AFInity: Toy Story
By Kim Hollis
July 3, 2009

No, I will not let you borrow my cow print vest.

We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#99: Toy Story

Recently, during the days surrounding the opening of Up, we received some feedback from an outraged reader who accused us of being in the tank for Pixar (though he didn't put it quite as nicely). He said that rather than to bother to write a review for their films, we should instead say simply:

"We here at Box Office Prophets have blind adoration for any- and everything Pixar does. Therefore, we can not be trusted to give an honest or thoughtful review of its works. If you must know, we loved it - we loved it even before we saw it."

So Mark, this one's for you. I'm going back in time to look at Toy Story, the grand-pappy of all CGI animated films and the movie that set Pixar on its path to being a juggernaut both creatively and financially. Is it justified in having a spot on the AFI list, or does our angry young friend have a point?

Truth be told, in advance of its 1995 release, I was not at all enthusiastic about the possibilities offered by Toy Story. I had some big love for classic, traditional animation and was particularly enamored of older Disney releases like Bambi, Pinocchio, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Additionally, it had only been a year since I was completely blown away by The Lion King, a movie that still stands as one of my favorite animated flicks ever. My heart belonged to traditional animation even if I wasn't fully realizing at the time that CGI had a significant part in both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.

Nevertheless, when I originally saw the trailers and previews for Toy Story, I was turned off. Not only did I think it looked juvenile, but I found the toys to be creepy and weird looking. If CGI animation was supposed to render things more realistic, I wasn't buying it. Everything was too shiny-looking, too candy-colored, and my heart told me that such stuff could only appeal to hyperactive types lacking in attention span.

And so it was that Toy Story was released into movie theaters on November 22, 2005, but I had absolutely no interest in going. I never saw the movie in theaters at all, in fact. Eventually, I watched the movie on video while I was visiting my parents, who had purchased the movie for my youngest sister (who despite being 15, had not decided she was too cool for 'toons). I realized that my earlier prejudices against the emerging new medium were unjustified. Not only did Toy Story look great, but it was funny, sweet, and had a wonderful storyline that reminded me of The Velveteen Rabbit, a favorite childhood tale. It was here that the seeds of a deep and long-standing love affair with Pixar were planted, though it wasn't until I saw Toy Story 2 on opening night that they blossomed and flourished.

Still, with all the advancements we've seen over the years in CGI animation, one certainly might wonder whether Toy Story stands the test of time strongly enough to be included on the AFI 100 Years... 100 Movies list. After all, since then we've seen monsters with fur that blows in the wind, fish in an environment that seems almost photorealistic, robots who frolic in the starry sky and an old man who flies to Brazil in a house supported by thousands of balloons. Would Toy Story look a little primitive and feel less special by comparison?

To my mind, Toy Story legitimately stands up with the best of the best in Pixar's catalog, and you can make an argument that it's among the finest animated films in history. Watching the movie again after having not seen it for a few years, I was unprepared for how fantastic it would still look, and how much loving care was put into its production. I was immediately struck by all the specific, careful detail that went into the various scenes. Depending upon the time of day during the story, different shading and coloring are used. As an example, when Woody and Buzz are stuck in "villain" Sid's room, it is appropriately dark and scary, but it also appears to be twilight outdoors, and shadows and colors on the walls make this fact perfectly clear. Additionally, as Woody and Buzz make their way through their excellent adventure, you can see small signs of wear and tear on the two toys - grubby dirt on their faces, a pinpoint sized burn mark on Woody's forehead that isn't forgotten in subsequent scenes. In the movie's climactic car chase, Woody gets a bug stuck to his helmet - completely believable and not just tossed in there for the gross humor or silliness of it.

Pixar also adds in some touches that have become more special as time has passed and we've become more familiar with their oeuvre. In the opening scenes of the movie, you can see books on a shelf as Woody delivers a speech to his fellow toys. Some of the titles include Tin Toy (by Lasseter), Red's Dream and Knick Knack. People who have followed Pixar over the years will realize that all three of these are short films created by the studio. Other little Easter eggs include a "Binford Tools" tool box in Sid's room (Binford Tools was the fictional company behind Tool Time, the show on Toy Story star Tim Allen's TV series Home Improvement) and a brief moment where we hear The Lion King tune "Hakuna Matata" playing on a car radio.

