Toy Story (1995, John Lasseter)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

When Toy Story was released in 1995, it was marketed on a soon-to-be-impossible basis: as a film entirely crafted using computer animation. Within less than a decade, such a feature would pass from distinction into the realm of the mundane; it would soon enough be assumed that any cartoon wrought upon the marketplace by a major studio would necessarily be a CG film. The act of entertainment is, after all, an arms race of a kind. If one studio crafts a widescreen process, so must they all; ditto a coloring system, stereophonic sound. Ditto 3D, even, but a trend is a trend, and no such claim can even begin to be made about the sweeping changes brought about by Toy Story. In less than the space of time it took for silent cinema to be overtaken by talkies, the alteration of the big-business end of the film industry would be obvious. Besides Lilo & Stitch, how many commercially successful hand-drawn animated films can you name from the years since 1995?

The people behind the scenes at Pixar Animation Studios likely would have balked at any proclamation that what they were doing would have earth-shaking ramifications in the world of animation — indeed, they would have noted immediately that the near-total eradication of hand-drawn cartoons from the mainstream would be disastrous for the art form. You’re reading this in 2013 or later, so you needn’t be told that it has been. American animation, already suffering on the brink of inspirational bankruptcy by 1995, is dead now — and Toy Story is the culprit. In other words, it’s a film with a great deal to answer for; it is not The Jazz Singer, it is Jaws. However much we might loathe what it would come to represent, the reason for the revolutionary current in its wake is simple: it’s a well-crafted, immensely entertaining and ultimately galvanizing film. Had it not been — had it been the equally populist but far dumber Shrek, had it been the abstractly didactic and tired Cars even — it might perversely have spared us from what has happened since. But here it still is, and here we are.

As Ernest Rister pointed out years ago, Toy Story can’t make any serious claim to being our own modern variation on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It isn’t ambitious enough; it establishes no new way of communicating or telling a story, and its emotional content, while more robust than it initially seems, hasn’t nearly the gravity or uncluttered compassion of the 1937 film. This is not an insult to Toy Story because very few films animated or otherwise are on any sort of level with Snow White. It would be too much to ask every great innovation of cinema to be matched with an actual masterpiece introducing it, and of course it has not been. Toy Story is much more interesting by default than the first 3-Strip Technicolor feature, Forever Amber, or the first Cinemascope film, The Robe — and leagues better than The Jazz Singer, obviously. Rister’s point was that Toy Story isn’t Snow White — it’s Steamboat Willie: the first primitive suggestion of something far stronger. (Someone’s rebuttal that Pixar had produced several shorts prior to their first feature is of little consequence — those shorts, while at least two of them — Red’s Dream and Luxo Jr. — are quite lovely, are mere wisps of ideas with very little story content.) The story and thus the analogy would fast become messy and imperfect from there; the medium wouldn’t always fall into such capable hands as these, but isn’t that always the way?

Though John Lasseter is credited as the director of Toy Story, its odyssey is really that of an entire studio. Pixar was a sort of exiled division of Lucasfilm that had been taken under the famously nurturing and cantankerous Steve Jobs wing. Though best known for their Oscar-happy shorts, their actual primary function had been putting together commercials for products like Listerine and generating CGI sequences in movies like the Star Trek films and, most prominently, the 1991 Disney adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. This last arrangement gave way, at length, to an opportunity of producing a feature film. Pixar and Disney were entirely independent operations in those days; as late as 1997, with one of the biggest hits in American cinematic history under his belt, Lasseter was still forced to make broad and detailed pitches to get projects greenlit. During the first years of Toy Story‘s lengthy and tortured history, the film’s artistic goals were muddled and confused. Was it to be a film for adults or for children? Was it to be cute, or sly and realistic? Was it to expose Lasseter and his team’s brightly cheery exterior or his occasionally evidenced cynicism and bitterness? The task of answering these questions would fall in all corporate directions, but several names would prove crucial to understanding how the story of Pixar itself would unfold in the years to come: Joe Ranft (in some ways the single-handed lifeline of the animation industry’s barely-there pulse in the ’90s), Pete Docter, and Andrew Stanton, for a start.

But the watershed decision came early. Computer animation had its limits then (as it does now in a different fashion), chief among them its relative difficulty with the creation of realistic or at least tolerably artificial-in-ideal-proportion human characters. Animal characters as well, in fact; anything of flesh and blood was a task far beyond rendering software and the animators who were then redefining their careers. Lasseter and his team’s solution was to take a cue from the brand’s own short films, which were about bicycles and balls, toys and lamps, snowglobes and trinkets. And one hideous baby, a good reason to hesitate. One of Lasseter and his peers’ early creations in the post-Tron wave and wane of interest in early computer graphics was a quick film of a caricatured pencil. It wowed several gatherings in its day. So in the end, a compelling feature-length narrative could be crafted, it was decided, with one word: plastics. The film would center around the inner lives of children’s toys.

