Pixar Retrospective Review - TOY STORY (1995)

Twenty years on, who could imagine that the godfather of modern animated film, John Lasseter, was fired by Disney for having the gall to pitch to them the idea of a fully computer-animated feature film? Today, with his company Pixar having amassed more consistently passionate critical and audience acclaim than any film studio - animated or live action - in history, there's no doubt that he's the one laughing. Toy Story not only began the run on computer-generated animated features which has near enough made traditional 2D animation obsolete today, but more importantly, it revitalised the medium, and despite the technical leaps made since the release of Pixar's debut feature, Toy Story is still their strongest film in near enough every way. To an entire generation of filmgoers, it just might represent the most significant leap in storytelling that they will ever see; for all of the Avatar's blowing us away, it's Toy Story's invention, the perfection of its craft, and its massive, open heart which has garnered it universal appeal and the beginnings of a franchise with an unthinkably consistent quality. While its sequels helped take the animated medium to new emotional heights, the first film penetrates deep into viewers hearts not only because it was the first feature film built entirely by CGI, but because it introduced us to this wonderful collective of charming characters, and to those who grew up with them, each viewing is something like meeting old friends again. Wiping away the nostalgic webs does little to diminish the impact of Pixar's best and most widely-recognised feature, though; this tale of a band of toys neurotically staring down their potential replacement by an imposing, technically superior force, particularly the fear of that one cowboy, Woody (Tom Hanks), being replaced by egomaniacal space ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), is at once touching and hilarious, thanks to a script which remains tightly paced yet also, despite the attention paid to its technical innovation, thoroughly smart and witty. What could have been a mere tool to sell more toys - a genius concept it is indeed - becomes more of a love letter to the childlike fascination with the joy of play, and of being young. This meaning only enhances in the more mature, emotional sequels, yet the first outing is surely the most accessible as it aims merely to entertain with exhilarating set pieces, dazzling visuals and sheer charm, and there's nothing wrong with that. From the opening moments in which carefree young boy Andy plays with Woody, backed by Randy Newman's timeless "You've Got A Friend In Me", Toy Story is a force of nature, tearing through its 81-minute runtime with immaculate pacing, a highly innovative, postmodern concept, and a stellar cast of characters, voiced to perfection by a varied roster ranging from Oscar-nominated actors such as Hanks himself, to accomplished performers in their own rights, such as Don Rickles (Mr. Potato Head), Cheers star and Pixar mainstay John Ratzenberger (Hamm) and perhaps most recognisably thanks to his uniquely neurotic squeal, Wallace Shawn (Rex). Toy Story's production process was far from smooth, however; after Disney finally gave Lasseter the green light to make the film, an early version of the film - which reportedly amplified Woody's sarcasm to irascible levels - distressed executives to the point that production was very nearly shut down. A swift overhaul of the script, however, saved the day, and the film ultimately opened to a $361m box office, far surpassing any and all expectations, opening the gate for both the even more successful sequels (Toy Story 2 amassed $485m and Toy Story 3 racked up a colossal $1bn), and the meteoric rise of computer-driven animated fare. At a time in which Disney's reign of compelling 2D animation was beginning to wane, Toy Story was a breath of fresh air; peculiar looking to the untrained eye, vibrant, and boasting a more sophisticated level of wit as well as a more universal subject matter than most Disney fare of the period, it's little surprise that Toy Story kickstarted Pixar's unbeatable run of 5-star pictures, one which continues a decade-and-a-half later, culminating most recently with the triumphant bookend to the series, Toy Story 3. Imbued less with the archaic truisms that plague a fair share of Disney's mid-90s fare, under the Pixar banner (co-produced by Disney, mind), Toy Story chose not to make matters out of signposted morals and instead simply tell a touching, thrilling story about friendship and the unadulterated joy of a child playing with their toys. Black-and-white big bads are nowhere to be found, and the film's villain is nobody more than a masochistic young boy with a penchant for torturing toys, gripping though this is in its own right. What Toy Story is more keen to do is to tap into each of our own childhoods, which surely explains how universal its appeal is, and in telling us little about the toy's owner, Andy, we are only able to easier immerse ourselves in this world. This quality transcends the fact that by modern standards the film's CGI now appears dated - though still eminently watchable - even if perhaps that is the price to pay when comparing the more easily scrutinised aging process of CGI comapred to 2D animation. In the decade-and-a-half since its release, it's easy to forget Toy Story's massive influence if only due to the sheer glut of CGI animated films hitting our cinemas every weekend now. Saturation, however, does little to detract from what remains the medium's gold standard, along with its sequels; pitch-perfect casting (it's difficult to imagine anyone but Hanks and Allen in their respective roles), a wonderful score from Randy Newman (which earned even greater resonance through its re-use in the subsequent films), eye-popiing animation, and a refreshing return to simple pleasures conveyed in a very sophisticated way. Not only is Toy Story one of the greatest animated films of all time, it's one of the best films full stop.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.