well as a good physical joke. The carefully orchestrated plans, particularly by the army men is really imaginative and does a great job establishing the relationship toys have with the world of people. But of course the toys are the main creative outlet, especially once we get to Sid’s house. The Frankenstein toys are very detailed and quite unique. I wonder if any of the character designers might have been inspired by their own childhood creations, or those of their kids. And speaking of the stuff at Sid’s house, this movie has no problem stretching its subject matter into mature territory. There’s a good foreboding tone all about the place, and when the monster toys make their appearance in the dark, they do look creepy. I remember my brother being particularly frightened of baby-headed spider. Additionally, the movie’s actually more violent than I remember. Andy’s toys accuse Woody of murder and become really hostile towards him to the degree they actively try to hurt him. There’s allusions to cannibalism; Mr. Potato Head threatens Woody by drawing a hangmans’ noose on an etch-a-sketch. Maybe it’s because the CG makes it more identifiable to live-action, but scenes like when Buzz fights Woody under the car it’s more brutal, real, and ill-intentioned on both sides. This was some of the first cartoon violence I saw that wasn’t slapstick, rather it was treated with seriousness. But it’s completely justified. Toy Story was clearly taking more risks than Disney did at the time. As good as Disney movies were, there wasn’t a ton of difference to the kind of films the early Renaissance produced, apart from tone and general quality (another reason Rescuers Down Under deserves more attention). Toy Story is so blatantly unique and original that it’s no wonder it quickly stole Disney’s spotlight. The fact that Disney Animation’s movie that year was Pocahontas didn’t dissuade anyone from noticing how brilliant this new kind of movie was.
Another thing that really worked in Toy Story’s favour was its fun and fleshed-out cast of characters. And the voice cast is pretty near perfect. Tom Hanks is wonderful as Woody, drawing on both his talent for comedic and dramatic roles. Woody, I kind of forgot, is an anti-hero for most of the movie. He’s envious and bitter, and openly adversarial to Buzz. Though Buzz’s fall out the window wasn’t his plan, Woody did plot to get rid of him -he’s kind of a dick! But the great thing is, he’s still relatable. His conflict with Buzz you understand, because he clearly feels threatened and being Andy’s favourite toy means a lot to him. And you can tell it’s not an ego thing, he genuinely cares about bringing joy to Andy. I think that’s one of the reasons a lot of kids loved this movie, because it fostered the idea that if our toys were real (which let’s be honest, to many of us they were), they genuinely loved us. Woody’s journey of acceptance is quite heartfelt too, but it’s nothing on Buzz’s. Though for the first couple acts, Buzz’s belief he’s a real space ranger is played for laughs, it becomes a real existential dilemma at his moment of truth. His world is turned upside down, he’s questioning his worth, it’s really meaningful stuff. And to his credit, Tim Allen is very good at conveying this, something you never would have expected from the Home Improvement guy. Together Woody and Buzz make for a great double-act as both bickering foes, and eventual friends. Even though the buddy dynamic wouldn’t be the focus of the sequels, their relationship would be core to the entire series as I’ll get into when we get to those. It’s remarkable too that their coming together feels natural despite taking place over a short period. It’s really that scene on the rainy night that makes the difference and is the most important moment for both of their arcs: Woody finally admitting his doubt and fears that Andy would replace him while simultaneously opening Buzz’s eyes to the difference he can make even if he is just a toy. Again, it’s brilliant heartfelt stuff coming from a pair of toys, “children’s playthings” to paraphrase Woody, and somehow it makes so much sense.
