This is apart of my series of Pixar reviews
“To Infinity And Beyond!”
Many films are remembered for their technical achievements and less in their merits of the story. Early film history is full of movies that are leap forwards in technical achievement but don’t have much to offer in narrative power. Disney Animation is a pioneering animation studio putting out the first fully colorized full length animated film in theaters with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Released in 1938 Snow White, while a bit dated in sections, still works as a piece of entertainment. 57 years after that, Disney distributed the first ever full-length computer-generated animated film from a young computer animation company called Pixar. The film was Toy Story and not only is it a technical marvel but has survived for over 20 years as a classic through its simple well-made storytelling and made a name for Pixar.
With the release of The Incredibles 2, their 20th animated feature, there is really no better time to look back at their history of masterful storytelling. For a time, I would argue that Pixar wasn’t just the best animation studio in North America but the best film studio period. No one could match their unparalleled streak of success and it all starts with their first movie Toy Story.
Toy Story takes an interesting approach that goes against what Walt Disney did with Snow White. Instead of taking a timeless fairy tale like Snow White Director Jon Lasseter has made a movie that was distinctly modern for the times with Toy Story. Toy Story isn’t a fairy tale and it can only exist in a world that has been flooded with toy sales and marketing. There are references to all kinds of different toy brands and pop culture. Instead of taking place in a faraway land full of princes, dragons, and witches, Toy Story takes place in an area that is familiar to all of us, our bedroom.
Pixar brings the bedroom to life. Once Andy leaves the room, the toys come to life and get involved in their own adventures but all in service to their owner. It is really enduring to see a kid’s imagination celebrated as much as it is here in Toy Story. Andy is attached to his toys as most of us were when we were kids. The chief creative decision that is rather a stroke of brilliance is the toys never come to life when Andy is in the room. This is fantasy movie but it never becomes one where a child discovers his toys are magical. I rather like that the toys don’t move when Andy is playing with them because they are already coming to life in Andy’s head and they don’t need to move.
But alongside his wide variety of colorful toys that include Mr. Potato Head, a Slinky Dog, a Piggy Bank (named Hamm) and a T-Rex (named Rex) is Andy’s favorite toy, Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks). Woody leads the group of toys when Andy isn’t around and takes great pride in being Andy’s favorite and always wants to make him happy. Naturally, in a world where a toy’s sole existence is to please their owner, a new toy becomes a great point of contention. Woody’s place as Andy’s favorite toy becomes threatened as a brand new toy named Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen) joins the collection of toys. Woody becomes jealous. But there is another catch, Buzz doesn’t realize he is a toy, which drives Woody even more crazy.
In an impulsive move, Woody accidentally knocks Buzz out of the window. Woody and Buzz then get separated from Andy after a confrontation in Andy’s car and get picked up by the neighborhood delinquent Sid, a child that takes great pleasure in mistreating his toys. Woody and Buzz are forced to start working together in order to get back home to Andy.
This is essentially a buddy movie with a wide range of great side characters. Smartly neither Woody or Buzz are completely right or wrong in their differences. Both have their own struggles to overcome and both make each other stronger. This is the core of Toy Story. Friendship and coming to terms with one’s identity. Toy Story isn’t a complex movie in terms of plot, it doesn’t need to be. The brilliance in its storytelling is the imaginative world building and the strength of the characters. All the toys have unique personalities and are used to perfection. No character is overused or underused. John Lasseter knows which characters are his main ones and which ones are supporting characters.
For a movie that is so steeped in pop culture, it doesn’t feel dated all these years later. There aren’t a lot of 90s jokes that only work if you grew up in the 90s. Somehow Lasseter and Pixar managed to balance toy culture with still being universal because Toy Story is still richly funny and entertaining to watch.
But of course, there is no talking about Toy Story without talking about its animation. This is the first fully CG animated feature film. Typically pioneering films have a tendency to look dated quickly or fall into an uncanny valley. Toy Story isn’t quite as good as modern CG films (especially when you look at the dog model). But that being said it has held up remarkably well. Pixar made sure to get the important details correct. The character models and range of expressions are great. The movement is remarkable and Pixar went as far as to give Buzz a plastic helmet that is able to reflect its environment in a realistic way. Even if CG animation has grown more advanced, this still doesn’t look bad. Compare the animation in Toy Story vs Dreamworks’s Antz. It is like comparing Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels that followed the pioneering Disney film a year later. The animation quality just doesn’t hold up but the Toy Story and Snow White do. More time was given to movies like Toy Story and Snow White than Antz and Gulliver’s Travels.
Much like Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (released only 2 years earlier) Toy Story brought in a wide range of technological advancements and change the landscape of filmmaking forever. Still, people didn’t keep watching Toy Story because of the CG animation, they continue to watch it because of the strength of its characters, effective storytelling and emotional core. Toy Story doesn’t have the luxury of being the sharpest looking CG animated film out there now but it is none of the less superb and none the less beloved. Thus begins the start of Pixar’s dominance.