Saturday, June 12, 2010

You've Got a Friend in Me-#99 Toy Story (1995)

Though I prefer Wall-E or The Incredibles, if you are going to put a Pixar film on a list of 100 important films, then it should be Toy Story. Toy Story changed the game in animation, and made everyone look at animated features less like cartoon fodder for kids, and more like a movie. Just six years earlier, Disney had made a comeback with Little Mermaid, but was already slipping back into it's old ways of kiddie musical schlock, when Toy Story (1995) hit the scene.

A film that was built on story and character, Toy Story explores jealousy, friendship, insecurities, and danger, and does so in way that both children and adults can relate to. Woody and Buzz's argument on the bed top, could just as easily be transposed onto the playground or into the office. Pixar was doing something that few have done before. It was going smart.

Now most films that are intended for children, but want to appeal to adults will throw in a vulgar moment or two. Think of any Shrek movie. From Pinocchio's thong to almost anything that comes out of Donkey's mouth, you have a stream of vulgar fart jokes or sexual innuendo that are intended to fly by the younger viewers and land directly on the adults like a vaporous cloud. To use an earlier example, and to stick with Spielberg, granpappy of Ol' Dreamworks, think of the "penis breath" comment in ET. It is pushed in to give a little shock laugh, but is really pretty unnecessary and pretty unfunny.

So then 1995 comes along and Toy Story comes out. It was well written, the characters were believable and had to take real risks and make real sacrifices to move forward or solve their problems. The obstacles that Buzz and Woody encounter are solid. This is excellent film making, and is perhaps the smartest move in children's film since the Muppet Movie in 1979. Take two scenes as examples. Buzz's fall from the railing in Sid's house, and Woody's emotional collapse under the milk crate. These scenes are foils to one another. When Buzz has just found out he is a toy, and is trying to prove to himself that he still has the same value he thought he had, he mounts the railing, extends his wings, and jumps. This time it is without the spectacular gravity defying results of before, and instead ends with an arm breaking crash.

Later in the film, Woody is trapped under a milk crate and Buzz has given up. Woody explains to Buzz that being a toy is better than being a space ranger. In doing so, Woody must face the reality that Buzz is a pretty great toy, and admit the truth that his position as Andy's favorite may be supplanted.

We have all at one time or another, thought we were greater, more talented, more special than we actually were. When the truth comes out, it is devastating. We have all also had a moment or two when we have felt we were being replaced by a slicker, shinier model. These are human stories. Within the context of Toy Story, they just happen to be animated. And really this what Pixar does over and over. In each of its films, it tells real human tales of risk and loss, of big falls and emotional victories. Pixar has had minor bumps along the way, but for the most part its enduring consistency in quality filmmaking has been remarkable. And of course it all started with Toy Story.


  1. I'm going to have to take issue with a statement in your first paragraph: Beauty and the Beast was released by Disney in 1991 and it is an amazing and beautiful animated film. I know I cry a little more easily than most people, but the ending always rocks me to my core. Also, Aladdin came out in 1992, and I believe it to be a gem of an animated movie. The songs are awesome, the characters are dynamic and it has the quality of being relevant to both children and adults while not being vulgar.
    The gap between The Little Mermaid and Toy Story is, therefore, filled.

  2. Beauty and the Beast is great, but not as strong as Little Mermaid. Aladdin is built on Robin Williams performance, which is admittedly fun, but which takes away from the story and film as a whole. Really all I was saying was that Little Mermaid was a revitalization, but beyond Beauty and the Beast, the revitalization was short lived.

    Please understand that I am not saying I wouldn't watch Aladdin, but it's not the film that Little Mermaid is and it doesn't come close to the heavy hitters of the Pixar line up.