AFInity: Toy Story

By Kim Hollis

July 3, 2009

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

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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.

Kim's AFInity Project Big Board

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