06 October 2009


Writing about the Toy Story movies on the occasion of their re-release in spiffy 3-D editions makes about as much sense as trying to review the Beatles and their re-release last month; if you would be even slightly interested in the product, it's a dead certainty that not only are you already familiar with the material, you already love it and you know why you love it, for of course to be familiar with Toy Story is to adore it, unless you are some kind of soulless monster who deserves neither respect nor consideration as a human being.

On the other hand, I am never going to have a better excuse than this to write about two of my favorite animated movies of all time (which is another way of saying: two Pixar movies), so what the hell - there's always the chance that somebody will stumble across this and need the convincing that yes, these movies really are as good as all that. No, it's not likely. But it's possible.

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It's almost hard to remember, but in 1995, Disney Animation Studios was still a pretty well-regarded brand name. They were fresh off the run of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King that had resulted in some of the biggest box office receipts and most glowing critical acclaim of the company's nearly 70-year history, and while the summer of '95 did bear witness to Pocahontas - in hindsight, arguably the first step on the path towards the studio's ultimate flaring out (Me, I'm no fan of The Lion King, while I harbor a perfectly indefensible affection for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But I am speaking in larger terms than one man's opinions) - there was no real reason at this point to assume that Walt Disney Pictures would ever again fall into the fallow period that its namesake's death had triggered.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that the advertising campaign for Toy Story, due in Thanksgiving, absolutely did not make reference to the actual animation studio that had spent some four years developing that feature out of Steve Jobs's garage, or wherever it was that Pixar was based in those days. The big deal at the time was that the tradition of excellence begun as far back as "Steamboat Willie" had hit another home run: Disney was giving the world the first fully-rendered computer-animated feature film, and it was a huge goddamn deal.

Nowadays, of course, Pixar has become the value-laden brand name that Disney uses to prop up their modestly-performing mediocrities, and half of the kids' shows on TV are fully rendered using technology that would have made the Pixar wizards blind with jealousy back in the mid-'90s, making it easy to lose sight of just how incredible and revolutionary Toy Story really was. "Like nothing you've ever seen" is an easy cliché, but in 1995, there was no better way to describe this film. It was at once a cinematic masterpiece, a giant step forward for computer technology, and above all (though least apparently, at the time) a manifesto: this is what Pixar is going to be about, constantly. We are going to make the movies that we would love to see, and in so doing make movies that everybody else will also love, because we will not allow trends or focus groups to make our storytelling decisions. We are first and foremost in the business of dazzling you with our imaginations. In this respect more than any other, John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter and all the rest instantly marked themselves as the true modern heirs to Walt Disney, the man responsible for the 20th Century's finest children's entertainment, largely because he remembered what he would have loved as a child, and hey! it just so happened to be what he loved as a grown-up, too.

Of the ten features and 17 shorts made by the Pixar animators, Toy Story has perhaps the most endearing hook, the one taken from childhood with the least adult mediation: what if toys were alive? And what if old toys were jealous of new toys? They'd done something similar in "Tin Toy" (the feature was, in its earliest incarnation, meant to be a sequel to that short), but even that film has the slightest of dark edges: it presents a toy absolutely petrified of its infant owner (and for good reason, the state of the art in 1988 made that baby look like a hell-spawned demon), while the toys of Toy Story are absolutely devoted to the happiness of their owner, Andy. Even when the film heads into the distinctly frightening places it reaches when the plot takes the heroes over to the horrible neighbor boy and his bedroom full of obscenities, the nightmare imagery is the kind that comes from childhood (besides, all of those hideous mutant toys end up being just as loving and noble as their undamaged counterparts).

The scope of Toy Story is resolutely domestic and intimate, even though the toy-level view gives something as small as suburban foyer the epic vastness of any adventure film you might name. The remarkably limited number of locations (of the studio's later work, only Ratatouille explores a similarly tiny universe) leaves Toy Story manageable in a way that few fantasies are: it does not expand beyond experiences that virtually every person who was young in a single-family home has known first-hand. For this reason as much as any other, I was long-inclined to regard Toy Story as Pixar's masterpiece; it is perhaps their most universal film.

