Sunday, April 18, 2010

Toy Story

Year: 1995
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 99
Writer: Joss Whedon, Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow, Andrew Stanton
Director: John Lasseter
Star: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles

In 1995, I was ten years old and my favorite toys were a ragtag bunch of action-figure dinosaurs. I put ketchup in the carnivores’ mouths and sent them to into epic battle against the peace-loving herbivores. By the end of the day no one was spared, including my mother’s carpet, which was often stained by my liberal use of condiments during the battles. I felt a twinge of guilt while revisiting “Toy Story” because, for the life of me, I cannot remember what happened to those dinosaurs. I can hope that they were donated to Goodwill and are currently sitting proudly on some other ten-year-old’s shelf in Northeast Ohio, but I have a feeling that they are lost somewhere in my basement, trapped in a large mislabeled Rubbermaid container.

“Toy Story” was, of course, the first fully computer-animated feature film and it’s interesting to look back on it today and realizing that, despite the newer breakthroughs in technology, the movie hasn’t aged. Sure, newer Pixar movies like “Wall-E” create entirely new universes while “Toy Story” took place mostly in a bedroom with a few detours to a gas station, pizza joint and neighbor’s home, but Pixar’s animated features have always been about the characters first and the showy visuals second.

The story, in case it has drifted from your memory thanks to the years of drug use, involves a competition between two toys for a young boy’s affections: Aw-shucks nice cowboy sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) and gleaming, technology-heavy spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Buzz believes he is a real spaceman and immediately garners the adoration of the rest of the boy’s toys, which include a slinky dog, Mr. Potato Head, Bo Peep and an etch-a-sketch. The villain is a burgeoning psychotic boy who lives next door and conducts horrifying experiments on his toys.

In other words, it’s a classic buddy-comedy formula. What I found fascinating in the choice of main characters is that it really is a none-too-subtle metaphor for old-fashioned traditional animation (Woody) verses new-fangled computer-generated animated (Buzz). Disney was in the midst of its renaissance of traditional animation at the time (“The Lion King” was released the year before) and would still be going strong for years, but most eyes in the industry were on the new, shiny object known as Pixar right then. It is interesting to see that the movie presents Woody as the obvious hero while Buzz is, for the first two acts of the film anyway, seen as a wrongheaded dumbass.

Though probably the least of any Pixar script save perhaps “Cars,” “Toy Story” still manages to have a witty script with plenty of invention that works just as well for adults as it does for children. It was co-written by one of my favorite writers, Joss Whedon, and you can feel the quick wit in several lines that would later become his hallmark (“I found my moving buddy,” is Bo Peep’s first reaction to seeing Buzz). Though the subplot of having Buzz believe he is a real spaceman for most of the film is tiring at times, the emotional wallop of having him fall and break his arm when he tries to fly out the window at the end of the second act is very powerful.

There are some troubling aspects to the plot. When Woody and Buzz get lost at a gas station Woody is more than willing to leave Buzz to die and save himself. Later, when Woody is trapped at the neighbor’s house of horrors he manages to throw a rope of Christmas lights to his home, but his “friends” decide to drop the rope and leave Woody to die. This makes the ending, where they reunite and are all huggy and lovey-dovey a bit unbelievable; I’d rip their motherfucking stuffing out and feed it to them if they left me with a serial-killer-in-training to die.

There are several plot inconsistencies and holes that are never addressed. The toys are, in general, a loud and rowdy bunch, so for the first half of the film we are led to believe that humans cannot actually hear them speak. But then Woody says something that is heard by a little girl, and later confronts the villain by speaking without moving his mouth. The rules seem to change for the needs of the story. In addition, if Buzz believes himself to be a spaceman, then I can’t fathom why he would pretend to be a toy whenever his owner walked into the room instead of confronting the boy. They didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the movie, but annoyed me long after the credits finished.

The movie is short…80 or so minutes by my clock. It feels just about right, though I would have liked to know more about the fates of the mutilated toys next door. In fact, I’m rather surprised it got so much into those 80 minutes without making the story feel rushed. After all, if you include the supporting cast there are about 20 major and minor characters inhabiting the movie, so the fact that the film is able to juggle them so ably is great.

One thing that I adore about the movie is the ease with which we are introduced to the toy characters. The scene is essentially a series of gags, with Woody wandering through the boy’s bedroom and reacting to each of the supporting characters, but the sequence is so brilliant at taking our knowledge of the toys we grew up with and spinning them into living, breathing characters that the sequence transcends any annoying clich├ęs.

Visually, the film is beautiful without being overly indulgent. They are never showy just to be showy. There is certainly a sense of discovery in almost every frame of the film and you can tell the Pixar creative team adored the fact that they were creating this new world and new characters, but it never gets to be too much.

Looking back, I do find myself loving “Toy Story” quite a bit, but it does not transcend its genre. Despite being children’s animated features, I would never call movies like “Up,” “Wall-E” or “Beauty and the Beast” children’s films or animated films. I would just call them masterpieces. In “Toy Story’s” case, I would call it an animated classic, but it does not come close to ranking with those others.

My Score: **** (out of 5)


Marisia said...

Sooo... None of my comments are amazing but I do love this movie and wonder if more than one is necessary?

-Robert Taylor said...

Did you not enjoy the other two?