Of course, all of these treats would be for nothing if we didn't care about the characters or enjoy the story. Fortunately, we grow to adore Woody and Buzz more than we do most human characters in movies. In the case of Woody, we have a beloved toy who has been #1 in his human's heart for a long time. The movie establishes this early on as we see Andy playing with Woody in early scenes, but we also can ascertain his place in the hierarchy as we see how all the other toys look up to Woody and rely on him for sage advice. While his spiteful jealousy of Buzz Lightyear could have made Woody unlikeable, we understand that extreme circumstances have driven him to behave badly. It helps that Pixar (and specifically director John Lasseter) chose Tom Hanks to voice the role. His geniality and good humor keep the viewer remembering that Woody is one of the good guys.

As for Buzz Lightyear, Tim Allen imbues the character with an "every guy" nature. He's upbeat and steadfast, if a little naïve about the ways of the world in which the toys inhabit. I've always been a huge fan of the way he says the words "Space Ranger" and his subtlety in delivering some of the movie's funniest lines just can't be beat. It's important that we buy that Buzz would believe he's a real spaceman without us thinking he's simple, and thanks to circumstances and coincidences that occur throughout the film, this element of his character really works.

Woody and Buzz have their conflict early on, but as the film moves along, it's important to establish a villain to bring them together. This villain is manifested in the form of a little boy named Sid, next-door-neighbor and menace to society. He's the terror of Andy's room, as the toys have watched him "murder" GI Joe-type dolls and little green army men through the window as he blows them up in his back yard. With his skull T-shirt (it looks like a bit like a Punisher symbol,) and Scut Farkas laugh, Sid is indeed a horrifying figure, but he's humanized a bit as he sleeps and mumbles, "I want to ride the pony." We'd see more extreme villains in later Pixar films (Syndrome and Up's Charles Muntz come immediately to mind), but it was important to place Toy Story's bad guy in the more mundane, day-to-day world. Everyone can relate to being afraid of a bully, after all.

Without a carefully considered, well-written screenplay, none of this character development could happen. There's a reason that Toy Story was the first animated movie ever to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. According to David A. Price's book The Pixar Touch, the Pixar crew that worked on the screenplay of the film – John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft – dedicated themselves to learning more about the art of screenwriting, particularly as they were newbies to the craft. They attended a seminar given by Robert McKee, who has taught 26 Academy Award winners, where they learned principles based deeply in Aristotle's Poetics. The Pixar team came to understand that their protagonist would be most interesting as he reacts to the characters, problems and environments surrounding him. Realistic, believable characters would develop as they adhered to these principles. McKee's teachings remain the law of the land at Pixar today, and from Toy Story all the way to Up, it shows.

Even the music serves the story, though Pixar takes an entirely different approach than traditional Disney musicals had in the past. Rather than have the characters break out in song, we instead hear original music by Randy Newman. "Strange Things" is beautifully utilized to help the audience understand Woody's emotions as he watches Buzz become the toy of choice, but for my money, the movie's most poignant moment comes as "I Will Go Sailing No More" plays. Buzz Lightyear has just realized that he is a toy, not a real spaceman, and we can feel his heart breaking when Newman sings, "No it can't be true/I could fly if I wanted to/Like a bird in the sky/I believe I can fly/Why I'd fly...Clearly now, I will go sailing no more."

All of the devotion to good storytelling would have run a bit hollow, of course, had it relied on pop culture references and trendy pop music to carry it (yes, I'm looking at you, Shrek). According to The Pixar Touch, Director Lasseter was extremely conscious of the fact that the trendy toys of the day would likely date the film too quickly, and therefore made an effort to use classic toys that would be easily recognizable and well-loved by baby boomer parents. We can see games like Mouse Trap, Operation, Candyland and Twister on Andy's shelves, and the green toy soldiers who do reconnaissance early in the film are of a course a staple in any young boy's childhood. Mr. Potato Head, Slinky Dog, a basic dinosaur toy, and a piggy bank would look just as appropriate in a kid's bedroom today as they would have in 1995...or even 1985.

In the end, watching Toy Story again simply reminded me of all the things I love and appreciate about Pixar. Exquisite attention to the smallest detail leads to storytelling that is consistent and compelling, while the characters are always believably driven to react to the forces surrounding them. As Price says in The Pixar Touch, "Toy Story gave validation to the view of Lasseter and his team that an animated feature could eschew fairy-tale plots and instead focus on adultlike characters with adultlike problems, while still providing entertainment to children; it was an approach that would recur time and again in later Pixar features. Toy Story also imprinted Pixar with a model of perfectionism and creative passion."

If my appreciation for such art means I'm shamelessly in Pixar's pocket, so be it. Sorry to disappoint you (again), Disgruntled Reader Mark.

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