Among the many things the film does spectacularly well, we could do worse than look at the stellar voice cast; in the wobbly transition period between animated films voiced mostly by dedicated voice actors, and the later DreamWorks-driven tendency for casts tricked out with movie stars who aren't always terribly well-suited to their characters Toy Story established one of the most under-appreciated of all Pixar's consistently excellent traits: their films are peopled by actors who are sometimes household names, sometimes not, but always perfectly chosen. In this case, we have Tom Hanks giving one of his finest performances as the reigning Favorite Toy, a cowboy doll named Woody; he is vulnerable when needed, authoritative when he can be, and his frequent dashes into exasperation are beautifully expressed. Tim Allen, meanwhile, may have had a leg up as the star of the Disney-produced hit sitcom Home Improvement, yet he never did anything as interesting there (or elsewhere) as his work as Buzz Lightyear, the delusional high-tech spaceman toy; and could there have been, in 1995, a more inspired choice to voice a character who was all masculine bravado yoked to a potentially lethal misunderstanding of how life actually works? And of course, the remainder of the cast is impeccably chosen, from Wallace Shawn's neurotic dinosaur to Don Rickles's scabrous Mr. Potato Head.

Nor did the filmmaker's inspired choice of collaborators end at the actors: in the first of his many films with the studio, Randy Newman turned in a beautiful score, simple but playful, and anchored by the delightful "You've Got a Friend in Me", hardly a typical song for the composer, but a charming encapsulation of the film's fable-like theme: no matter what, someone's got your back, even if you were having a fight over who was Andy's favorite.

As exquisite as I find the movie, I cannot deny that technology caught up with it - the human characters are sometimes quite unappealing, particularly Andy himself, who is much more disturbing on the big screen than on DVD. The new reissue manages to fix things a little bit, actually: Toy Story is the only Pixar film without a particularly sophisticated use of focus, and the re-rendering of the images into 3-D gives the images and the world a certain depth that it has previously lacked; the film is not as flat in certain places as it once was, though it is still plainly a movie that was animated in 1995.

Big deal, that; what was a magical thing when I first saw it half a lifetime ago (more, in fact; I was still 13 when it was new. Lord, that makes me feel suddenly old) is no less magical. Toy Story is unabashedly innocent in way that few children's movies even try to be, now or then or ever, the kind of movie that is good for young viewers and their parents not because there's a separate level of innuendo for the adults, but because it aims directly for the part of the adult viewer that is still six years old. Time has been kind to it, and future years I imagine will still be kind; a classic is forever, and Toy Story is a great modern animated classic, or I don't know a single thing about movies.


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The story goes that the Disney execs, flush with the excitement of direct-to-video sequels (a hellish new revenue stream they first discovered with 1994's bland but inoffensive The Return of Jafar, though the Pandora's box of inanity was really opened with 1997's Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas), commanded John Lasseter and his Pixar minions to produce a DTV continuation of Toy Story, and Lasseter was unable to disagree. At this time, Pixar was not yet one of the greatest stars in the Disney galaxy; Toy Story had been a hit and no doubt (the highest-grossing film of 1995, not quite breaking $200 million - simpler days!), but they hadn't even completed their second feature, A Bug's Life, yet, and their was no guarantee that lightning would strike again.

The story continues that when the Pixar team had completed some initial work and saw what they had done, they (and their Disney overlords) realised that it was too damn good to go straight to VHS. No, the right thing to do was expand Toy Story 2 into a full-length feature and give it a proper theatrical release. It paid off by by coming in as the third-biggest film of a high-grossing year, nearly clearing the $250 million mark. In a rare (but for the studio, soon to be characteristic) example of box office accruing to a movie that deserves it, this bundle of cash came about for the elegant reason that Toy Story 2 is absolutely great.

