January 5, 2010

#99: Toy Story

And now for something ... completely different.

Next up on the list is a movie which acts as something of a palate cleanser for the epic chariot race / Christ story of Ben-Hur, and the first movie on the list I've seen before. Toy Story holds the distinction of being the first full-length feature film to use only computer-generated imagery. Today this technology is as much a part of Hollywood as romantic comedies starring the latest sitcom hottie or year-end Oscar-hungry dramas -- in 2009 alone there were more than ten fully CGI animated features -- but in 1995, this was a very new technology. Thank God it was introduced in the hands of masters.

Company: Kecia, vivacious redhead roommate; David, culture vulture and insightful conversationalist; Sheena, sardonic Korean songstress; Anna and Ryan, sister and brother-in-law, both avid doers and do-gooders

Cuisine: three-buck Chuck, lemon drops (combined with Cabernet = not bad), and two trays of leftover Christmas cookies (two!), both of which were thrown out at the end of the night. All things must end.

This story of toys that come to life is familiar to most of us Gen-Y-ers, but I hadn't really seen it since childhood when it was aimed at me. Now, looking back, as with most animated movies, adulthood has only increased my appreciation for the wit and charm of this first of Pixar's efforts.

And as with most of Pixar's film (... okay, all of them), there's more than meets the eye. What reads to kids as a story about friendship and accepting who you are also computes for adults as a tale of rejection and obsolescence. Woody, Andy's favorite toy, is terrified (like all toys are) of being replaced, forgotten, and we are introduced to him and all the other charming characters in the bedroom on the very day that a new toy comes to town. Buzz Lightyear has lasers, a voicebox and "a very impressive wing span."

"It makes me feel really bad for ever throwing away any of my toys. I kept one of my stuffed animals because of this movie." -- Kecia

The first treatment of this script was meant to read as a metaphor for new Hollywood taking over old Hollywood (the first choices for Woody and Buzz: Paul Newman and Jim Carrey! Both were too expensive, however, and were replaced by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen) and a part of that flavor still remains. The script is funnier than I remembered (the best line is Rex, after he realizes they've been wrong about Woody the whole time: "Great! Now I have guilt!") and just as charming (the opening montage introductions, the toys that defy archetypes, Randy Newman's score, the hilarious sound design as Buzz and Woody hide in fast food containers to sneak into Pizza Planet, the wide-eyed reverence for Woody and Buzz by the aliens).

Another thing that strikes me about the movie is the code of honor by which these toys live. I'm told by Muppet fans that the story here greatly resembles The Christmas Toy, in which toys come to life when no one's looking and the punishment for being discovered moving by humans is to be frozen forever. The consequences are not so dire here (thank God Woody "breaks the rules" a little bit to "help everybody," or we might not have escaped the backyard hell of Sid Phillips, one of Pixar's great villains), but the code still exists. Some toys know to follow it, and some (ahem) don't.

After almost being completely saved, Woody and Buzz's fight erupts out of the safe haven of the minivan into the gas station parking lot, and at the sight of an oncoming semi (which I'd wager neither toy had ever seen), Buzz's survival instinct kicks in as he leaps out of the frame but Woody is so stringent about his code of toy honor that he drops dead. Luckily for him (and us) he's not crushed by the wheel, but this moment struck me as a core difference between the characters: Woody has abided by the rules all his toy-life, and it isn't his fault that he's Andy's favorite. That's just the way it is. So all of a sudden this fancy-pants "Buzz Light-Beer" (yes, it's said in this kids movie) shows up and takes over? I'd be pissed and confused, too! It's like the kid on the playground who plays by the rules, but doesn't end up having as much fun as the kid who climbed the fence or did back flips off the jungle gym. He's jealous, and a little envious, even though he'd never admit that he's just a goody two-shoes. But then of course, Buzz thinks to buckle up in front in the delivery truck, as Woody scoffs from the back and then gets wrecked. Safety first, kids: buckle up!

There's so much to love about the movie, it's hard to speak against it. But let's talk about the animation. Obviously it was groundbreaking at the time but how does it stack up given Pixar's subsequent efforts, and our collective standards for animation and 3D in 2010? Well, it's solid, but everything looks a little flatter here. Consider this chair in the opening credits:

Or the minivan in the scene at the gas station (baby in the front seat?? C'mon, Laurie Metcalf!):

I remember seeing Monster's, Inc. and reading about its steps forward: Sully's hair was so real it was hard to believe it was animated. But that was six years later. Here, textures are usually treated a little more simply, and the design for humans is a little primitive (one of the only complaints from critics at the time). With such a great movie, you need to find things to nitpick, and here they're tiny.

It's interesting to note that after Toy Story there's only three more recently-released movies that made the AFI's list in 2007: Titanic (1997), The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). Now maybe it's just because this is the time period I grew up loving movies in, but this seems intensely stingy. You can bet at the end of this year and this blog project, I will be making revisions to the list and adding a couple movies from this era. But it begs the question: how long does it take for a film to achieve historical relevance? Can't we say that Up in the Air, a film that's only been showing for a couple of weeks, is historically relevant, and worthy of historian's commendation? And moreover, weren't there other, better movies made during this time period? Where is their representation on this list?

In the end, the good toys win, Andy's so excited to inexplicably have them back he doesn't even realize they dropped from the sky, Mom assumes they were there the whole time ... and no human is the wiser. Except Sid. And he deserved it. I like imagining him after the movie's done, being unwittingly tortured by his little sister Hannah. Maybe we'll meet grown up Sid in the threequel?

How about you, readers? When was the last time you saw this gem? If you rewatch it, what's different now fifteen years later? How well has the animation aged for you as a viewer? How has your perception of its thematic content and relevance changed?

Up next: the oldest movie yet, James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Til then, friends!


  1. Well, I have to say this is response to your inquiries on the historical aspect. I'm taking a line from The History Boys here: "Immediately in front of us is dead ground, we don't see it." How can we judge if something new is going to stand the test of time? And that is what the list is about. Movies from the past 100 years that have made an impact. A lot of the movies on the list were only mediocre in their day. Take It's a Wonderful Life. When it opened, it was not a success. It was okay, but it took time before people could see it's importance. It is the same with many of the newer movies that are not on the list. Sure, they are good, but how can we judge them? Toy Story has an edge, because it was a first of something, and that is always remembered historically. In the next couple of years what will we think of the movies we make today will drastically change. We need distance to judge.
    As to the other things: re-watching this movie is a joy. As you said, watching it as an adult, you get to watch it a whole different way. You catch more of the jokes, you get the inside puns more, and that is the best thing about more recent kid movies - they are also adult friendly. Yes, the animation is crude compared to the standards of today, but I'm old-fashioned and I wish they would just go back to the good-old hand drawn days.
    Can't wait to see what you think of Yankee Doodle Dandy - it's one of my favorites!

  2. These are great to read, Max. I've seen this too, so I thought of a comment!

    I recognize the criticism that the humans in the movie are "primitively designed" as you say -- but maybe that was on purpose (conveniently). The movie is a TOY story, so the humans are playing second fiddle. You played Charlie Brown before -- adults don't even say real words in the animated shows created out of Schultz's characters. They don't even appear! Mom barely appears here either, and that's the point. It's about the toys!

    If Mom and the trappings of her world (like her minivan, etc) aren't as well designed, I'll take my cue from the designers and focus on Buzz and Woody!