You can blame John Wick for this review. As the lights were dimming in our theatre I suddenly thought – should I have rewatched the previous films? The answer was yes, but I hadn’t. I am a learner of lessons. More or less. Occasionally. When the lesson means watching movies instead of doing work. I did rewatch the incredibly complex The Secret Life of Pets in order to fully appreciate the nuances of its sequel. Now I shall do the same for a much better franchise of movies, one that has more than earned a spot on this site anyway – Toy Story.
As you can likely tell from the title, I was taken aback by the year of its release. Intellectually I probably could have told you the year, but emotionally I just wasn’t prepared to face the consequences. This movie is dang near 25 years old. I was a kid when it came out and don’t remember if I saw it at the cinema. In fact, I don’t remember seeing it for the first time at all, which is strange for such a defining moment in animation (and I’m sure I called it such when I reviewed it on the playground).
Toy Story introduces us to a little boy named Andy and his most beloved toy, a cowboy with a pull-string and a snake in his boot but no gun in his holster named Woody. Woody is the natural leader of Andy’s toys, of which there are many: an etch-a-sketch, a Mr. Potato Head, a dinosaur named Rex, a slinky dog, Little Bo Peep, a pig-shaped piggy bank named Hamm, green army guys galore. But Woody is Andy’s absolute favouritest toy, and we see them at play in Andy’s cloud-wallpapered room, and tucked into bed together at night, under a Sheriff Woody duvet. But Andy’s birthday brings a plethora of new toys as birthdays often do, but only one toy competes for Andy’s prime affection: a space ranger named Buzz Lightyear. The interesting thing about Buzz, other than his quest to save the universe from Emperor Zurg, is that Buzz doesn’t know he’s a toy. He believes he’s the actual hero, and that the galaxy depends on him.
Woody, who up until now has assured all the other toys that just being Andy’s toy is an honour, is of course insanely jealous. And when he is kinda sorta responsible for Buzz “falling” out a window into the sadistic neighbour’s yard, the other toys are naturally upset with their old pal Woody and mount a rescue mission for new friend Buzz. In actuality, Buzz has all but saved himself, but our two heroes end up outside, essentially “lost toys” in the world, and they’ll have to rely on each other to get home safely. Andy’s family is moving in just 2 days so there’s no time to waste!
Toy Story was the first animated film to earn an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, and it’s well-deserved [It lost to The Usual Suspects. It also lost best original musical or comedy score to Pocahontas. There was no best animated film category in 1995, that didn’t happen until 2002, but John Lasseter was given a special achievement Oscar to commemorate the film’s ground-breaking success. Those are pretty rare; the only other one handed out in the past 25 years was in 2017 to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for his contribution to VR film Flesh and Sand.]
The characters are wonderful because the toys all manage to feel timeless. Buzz and Woody are created especially for the film and each is meant to be a character on a hit TV show (though Woody seems to be a relic, perhaps a toy handed down from Andy’s mom or dad). Buzz is newer, all plastic and flashing lights and fancy buttons compared to Woody’s stuffing and low-fi technology. But Andy’s other toys may be more recognizable. In fact, slinky dogs and potato heads and telephones saw a resurgence in popularity after each of the Toy Story films were released. The wonderful voice actors of course go a long way to help bring these toys to life. Tom Hanks (Woody) was drawn to the project because he too had as a child wondered what his toys were up to when he wasn’t looking. Tim Allen (Buzz) was drawn because his comedy idol, Chevy Chase, had been offered the role and turned it down (so had Billy Crystal, who was wise enough to regret it – when Lasseter came calling again, for 2001’s Monsters Inc, Crystal said yes before Lasseter got a single word out). Hanks recorded his lines in the early 90s, while filming Sleepless in Seattle and A League of Their Own – he wanted the voicework wrapped up before he started in on Philadelphia or Forrest Gump as he felt he’d be in the wrong frame of mind. Little Bo Peep is voiced by Annie Potts, but Bo almost didn’t make the film. Initially, Pixar had planned for her to be a Barbie, but Mattel was sure this movie would be a disaster and declined the role, rather fooolishly in hindsight. Similarly, Pixar was not able to use G.I. Joe’s name either; they rewrote the character as ‘Combat Carl.’ Rex the dinosaur, voiced to perfection by Wallace Shawn, is a particular favourite of mine because the idea of a neurotic dinosaur who suffers from self-esteem issues and extreme anxiety turns out to be a whole lotta fun. He’s got an inferiority complex and doesn’t do well with conflict, at odds with him being the biggest of the toys, and depicting a classically scary character. Hamm the piggy bank is voiced by Pixar fixture John Ratzenberger. He’s a board game enthusiast and seems to know the most about the outside world. His frequent board game opponent and best friend is Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), who covers his loneliness with sarcastic wise-cracking but he prays every birthday for a Mrs. Potato Head. Like all good dogs, Slink (Jim Varney) is very loyal to his pal Woody; he often manages to have a hang-dog look about him that’s incredibly sympathetic.
Toy Story was the world’s first computer-animated feature film, and it changed animation forever. To be honest, this film still looks good today because they were careful to avoid things they weren’t quite up to animating convincingly yet, like long hair and water droplets. Pixar has continuously astonished us with increasingly intricately-animated films, and by that standard, Toy Story is its worst. What a marvelous, beautiful worst.
All these toys work together to evoke childhood and warm feelings. Toy Story tickled our imaginations, reinvigorated the field of animation, and established Pixar as a giant in the genre.