#45) Toy Story (1995)
OR “Pixar Upper”
Directed by John Lasseter
Written by Joss Whedon and Andrew Stanton and Joel Cohen & Alec Sokolow. Story by Lasseter & Stanton & Pete Docter & Joe Ranft.
Class of 2005
This is a revised and updated version of my original “Toy Story” post, which you can read here.
The Plot: “Toy Story” is, well, a story about toys, specifically the ones who belong to Andy (voice by John Morris), and come alive when he’s not around. Led by pull-string doll Sheriff Woody (voice by Tom Hanks), the toys are anxious when Andy receives a new toy for his birthday: spaceman Buzz Lightyear (voice by Tim Allen), a somewhat delusional action-figure who quickly surpasses Woody as Andy’s favorite. Woody’s jealousy causes him and Buzz to become stranded in the outside world, falling into the hands of Andy’s sadistic neighbor Sid (voice by Erik von Detten). Together, Woody and Buzz must set aside their differences, return home to Andy, and finally answer the question “What if toys had feelings?”
Why It Matters: The NFR gives “Toy Story” its credit as the first full-length computer animated feature, and that it “changed animation’s face and delivery system”.
But Does It Really?: I always forget just how great a movie “Toy Story” is. There’s a certain high-level of quality that we’ve become accustomed to with Pixar, but it all started here, with a creative story that tapped into our collective imagination, aided by a clever script, some outstanding performances (both vocal and animated), and some major breakthroughs in computer technology. Not since “Snow White” has one animated film been such a big game changer, and “Toy Story” hits all of the NFR’s requirements for its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.
Everybody Gets One: Among those making their only NFR appearance are Pixar mainstays Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton, screenwriter Joss Whedon (yes, that Joss Whedon), actors Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Laurie Metcalf and Penn Jillette, and – most surprisingly – composer Randy Newman.
Shout Outs: References and allusions to fellow NFR movies “The Wizard of Oz“, “Night of the Living Dead“, “The Exorcist“, “Star Wars“, “Alien“, “The Shining”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark“, “The Lion King“, and fellow Pixar films “Luxo Jr.” and “Tin Toy”.
Wow, That’s Dated: Mostly the early CGI look of the mid-90s, and the plug for the film’s CD-ROM tie-in during the end credits. Also: themed restaurants, remember those?
Seriously, Oscars?: The highest-grossing film of 1995 at the US box office, “Toy Story” received three Oscar nominations: Best Original Song, Original Musical or Comedy Score, and Original Screenplay (the first animated film to receive a writing nomination). While it lost all three awards (two to Disney’s “Pocahontas”), John Lasseter received a Special Achievement Oscar for “the development and inspired application of techniques” that created “Toy Story”.
- The success of Lasseter’s short “Tin Toy” caught the attention of Disney, whom Lasseter had worked for a decade earlier. Through a series of tense negotiations between the two companies (exacerbated by Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg’s self-confessed “tyrant” behavior), an agreement was made for Disney to distribute a film made by Pixar. With computer technology finally reaching a point in the ’90s where a feature length film was feasible, a proposed “Tin Toy” TV special morphed into what became “Toy Story”. While Katzenberg was the one who suggested the film be an odd-couple buddy picture, he also pushed for edgier humor, and for Woody to be more mean-spirited. This culminated in a disastrous November 1993 screening dubbed the “Black Friday Incident” by those in attendance. Production was shut down, and the next three months were spent extensively re-working the movie more to Lasseter’s original version. Pixar’s then-owner Steve Jobs (yes, that Steve Jobs) funded production with his own money during the shutdown.
- For starters, “Toy Story” succeeds on sheer premise alone. Stories of toys coming to life are nothing new (even Hans Christian Andersen wrote about them), but “Toy Story” brings it into a modern setting. There’s no “Once Upon a Time” or magic spell; it’s 1995 and toys are alive, let’s go.
- If Randy Newman’s songs seem out of place, that’s because they stemmed from a compromise Pixar made with Disney. Disney wanted the film to be a full-blown musical (they were in the midst of the Disney Renaissance after all), but Pixar felt that it would feel out of place for these characters to sing. An agreement was reached in which Randy Newman would compose and perform songs that would comment on the action, a la Simon & Garfunkel in “The Graduate“. Apparently Newman wrote the film’s most iconic song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” in one day.