Not, like most sequels, content to simply re-create the success of its predecessor, the new film built off of the framework provided by the first Toy Story, revealing itself to be a surprisingly philosophical work about the moral crises that might be suffered by toys, if only toys were living things. Both Woody and Buzz undergo events that expand upon their experiences from before: in the first film Woody was forced to confront the fact that he was a thing of the past, destined to be passed by, and in the second he is given the opportunity to live immaculately, forever - but at the cost of his toyhood, the quality he holds dear above all else. Buzz, having dealt in the first film with the terrible knowledge of who he is - a toy, not a space ranger - is confronted in the second film with how to apply that knowledge, particularly since it means that he is not unique (the Buzz Lightyear aisle at the toy store is one of the great images in this film). The issues of mortality and identity that drifted as subtext in Toy Story are thus brought, cleanly and forcefully, to the front of Toy Story 2.

By this point the Pixar animators had gained enough experience that they were able to start doing some very exciting things with their artform: the unfathomable baggage sorting system near the end is easily the most ambitious set in the first three Pixar features, even though it feels now like a dry run for the endless room of doors in Monsters, Inc. And Toy Story 2 is certainly a more beautiful film than its predecessor, even if it lacks the freshness of the new. It is with this film that Pixar took the first steps that ultimately led to the likes of WALL·E: movies so visually detailed, and created with such care, that they cease to feel like animation at all, and take on the aspect of real life. Of course, Pixar has always cheated a bit: their stories and characters are so rich that it's highly unlikely that anyone is still thinking of the films as "cartoons" by the end of the first reel.

I have sometimes encountered the notion that Toy Story 2 is the best Pixar film, or at the very least, better than Toy Story, due to its screenplay; it is easily the funniest and maybe the smartest of their movies (although that argument took a hit when Up came out and was freaking hilarious, when it wasn't bittersweet). If I may confess something shameful, it's actually for that very reason that I've always personally ranked Toy Story 2 fairly low in Pixar's canon - though all ten of their features are so near to perfect that "fairly low" is still pretty high. It's their only film in which I can detect a bit of the disease that has been so wicked in the DreamWorks animated films that somehow keep out-grossing Pixar's films, year after year: self-aware comedy driven by pop culture and a desire to entertain the adults on their own level, independent of the kids. Star Wars gags are fine in moderation, but Toy Story 2 has more than its share; and the Jurassic Park reference is unquestionably beneath the talents of the writers responsible for the other 99.9% of the same screenplay.

On the other hand, Toy Story 2 arguably boasts an even richer emotional scope than Toy Story; the addition of a genuine abandoned toy in Jessie the cowgirl (Joan Cusack) makes this the first Pixar movie that is actually, honest-to-God sad at points (that Randy Newman gives her flashback one of the most dour songs he ever wrote helps quite a bit). Beneath the comedy and the adventure, there are real stakes to this story, not simply of survival, as in Toy Story and A Bug's Life, but more existential and unanswerable: it is a film that raises questions of how one is to live, when one's purpose is taken away (as for Jessie) or in serious question (as for Woody). Weighty issues for a cartoon, but that's another part of the genius of Pixar; just because something is targeted for kids doesn't mean you have to dumb it down, because kids are actually pretty perceptive little people.

The 3-D reissue of Toy Story 2 is nothing short of a revelation, and this from someone who hates 3-D: impossibly, the film uses that extra dimensionality in a far more compelling and narratively useful way that most of the recent films that were built for 3-D from the ground up. The backgrounds, already so detailed and lovely, are given an extra burst of living-breathing vitality in 3-D; the world is that much richer and evocative. The refrain that we always hear from the 3-D evangelists, that the technology allows us to enter the movie more than before, has never really felt true to me - but it does now. Toy Story 2 was expansive before, and now it seems to go on for miles and miles, a whole world waiting at the edge of the frame and over the horizon. And that reflects back onto the plot; the disorientation that the toys who head out to rescue Woody feel in this great big world is that much stronger, but the sacrifice that they make by returning to the relatively closed-in world of Andy's room is that much more palpable as well, and this makes those final moments all the more poignant. To give up endless vistas for a single bedroom; that is love.