In the realm of practical decisionmaking, such a choice was clearly wise; the film as it stands operates firmly within the broad limitations of what CG was then even willing to try to approximate. And any student of animation is aware of the many decades of struggling that Disney and other studios had endured in regard to the creation of non-caricatured human beings. But the laying down of this premise underlines a crucial difference between Lasseter and Walt Disney, one whose implications can be hard to suss out or fully appreciate. Disney knew no limitations — he would have wished to find a way. Lasseter embraces them. Containment is his. Ambition was Disney’s. The best filmmkers, like Orson Welles, combine these two virtues even if they share Disney’s aversion to the sadly necessary economic side of their chosen artform. Lasseter’s work is that of a far more easily contended artist than was Walt Disney. This is to both the benefit and detriment of the first three films he made (and, if the popular viewpoint of Cars 2 is a fair indication, vastly a detriment to the two since) but its major lesson is to point up just how much more of an urgency there was in Disney’s soul. Given how much Lasseter’s position as both director of Toy Story, the most important film in the modern animation business, and these days the man who can decide what does and does not happen in the feature animation world at the Disney studio, his lack of such serious stigma and courageousness has determined the future of the industry, has indeed single-handedly decided that it can never have its Snow White or Dumbo.

Whether this is in the past or the future to the hypothetical audience member, though, Toy Story remains a remarkably clearheaded and unpretentious delight. Some evidences of its weird origins remain. Despite the bright colors and appealing characters, it’s not a children’s film, nor is it a family film in the sense that Pixar’s more universal (and arguably, complex) films to come would be. It’s identifiably a story with adult themes, designed for adults, that has carefully been engineered with enough fast-paced story content and gentle slapstick humor to avoid boring the armies of three year-olds in attendance. But no, the penis-envy odyssey of cranky veteran cowboy toy Woody, sincerely devoted to his owner and chief physical manipulator Andy (who is unaware that his toys can communicate with each other and walk around when they’re not in the room, a sort of reverse-Calvin and Hobbes), and his reaction to new-game-in-town spaceman toy Buzz Lightyear is a rather strongly phrased and sincere treatise upon jealousy and betrayal, just one that happens to provide opportunities for a good number of lengthy and well-mounted chase sequences. The two central characters both exhibit at various times a sense of profoud inadequacy and depression that prevents Toy Story from ever playing its cards to the kindergarten crowd. That, plus the surprisingly large (seriously, more than you remember) number of quite ribald jokes it contains — not to mention Randy Newman’s dull-as-dishwater songs, which I never liked much and have aged poorly. (Over the opening credits they’re fine, but those fitted to montage and emotional crescendo seem to stop everything dead. Failing to learn this lesson, the brand repeated the same dubious trick in Cars and Brave.)

And while children are bound to be naturally attuned to and instantly absorbed in the film’s world, its more than subtle cries out to Boomer and gen-X nostalgia loom large in its iconography, and the film covertly and cleverly hides its sympathy for and identification toward Sid, a humorously vile but creative kid next door whose stock in trade is destroying toys in various gruesome and very suburban ways: a rocket tied to Buzz’s back, Woody holding a match that will be used to burn him alive on a backyard grill, etc. The wink-nudge inherent to this and to some of the bawdy, if admittedly quite fresh and quotable (“I’ve found my moving buddy!”), humor implies a great deal about Toy Story‘s perceived audience. It is the only Pixar “Event Picture” in the classic sense of people flocking to see a film because of its dazzling special effects. No film in the studio’s future would so fervently ride on the idea of sheer innovation as a selling point; Monsters, Inc. would be promoted with no trailers about the intricacy involved in rendering Sully’s fur, for instance. But that makes Toy Story a necessary stopgap toward the studio’s real liberation. Within two years, they’d make their last Listerine ad.

As a director, Lasseter doesn’t have a great amount of visual flair, and his work tends to fawn over individual objects rather than the larger world they occupy, which has its benefits and its limitations. One cannot criticize him heavily for the rather rudimentary angles and camera movements in the picture, because he is so beholden to only going as far as the technology can carry him, and the film’s slightly bland straightforwardness is never a distraction. He and his merry band make up for all this firstly with extraordinarily charming production design — I vividly recall seeing this film as a kid and wanting to walk around inside Pizza Planet, or even stand in the shadow of the Dinoco gas station, both of which seemed simultaneously to occupy real space and to be completely fantastic, and impossibly nifty. No one needs to remind you, surely, of how instantly iconic Andy’s bedroom became, even if Andy himself could not. But more than these admittedly strong virtues, Toy Story lands because of its pacing. The movie’s economy is almost ruthless; by thirty minutes in we’ve already established every character, the central conflict, and Woody and Buzz are miles away from Andy’s bedroom. The story peaks with the inexhaustibly clever Sid sequence, then piles climax after climax in Zemeckis-Gale style before rather abruptly cutting out, barely reaching eighty minutes.

It isn’t typically relevant in appreciating a film to note how our relationship with it has changed since its release. But it’s a fair guess that everyone reading this either grew up with Toy Story or at least saw it in its theatrical release or shortly thereafter. If you know any children, there’s little doubt that they love this movie; and there’s a better than decent chance that most of the adults you know love it too. In this specific case, that continued ubiquity a testament to the film’s strengths. The overwhelming advacements in CGI technology since 1995 could leave it looking like the antique that CG-heavy live action films of the same period already are. (Instead, I find that it looks rather beautifully spare.) There is also the unique fashion in which Pixar has allowed the characters we meet here to grow and change, a decision communicated by two sequels that are — it must be said — vastly superior to this film. But most relevantly, what was in 1995 one of the main attractions of this picture — the very fact of an all-computer animated feature-length film — is now so old hat as to not be worth commenting on, and there’s the score: its story is so strong it holds up all on its own. It doesn’t take you there and back again emotionally like the next several Pixars would, but its elegance and relative simplicity make it a treat — and there’s little question it was (at the time) the best thing released under the Disney name since its namesake’s death.

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