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Dissecting the Classics – Toy Story

November 24, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Toy Story

This week, Pixar Studios returns to theaters with something new and hopefully fresh with Coco. While we’re a few years removed from every Pixar film seeming like an absolute must watch (for me, anyway), the studio still has a great track record. And I felt this was the perfect time to look back at the movie that started it all.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , the column previously known as Taken For Granted. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Toy Story

Wide Release Date: November 22, 1995
Directed By: John Lasseter
Written By: Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow
Story By: John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft
Produced By: Bonnie Arnold and Ralph Guggenheim
Edited By: Robert Gordon and Lee Unkrich
Music and Songs By: Randy Newman
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios
Distributed By: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
Tom Hanks as Woody
Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear
Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head
Jim Varney as Slinky Dog
Wallace Shawn as Rex

What Do We All Know?

While some of the luster is gone these days, few studios have ever had so much universal praise heaped on it as Pixar. Despite being an arm of the frighteningly encompassing Disney Corporation, Pixar has earned a reputation for counter programming in that realm. Game changing technical innovation, creative storytelling and sharp scripts with fully realized characters have led to an almost unprecedented level of consistent quality. And also The Good Dinosaur. But their track record is still pretty amazing.

Considering their place in pop culture, it’s hard to remember that their first film was pretty much a miracle movie. Not just because of the “never been done before” prospect of doing a feature length computer animated film, but because of the labyrinthian behind the scenes dealings involving Steve Jobs and Jeffrey Katzenberg. With all that going against it, it’s astonishing that Toy Story was good at all. But it not only changed the course of animation forever; it’s one of the best movies ever made.

What Went Right?

No, that’s not hyperbole. I truly believe that between its objective quality as a piece of art and its unquestionable impact that Toy Story simply must be counted among any comprehensive list of great films. The simple fact of the matter is that this movie does almost everything right. It perfectly balances its lead characters with the rest of the cast. It does more with the concept of living toys than any film before it. Its bright and colorful and engaging for children, but also witty and thematically rich enough to be compelling for adults. What more could you want?

What makes the movie work is that toys want to be played with. It gives them a purpose and drives their actions, especially Woody, Andy’s favorite toy… at least until Buzz Lightyear shows up. Not only is Buzz seemingly unaware that he is a toy, but he takes all of the affection Andy has for him for granted. That simple conflict drives the whole narrative, and it makes for interesting characters. Neither Buzz or Woody are particularly “good” people, especially compared to the typical Disney protagonist of the time. They are arrogant, jealous, petty and aggressive, but their actions are understandable and easy to relate to. Which is the key to most successful movies.

Finding the key to making a universe about toys work and feel complex was vital. While their advances were and still are impressive, Pixar was not able to make humans look very good in the early 1990s. What they could make was the artificial, plastic, cartoon look of toys. Finding a narrative that best showcases what they were capable of allowed them to put their best foot forward in 1995, and why the film still looks good over two decades later. Mostly.

And since the figured out the big idea that makes the film work, they were able to be very creative with humor and plot situations. I’m still blown away by concepts like the army men and the baby monitor, the montage showing Andy’s bedroom changing, the claw machine, and the heist-like rescue of Buzz. And there’s so many great gags, both spoken and just in the background. The script is still unique, still funny, still emotionally powerful and still utterly brilliant.

What Went Wrong?

I could gush for hours about everything that is good in Toy Story. That being said, I have to acknowledge a few missteps. I feel there are a few too many Star Wars references and they don’t really land for me. I also think the final chase has just a little too much going on, and I would probably cut out Spud the dog’s involvement in it. Speaking of which, Spud is not a particularly well animated character and aged very quickly (the sequel does much better with a dog and that was only four years later). And while it might be blasphemous… Randy Newman’s songs don’t always work for me.

But when I really think about the negatives of this film, it has more to do with its effect on animation. Yes, this proved CGI could be done and paved the way for half a dozen genuine classics by Pixar and lots of other great movies from Dreamworks, Disney and others. But it was sort of the unofficial death knell for traditional hand drawn animation in America. Not immediately, but it absolutely contributed. As a big fan of hand drawn animation in movies, I can’t help lamenting how rarely I get to experience new ones.

And In Summary…

Toy Story would be considered an all-time great movie even if it was just really good. There are very few firsts anymore, but the first fully CGI film is one of those technical landmarks that gets you noticed. But Toy Story isn’t just notable for its technical accomplishments. Any person of any age will be able to find something to appreciate here. The characters, humor, story, and existential themes hold up.

The film isn’t exactly in mint condition anymore; animation marches on and I suspect this will only look worse over time. But the screenplay is going to hold up. At its best, Pixar is far more than just an animation studio; they are great storytellers. And Toy Story set both the precedent and the standard for that excellence.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight

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