Which is the final word I have to say on the two films; they are both paeans to love and friendship, to being part of a family, to community. The one truth that connects every Pixar film is that it is better not to be alone; it is better to love than to isolate yourself. The final moments of Toy Story 2 embody that trusim with every frame: everybody's there, and they've brought in new family who need love and connection, and no matter what happens, you've got a friend in me.



Pat (King!) said...

Beautifully said, my friend. I have got to find a way to see these reissues before they vanish again.

One SMALL quibble: "When She Loved Me" is indeed a dour song. But putting it among Randy Newman's "most dour" songs is... quite a statement, depending on your sample size. Probably says something about the dude's outlook/body of work that a song as heartbreaking as this might not crack the "five most depressing" list...

Stephen said...

I really shouldn't have read this, because the awful, terrible theatre in my town, that I now hate more than anything else in the whole world (they are not playing 9 or The Informant! and are instead showing Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Tyler Perry's movie and Surrogates and Fame) does not, as of right now, have these. Which means they won't have these. Which means I can't see them.

Tim said...

Pat: "Dour" was an ill-chosen word. I do think, though, that there are very, very few Randy Newman songs that are that sad AND that sincere. Sure, something like "He Gives Us All His Love" is absolutely depressing, but it's also a snarky joke.

Stephen: My profoundest condolences.

S. M. Rana said...

Toy Stories were a great family favourite and stir nothing but sweet memories of family togetherness.

The Goddamn Burn/Reading said...

I realized that my budget allowed me to either see these two films or travel 60 miles to see A Serious Man next weekend. I immediately turned in about a hundred job applications.

Colin said...

No one should ever need an excuse to write about the movies they love! I appreciate your enthusiasm and I believe movies always need their champions, well-known or not.

Are you aware of Pixar Week, ongoing at The House Next Door blog and curated by our gracious host Todd VanDerWerff? Meant also to coincide with the re-release of the Toy Story movies, it was conceived to encourage more critical analysis of Pixar's movies than most reviewers have thus far accorded the studio, and I think your reviews here do proudly work towards that aim. In my own contribution (reposted here at my blog), though, I did mention preferring Toy Story 2 to its predecessor because I felt that it raises the stakes of the earlier film, and saddles the characters (esp Woody) with more responsibility than the first did. I also enjoyed the postmodern winks in the movie more than you did, although I don't deny that the first Toy Story remains a wonderful piece of work, and I loved how you contextualised it in its status as a groundbreaking movie. I was six when it first debuted, so I never caught onto this atmosphere that you must have experienced it in, though I know how exciting it is when movies also double as major events to be shared and enjoyed with everyone else. Cheers!

javi75 said...

"It's almost hard to remember, but in 1995, Disney Animation Studios was still a pretty well-regarded brand name. They were fresh off the run of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King that had resulted in some of the biggest box office receipts and most glowing critical acclaim of the company's nearly 70-year history, and while the summer of '95 did bear witness to Pocahontas - in hindsight, arguably the first step on the path towards the studio's ultimate flaring out (Me, I'm no fan of The Lion King, while I harbor a perfectly indefensible affection for The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

You should do a "Disney animated features" retrospective some day. Just reading that part wetted my appetite.

MrRoivas said...

A bit off topic, but I am always amazed at how people see The Incredibles as endorsing Randian ideals. I am left concluding that those people have never actually read any Rand.

Brigdh said...

I want to second the request for a "Disney animated features" retrospective. You may be the only other person I've ever heard of who also liked 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'.