‘Toy Story’ changed the history of feature-film animation
Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.
Released Nov. 22, 1995
Directed by John Lasseter
Computer technology. Franchise starter. Studio awareness. Corporate diversification. It’s hard to understate the impact of 1995’s “Toy Story,” the first fully-computer animated feature film from Pixar, and how it eventually helped lead to the dominance of the Disney corporation in today’s pop culture landscape.
The fact that the movie is great and became an instant classic helps quite a bit, as ultimately, all of the superior marketing and advanced technology in the world wouldn’t have made this much of an impression if the story and characters didn’t resonate with audiences of all ages.
“Toy Story” begins with a joyful sequence as Andy, a young boy, plays out an exciting story with all of his toys, including Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Slinky Dog (Jim Varney), Rex (Wallace Shawn), and Hamm (John Ratzenberger). The hero of this story is Woody (Tom Hanks), a soft cowboy doll who is Andy’s favorite toy. However, today’s the day of Andy’s birthday party, and he is gifted a Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), a towering sleek new space ranger action figure with buttons, laser lights, and other amazing features that would capture the attention of any little boy.
But when Andy’s not looking, his toys come alive. Woody’s status as Andy’s favorite toy makes him the de facto leader of the room, but the arrival of Buzz disrupts his status amongst his peers. Worse yet, while Woody and the other toys are aware of their existence as products to be played with and owned by Andy, Buzz believes he is an actual space ranger, which bothers nobody else but Woody. As the cowboy attempts to plot out a way to resume his mantel as Andy’s favorite toy, both Buzz and Woody are unintentionally exiled from the house. They must count on each other to get back to their home before Andy’s family moves away forever.
The simple premise of a buddy comedy set in the imaginative world of toys come to life is likely intriguing enough to draw the attention of large audiences, but “Toy Story” is executed to near perfection. The tight script by a team of writers (including Joss Whedon and future Pixar directors Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter) doesn’t waste a moment of the 81-minute movie as the unique personalities of a large cast of characters are established and developed with every single line of dialogue. Added to the experience is the wonderfully expressive animation of the toys, which can convey emotions and thoughts even without the benefit of dialogue.
As important as the writing and animation of these characters are, the final ingredient is the voice cast of “Toy Story.” Most of the animated movies released by Disney in the years prior featured professional voice actors generally unknown to the public. Still, more and more celebrity names crept into the credits during the Disney renaissance of the 90s. “Toy Story” is voiced by nearly all celebrity performers, or at least character actors recognizable from past iconic roles. It’s hard to imagine any of these roles could have been recast with someone else. Hanks, in particular, is a revelation, even as talented as he is already, and it’s easy to think he would have had a successful career in voice acting alone based on how well he conveys Woody’s emotional state throughout the film. With a celebrated, legendary award-winning career that includes playing fictional and non-fictional heroes like Forrest Gump and Fred Rogers, the idea that Woody might be Hanks’ most iconic character is impressive.
While “Toy Story” was a hit during its initial release and continues to be beloved by the generations who grew up watching it, there are some aspects of the film that have not aged well. As groundbreaking as those computer-animated effects were at the time, the advances that Pixar itself has made in filmmaking means the 1995 movie looks like a necessary, beginner film today. The toys are well animated, but the human and animal characters don’t meet the same standard, with blank expressions and creepy, inhuman eyes. Besides, the lighting seems off in some scenes, and the backgrounds lack the great details and textures later Pixar films would excel at. Even still, “Toy Story” was so advanced at the time that technology-wise, it’s often superior to many of the recent computer-animated shows on Netflix made on the cheap.
The other blemish on the film’s legacy is its director, John Lasseter. The vital creative force behind Pixar from the beginning, he directed the computer-animated award-winning short “Tin Toy” that would go on to inspire “Toy Story.” Lasseter would go on to direct many of Pixar’s early films, including “A Bug’s Life,” “Toy Story 2,” and the first two Cars movies, as well as serve as executive producer on several other Pixar and later Walt Disney projects. His influence on modern animation is significant. However, several people decried Lasseter’s behavior behind the scenes at Pixar, as he was accused of sexual harassment and inappropriate workplace behavior that he acknowledged was accurate and left Disney in 2017. His reputation cannot be excused, regardless of talent and ability.
At a surface level, the legacy of “Toy Story” would go on to produce a film series that has maintained the high quality of the first film, making it one of the few franchises that is both enormously popular and acclaimed. Its impact was felt across the film industry as well, as more studios transformed their projects from hand-drawn to computer-animated films. There have been seemingly at least a half-dozen computer-animated family films with celebrity voices that have been released every year this century, but few as acclaimed as “Toy Story.”
As for Pixar, the company was initially founded as an independent company whose films, beginning with “Toy Story,” were distributed by Disney. Disney purchased Pixar entirely in 2006, the first of several companies and brands acquired by the House of the Mouse, followed by Marvel, Star Wars, and now 20th Century Fox. Pixar is a well-established brand for Disney, and “Toy Story” and the other division films have a prominent place in Disney’s new streaming service.
It’s quite a powerful legacy for “Toy Story,” one that I don’t think is necessarily all great for the health of independent, quality cinema. But the remarkable thing about “Toy Story” is that for all of our adult concerns, so many of them fall away as we all revert back to our imaginative years as children when those first few notes of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” kick in at the beginning of the film.
The real magic of “Toy Story” is its immersive experience in a fantastic world, one in which a few hours with Woody and Buzz quickly turns us all into Andy.
The Weekend: Because of the range of dates Week 47 falls in, there are some years when the Friday falls before Thanksgiving, and others on the holiday weekend itself, so it’s usually an opportunity for a major film to make a killing at the box office as families take a break from shopping.
“Back to the Future Part II,” the much-anticipated sequel to the 1985 blockbuster, was released at this time in 1989. The movie featured Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) traveling 30 years into their future, which was (… checks notes) 2015. We’re still waiting on our hoverboards, flying cars, and “Jaws 19.”
Director Barry Sonnenfeld scored a major hit of his own by bringing the macabre cartoon and television crew to the big screen in 1991’s “The Addams Family.” The live-action droll comedy was a hit with both audiences and critics, and produced a follow-up a few years later with “Addams Family Values.”
Meanwhile, Spike Lee had been building his career with acclaimed pictures, Nike commercial appearances, and vocal opinions. He used his clout to write, direct, and appear in his most ambitious film to date, “Malcolm X,” released this weekend in 1992. Denzel Washington earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of the controversial civil rights leader.
Finally, critics (both professional and amateur) were merciless toward “Twilight,” the young adult vampire romance adaptation starring Kristen Stewart and Robert Patterson that debuted in multiplexes in 2008. And yet, passionate fans flocked to the theater both in the United States and around the world, grossing nearly $400 million during its initial run worldwide. The heart wants what the heart wants.
Next Week: “Creed”
Originally published at http://www.markciemcioch.com on November 22, 2019.