The supporting cast don’t offer a ton of drama, but are really enjoyable and conducive to the sense of humour. The late Don Rickles, one of the great comics, steals every moment of screen-time as Mr. Potato Head, the most abrasive of Andy’s toys. Often at his side offering sharp sarcasm is Hamm the piggy bank voiced by John Ratzenberger of Cheers, who would go on to be Pixar’s lucky charm actor, appearing in every one of their films (though it’s a shame for the last decade he’s mostly just been providing cameos). I think it’s because of his smart-ass personality and delivery that Hamm was always my favourite. Wallace Shawn plays a hypochondriac dinosaur called Rex, cementing his signature voice on the nostalgia of all of us in the post-Princess Bride generation. Interestingly, the least funny toy, Slinky, is voiced by the most outlandish comedian in the cast, Jim Varney of the Ernest movies. But I like the small touches that indicate he’s Woody’s closest friend amongst Andy’s toys. And rounding out the ensemble is Janine from Ghostbusters, Annie Potts as Woody’s love interest Bo Peep. Regarding the human characters, Andy is a very generic kid, intentionally so the children have someone to project onto. It’s Sid who’s a little more fascinating, his penchant for torturing and blowing up toys portrayed as psychopathic. He’s violent, disturbed, and an asshole to his little sister. Still he is a kid, and though the plot necessitates it, I wonder if it wasn’t too much that the toys traumatize him for life at the end.
The area where I think Toy Story most sets itself apart from Disney is in the comedy. There’s been comedy in Disney movies for decades, but none to this extent, and certainly not this well written. This movie is very consciously trying to appeal to adults with its humour as well as kids, including a bunch of jokes we didn’t catch in our childhoods. For example, did anyone notice Mr. Potato Head’s ass-kissing metaphor early on, or understood his reference to Picasso? I think Woody’s line about a word he can’t say in front of preschool toys has made the rounds on the internet. There’s a Wilhelm scream, a book in the background of one shot called Tin Toy with Lasseter’s name on it, green alien toys who’ve formed a kind of cult, and even a great Alien reference at the Pizza Planet. And let’s not forget Buzz’s whole other plot-line about secret plans he’s supposed to get to Star Command, leading Woody to one of the funniest outbursts in all of cinema. But it’s hand in hand with jokes for everyone. I love how dramatically they play-up something as trivial as unwrapping gifts (“it’s bedsheets” “who invited that kid?”). There are great physical gags through the “Strange Things” montage to the dead fly on Buzz’s helmet, Woody’s ride in the car’s “cargo hold”, and the creative face slap when Buzz is acting drunk. And who can forget Buzz’s response when Woody says “will you get up here and give me a hand”? I love the reactions of Andy’s toys both when they see Woody with Buzz’s disembodied arm, and when he kicks RC out of the moving truck. All of this comedy is really smart, funny, and is complimented by the fact every actor delivers their dialogue perfectly.
There are nitpicks to be made of course. Like how does Buzz know to stay lifeless around Andy if he doesn’t know he’s a toy? There’s a really shameless Lion King promotion in a brief cut to Andy’s baby sister listening to “Hakuna Matata”. And I’ll be honest, the animation doesn’t quite hold up. It’s still good in a lot of places but you can tell its not perfected, with some details that don’t look quite right like the occasional mouth movement and close-up shot. It’s not the work of great artistry Disney’s debut Snow White was. The music for this movie is by Randy Newman who is certainly not a great musician, but this is the one movie most agree they like him on. I believe the songs were a compromise between Disney who wanted to make a musical, and Pixar who didn’t. And so we’ve got three songs, none of which are sung by characters. If you can get past Newmans’ voice, the signature “You’ve Got a Friend Like Me” is positively uplifting, “Strange Things” is catchy, and “I Will Go Sailing No More” is actually terrific, relating perfectly Buzz’s feelings in light of learning a harsh reality. The score itself is really good too, enough so that it elevates the culmination of an action-packed climax. When the rocket Buzz is strapped to explodes and he and Woody fly to freedom, the music really helps turn it into a moment of pure movie magic, despite the fact it makes no goddamn sense.
Toy Story undeniably made history as the first CG animated feature, an impact that continues to be felt today. In many ways you could argue it set the standard which most western animated films continue to strive towards. But that’s because it lucked out by being a great movie in addition to a new kind of movie. With a lesser script and characters, this form wouldn’t have caught on at the outset. However John Lasseter cared enough to make it different yet not alienating, smart, really funny, and led by characters with interesting motivations and goals. Toy Story is a movie I loved as a kid, and I’m glad I can love it as an adult too. Right out the gate Pixar proved they were a force to be reckoned with, ready to tackle the art of animation and take it to infinity and beyond.
Next Week: A Bug’s Life (1998)