- Yeah, you can definitely see the Katzenberg influence on this movie. With its share of wordplay and adult innuendo (most of it involving Annie Potts’ Bo Peep), “Toy Story” acts as a presage to the kind of animation Dreamworks would be cranking out in a few years time.
- All of the supporting roles are cast with performers whose typecasting is played to the movie’s advantage: Wallace Shawn as a neurotic, R. Lee Ermey as a drill sergeant, Jim Varney as a well-meaning redneck, John Ratzenberger as a vaguely-Bostonian know it all, Don Rickles as…Don Rickles (I barely get the hockey puck reference).
- It’s funny how many little references in this movie that were put in for world building now read as foreshadowing to the sequels: Mrs. Potato Head, Al’s Toy Barn, and Combat Carl come to mind.
- “Toy Story” also succeeds in its presentation of scope. There’s plenty of POV shots and wide angles to suggest that the toys’ world is far larger than just a kid’s bedroom.
- Wow, Woody really is a jerk in this movie. You’re lucky Tom Hanks is so charming, smoothing out the character’s envy to make him more the Salieri to Buzz’s Mozart.
- We have a Wilhelm! “Toy Story” is one of at least eight films on the NFR to feature the famous Wilhelm Scream.
- It’s so odd trying to watch this movie as its own entity, and not part of a larger franchise. Even the aliens in the claw machine are iconic!
- I’ve known my share of kids who were similar to Sid, and while they’re not as goody-two shoes as Andy, they’re more fun to hang out with.
- Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyer drunk on Darjeeling is possibly my favorite moment in the movie: “You see the hat? I am Mrs….Nesbitt!”
- It’s so interesting to watch a Pixar movie that hasn’t quite fallen into the tropes. There’s no big ugly cry moment, though Woody’s impassioned “You are his toy” monologue comes close, as does the cathartic climax of our two leads flying.
- Honestly, I didn’t take a lot of notes towards the end, mainly because I was just enjoying the movie. The screenplay is so well constructed. The stakes are always clearly conveyed (typically through inventive visuals), and once we hit the third act it starts rainin’ payoffs!
- Thanks to his duet with Randy Newman in the closing credits, this counts as an NFR appearance for Lyle Lovett. Also noteworthy in the credits: Pixar’s tradition of listing “Production Babies”, who are now all Gen Z-ers in their mid-20s.
- “Toy Story” exceeded all expectations, becoming a runaway hit with audiences and critics, and plans for a sequel began immediately. Like many Disney sequels at the time, “Toy Story 2” was going to be released direct-to-video, but early story reels (as well as the return of the original cast) indicated that this should be a theatrical release. The result is one of the rare sequels arguably better than the original.
- Like every Disney product (then and now), “Toy Story” was placed in the Mouse House’s perpetual synergy machine, with tons of merchandise and promotional tie-ins upon its release. In the ensuing quarter century, the “Toy Story” characters have continued to appear in a countless array of theatrical shorts, TV specials, theme park attractions, video games, and other media. The phrase “To infinity and beyond!” has also endured as a catchphrase and popular movie quote.
- The contentious relationship between Pixar and Disney (specifically Steve Jobs and Disney CEO Michael Eisner) continued until the mid-2000s, when Pixar announced that it would no longer distribute its films through Disney. When Eisner stepped down and Bob Iger became Disney’s President and CEO, one of Iger’s first tasks was to patch things up with Jobs, culminating in Disney’s purchase of Pixar in 2006. These business deals delayed “Toy Story 3” for several years, with Disney’s original version being scrapped entirely.
- 2010’s “Toy Story 3” and 2019’s “Toy Story 4” both did the impossible and were sequels worthy of their successors. And I’m willing to admit that both of them made me ugly cry upon my first viewing.
- Pixar is still thriving today (albeit without John Lasseter after some sexual misconduct allegations in 2017), cranking out plenty of high-quality animated movies that continue in the “Toy Story” vein of good characters, strong writing, and making you feel all the feels.
- No need for a remake, because in 2012, Jonason Pauley and Jesse Perrotta made a shot-for-shot fan recreation of “Toy Story” using real toys. An impressive feat two years in the making!
- And thank god, in 2022 we will receive a Buzz Lightyear movie, specifically the Buzz Lightyear movie in the “Toy Story” universe that the action figure was created for. Hollywood has officially run out of ideas.