“Ages three and up! It’s on my box!”
It’s hard to believe that, with Toy Story 3 coming out soon, it has been fifteen years since the original film. Back in 1995, Toy Story ushered in an animation renaissance for not only Disney, but also the medium as a whole. Pixar Studios had created something that changed the game forever, spawning countless other computer-graphic studios to follow suit and never fully reach the potential consistently exceeded by the Mouse House’s little buddy. Starting as a small-scale studio inside the Lucasfilm behemoth, Apple’s Steve Jobs rolled the dice and bought them up, a company ripe with ex-Disney talent, ready to breathe life into a medium that seemed all but dead with two-dimensional cell animation. I’m not sure who exactly thought the film would be as astronomically lucrative and transcendent in the world of cinema as it was, but the project attracted a superb cast list in a time where videogames only recruited actors who weren’t good enough for soap operas or porn flicks and even Disney was only getting Broadway caliber talent their films. It was as if the world was finally ready for intelligent, family-friendly programming and the stars aligned for the masterpiece that is Toy Story, a film remaining at the top of its genre until last year’s Up finally dethroned it.
The concept itself is inspired. Inhabiting a world revolving around the strewn about toys of a young boy, the environment becomes composed of every nostalgic plastic friend you had while growing up in the 1980s—perfect for my generation having been thirteen at the time of the film’s release. We looked at these toys and remembered the good ol’ days of mixing and matching different sets for large-scale reenactments of whatever nonsense was flowing through our subconscious. I do often wonder what a cowboy and Indian type kid like Andy is doing with a Bo Peep doll, but even I would steal my sister’s Barbies to be used as victims that need saving or plain old collateral damage in TMNT war time. It’s still a bit weird since his sister is teething, so the sexy Annie Potts-voiced character must have been from a kooky aunt or estranged cousin, a hand-me-down rather than a toy of current relevance. It’s okay, though, because the other inhabitants include classics such as Speak & Spell, Mr. Potato Head, Etch A Sketch, a Slinky Dog, and many others. So much of the joy is watching these things animate realistically—like seeing the Army Men shuffle back and forth on their plastic stands—every toy with static feet finding a way to move that recalls how you’d have done it during playtime.
The sentimental attachment and inside jokes based upon the toys themselves isn’t all the film offers, they enhance a smartly written script chock full of wit that spans all ages. The list of writers on this project would cost millions today as the story was hatched by the Pixar Dream Team consisting of director John Lasseter, (who also helmed the sequel, A Bug’s Life, and Cars), Andrew Stanton, (the man behind Finding Nemo and Wall-E), the late Joe Ranft, (an integral part on each film made before his untimely passing), and Pete Docter, (director of Monsters, Inc. and Up). Throw in a screenplay credit to fanboy messiah Joss Whedon and this thing should have been an assumed surefire hit. But back in 1995, these names were unknown commodities—even Whedon barely had the bastardized theatrical adaptation of his Buffy universe out in the world. To think back now that some of the greatest works on film of the past two decades have been born from their minds is astonishing. It all began with a simple buddy-comedy, a young boy’s favorite pull-string plush cowboy and his insecurities about being replaced by the new, flashy, modern-day action figure with misguided heroics. A story of finding one’s identity, of sharing, of loving, of coexisting in a world of friends despite many differences on the surface resulted—Toy Story is requisite viewing for all young children, preparing them for their lives ahead.
Woody is the leader of the pack and has been since Kindergarten. He rules with love and compassion, gaining the respect of all besides the bull-headed and sarcastic Mr. Potato Head, (it’s amazing how Don Rickles’ performance literally re-invented this toy’s sensibilities, even later being appropriated by Bridgestone Tires many years later). The toys jump at his requests and look to him for protection, a desire ever more important now that their owners are moving houses in a week. Every toy is tasked to find a moving partner so no one is left behind—having moved a couple times in my own youth, I can completely understand this inevitability—but none of that is quite as relevant at the moment since Andy’s birthday party is transpiring downstairs, risking the reality of new play-things to replace them all. While Potato Head wishes for a Mrs. and Rex has a panic attack about how a new dinosaur will render him obsolete, (Wallace Shawn is by far my favorite voice-actor involved here), Woody is the one without fear, having ruled the community as long as he can remember. So, when Buzz Lightyear, complete with wings, karate chop, and pulsating laser, arrives onto Andy’s bed and Woody is brushed aside to fall through the cracks, ending up under the bed, the journey fueled by one’s jealousy and the other’s naïveté commences.
Buzz is portrayed to perfection by Tim Allen, equal parts his own persona and that of William Shatner “Star Trek” tendencies, clueless towards his existence as a toy and desperately looking for a way back to space in order to defeat Zurg. Woody—the consummate everyman played by the epitome of such a description Tom Hanks—realizes his usurper’s delusion and begins to use it against him, attempting to reclaim his throne atop Andy’s toy hierarchy. In doing so, the cowboy soon alienates himself from the rest of the group as a selfish villain, even seeing girlfriend Bo Peep and best friend Slinky Dog (Jim Varney) turn away. Once Buzz accidentally falls out the window and into the wide open world beyond that room, Woody discovers he must do what he can to save him, not because they are friends, but because bringing him home is the only way to redeem himself in the eyes of the rest. A trip to Pizza Plant and its three-eyed alien vending machine, (“The Claaaaaaw!!!”), a sojourn to the evil young Sid’s diabolical toy destruction factory across the street, and a high speed chase through the town’s streets behind a moving truck ensue, bringing with it hijinks, morality, forgiveness, and the kind of love that can only exist between two friends.
And while the film is now a decade and a half old, the animation still holds up. Sure there are multiple instances of flatness and crude shading on top of generic surface textures—the glares and reflections of Cars and the hair of Monster’s Inc. among others a distant future away—but for the time, and in comparison to the hand-drawn work opposite it, you can’t go wrong. Utilizing mostly smooth plastic objects helps suspend the disbelief of weirdly rendered characters such as Scud the dog, and the sheer work concerning Buzz’s clear helmet and translucent wings can make you forget all else. But above all that is the fact Pixar jam-packed each frame with infinite details. I love Andy’s bookshelf containing titles of past Pixar shorts, the Binford tool box in Sid’s room recalling Allen’s “Home Improvement”, and Hakuna Matata playing in the car for the enjoyment of young Hannah. Many jokes are specific to the toys saying them or on the butt-end, many are only fully appreciated if you are older than sixteen, but everything works on the level of hilarity that a young child could appreciate too. Mr. Potato Head’s Picasso joke elicits laughs from adolescents due to the fun of misplaced facial features and Buzz’s, (as Mrs. Nesbitt), Marie Antoinette and her sister joke makes us chuckle for its historical relevance while the children for the goofy voice he uses to deliver it. Because of this and more, Toy Story fires on all cylinders, setting a precedent for all animated work to follow it. Many have tired to recreate the wonder, but few—Pixar included—have been able to stay on par. It truly is a timeless classic.