Given that today is a holiday I don’t really celebrate being British and all, I figured now would be as good a time as any to go back and visit an absolute classic from the mid-90s. Upon reading up on the film I realized it is also the 20th anniversary of the release, which by all accounts made feel quite old. It’s also surprising to me that it has taken me until now to feature
Today’s food for thought: Toy Story.
Toying with our emotions since: November 22, 1995
One of the great tragedies of life is that it always changes. Nothing stays the same. The notion of a child’s toy collection having lives of their own, getting into trouble and having adventures in clandestinity (i.e. when no human is around or paying much attention) is the epitome of creative filmmaking, but it wouldn’t be nearly as memorable without its poignant commentary on the nature of change and how people — in this case, toys — adapt to and more often than not benefit from it.
Tom Hanks’ Woody finds his little cowboy boots turned inside out when a new toy arrives in Andy’s room in the form of Tim Allen’s sophisticated, tech-savvy, Star Command-loyalist Buzz Lightyear. Worried that Andy’s attention is, at the very least, going to be henceforth split between his old buddy and a new shiny ‘play thing,’ Woody goes on the defense, making sure Andy’s room and all that it contains doesn’t make him very welcome. It’s a fruitless effort, because in a matter of minutes Buzz manages to win everyone over with his flying abilities and his voice-activated thing-a-ma-jigs.
This film, the simplest of the three, rarely leaves the confines of Andy’s room, much less the house, and when it does, the world feels massive: massively unexplored and massively intimidating. When Woody accidentally knocks Buzz out of the window and inadvertently turns the rest of the toys against him, he is chosen reluctantly by Andy as the single toy he gets to take to a family outing at Pizza Planet. Buzz soon confronts Woody about the situation, and just when their future looks as uncertain as it could possibly become, they fall into the clutches of the evil Sid when Buzz mistakes a rocket-shaped arcade game for the genuine article. Potentially damned to a life of destruction, the odd couple must resolve their differences and find a way back into the loving arms of Andy.
Yet there are issues further complicating the end game. Buzz still thinks he’s a legitimate space ranger and Woody is still hated by the rest of the toys, who believe he intentionally eliminated Buzz out of jealousy. The pair may be imprisoned, but ultimately they’re within reach of all that was once familiar — they can even communicate with the other toys through open windows — but at this point in the story the two groups may as well be on opposite sides of the planet. And not even Slinky believes Woody is a good guy anymore.
Changed environments and slowly changing perspectives force a contrived, but nonetheless effective, reconciliation between a psychologically weakened Buzz who, after a bit of plastic brainwashing, is convinced he is now Mrs. Nesbitt, and a cowboy who recognizes phrases like “Somebody’s poisoned the water hole!” indeed have a shelf life. (Of course, Woody is more concerned with the literal sense of that term, not wanting to end up on a dusty shelf for the rest of his life.)
Toy Story, the first in a long line of incredibly successful Pixar campaigns, became so influential it spawned a trilogy of adventures featuring the jealous pull-string cowboy and his former intergalactic rival. And for once, the universe within which these adventures were first created seemed spacious enough to warrant further exploration. Toy Story is one of few sagas that actually builds naturally upon what came before, satiating audiences who fell in love with the original with grander aspirations and more complex schemes that would take the toys right out of the toy chest and confront them with the harsh realities of “real world” environments. In some senses, these movies are almost too good for children. It’s like handing them a piece of German chocolate and expecting them to know the difference between that and a Hershey bar.
As a child I don’t think I ever ‘got’ what was going on in the lives of these once-fictitious toys in a larger sense; it certainly never occurred to me that there would come a day when Bo Peep, Slinky, Rex, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, the Etch-a-Sketch, the barrel of monkeys, Mr. Spell and an infantry of green plastic soldiers would be faced with an existential crisis: the proposition of being sold off to someone not named Andy. Similarly, as a child, I didn’t quite understand that life would perpetually get more difficult with each passing year and eventual decade. I always thought the bubble would never pop. In fact I couldn’t even tell I was floating in a bubble.
This animated classic set the bar for a studio that would go on to create an unprecedented run of high-quality cinematic releases but for some reason I care much less about what came after as I do about this mid-90s release. Make no mistake, though: I loved Inside Out and in all likelihood I’m going to greatly enjoy The Good Dinosaur. I skipped out on Cars, Planes, Monsters Inc., Up and Brave. In essence, Toy Story is virtually all I know about the world’s most successful animation studio. I’m scared of and don’t welcome all that easily the concept of things changing. But maybe it’s time to start embracing it.
Recommendation: One of this blogger’s very favorite movies, Toy Story just gets things right on every level: characters, visual presentation, story, music, the comedy, and profound themes like accepting and embracing change and making new friends. As one of the very first movies I saw in theaters, I have to say I had no idea then how good this movie really was and still is. This is such a memorable experience that I love revisiting time and again.
Running Time: 81 mins.
TBTrivia: Jeffrey Katzenberg often gave notes that he wanted more edge. Pixar presented an early draft of the film to Disney on November 19, 1993. The result was disastrous. The film was deemed unwatchable and John Lasseter recalls simply hanging his head in shame. It presented Woody as a “sarcastic jerk” who was constantly insulting the other toys. Katzenberg took Walt Disney Feature Animation president Peter Schneider in[to] the hall after the screening and asked him why it was bad; Schneider responded that it “wasn’t theirs anymore.” Disney immediately shut down production pending a new script. The story team spent a week on a new script to make Woody a more likable character, instead of the “sarcastic jerk” he had been.
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