Upstairs, in 6-year-old Andy Davis’s (voiced by John Morris) room, exists a world where the toys pretend to be lifeless in the presence of humans. Led by pullstring cowboy toy Sheriff Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), the group of toys are stunned when they learn of the possibility of being replaced by a new toy for Andy’s birthday. Though Woody assures them all that there’s nothing to worry about, even his confidence is cracked when he meets Andy’s new toy – Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen), the hottest space action figure out there.
Jealous at the attention Buzz attracts, Woody plots to get rid of him, but the plan backfires, and both he and Buzz are left lost in the outside world. With no other choice but to join forces in order to make it back home, the two embark on a wild adventure back to Andy’s room, running into the clutches of neighborhood kid bully Sid Phillips (voiced by Erik von Detten) in the process.
To think it’ll be 20 years in November since Pixar Animation came out with guns blazing with 1995’s Toy Story. They showed no signs of letting up either, following their debut with Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and two Toy Story sequels which altogether make it one of the greatest trilogies of all-time. They may be one of the youngest studios when placed next to Hollywood stalwarts like Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount and Columbia, but even with their one misstep, Cars 2, it’s hard to find a studio that has as near a perfect track record as they do.
At the time of its release, animated films weren’t in any need for a major shakeup. With Toy Story released in ’95, it was coming on the heels of The Lion King and the other early ’90s releases of Disney’s animated renaissance (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin). Keep in mind, Disney would follow The Lion King with a good deal of animated whatever until Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen, and DreamWorks Animation hadn’t yet entered the scene with Antz and Shrek, so Pixar was coming out at the right place and right time. Regardless of whether a shakeup was needed or not, one thing is absolutely certain – Pixar changed the game for animated film with its digital, fully-dimensional style of animation. Not since Walt Disney himself nearly broke his bank with the painstaking efforts put into creating Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has animation been as revolutionary.
While technology has certainly helped the animating process, this film was far from a breeze to make. It’s not like the Pixar animators just sat at a computer, pointed and clicked and – voila! Woody and Buzz are made! Toy Story in its entirety took nearly 800,000 computing hours at a rate of about 2-15 hours per frame, and each single frame required about 300 MB of information. To put things in perspective, 1 GB of space could hold just one-eighth of a second of the film’s 81 minute total run time. My computer could hold about four minutes.
Essentially a YouTube clip’s worth.
So just like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a film that to this day still amazes me at the craft and detail that went into making it, the steps taken to bring Toy Story to life were just as painstaking. But it all starts with the story; without it, you’re left with a beautifully looking dud. The magic of Pixar’s animation is clear as day the moment you feast your eyes on the screen, but what makes the studio a force to be reckoned with is the storytelling magic they bring as well. The concept to Toy Story is so simple, yet so universal. Every one of us during our childhood has played with our toys as if they were alive, and who hasn’t at one point wondered what that would be like? With great imagination, director John Lasseter and co-writers Andrew Stanton (both he and Lasseter longtime staples for Pixar), Joss Whedon, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow bring that idea to life by giving us a story entirely from the toys’ perspective.
Major credit should be given to them all for pretty much making this film one giant product placement ad for Mattel, Fisher Price, Hasbro and every other toy company in the world, while never once making it feel like blatant product placement. Many famous toys have substantial appearances here like Mr. Potato Head, slinky dog, a piggy bank, and the green plastic soldiers, but each and every one of them feels right at home within the filmmakers’ world. Even the Speak & Spell serves a purpose by providing commentary during Woody’s toy meetings.
For the most part, Toy Story is a straightforward buddy adventure film with a good portion of it centering on Woody and Buzz’s quest to make it back home before the Davis family moving day. Combining two of Pixar’s best assets, humor and heart, the journey has Woody and Buzz visiting a rubber toy claw machine game where the toys view “The Claw” like some Heaven’s Gate cult (“I have been chosen! Farewell, my friends!”, one of the alien toys excitedly tells the others as he’s carried away), running into neighborhood bully Sid and his collection of “custom” toys that look like things you’d expect to find in John Carpenter’s childhood toy box, and a crushing realization for Buzz Lightyear by way of a TV commercial that’s quite poignant.
Leave it to Pixar to actually get us to genuinely feel for a plastic toy.
By the way, I’ll confess to having a little Sid in me as a kid. I took some scissors and gave my sister’s dolls Mohawks. Naturally, I was grounded, but I guess that beats waking up in the middle of the night to Barbie aiming a pair of scissors at your throat.
Soooo plaaaay nice... Okay?
One aspect Pixar doesn’t seem to get enough credit for is their casting. Any animated film today can bring on an A-lister to do a day’s work in the recording booth for the right price, whether they’re the right one for the character or not. Pixar has been able to bring on A-list celebs, television stars, Oscar winners, names that are more than recognizable, but not just for the sake of slapping a big name on the poster. At the time, Tom Hanks and Tim Allen were probably two of the biggest names you could get from film and television, respectively (Hanks was fresh off his back-to-back Best Actor Oscar wins; Allen was in the midst of Home Improvement during its prime). Could it have backfired? Absolutely, but thankfully the voice work from Hanks and Allen prove to be inspired casting and then some. Yes, it’s Hanks and Allen’s voices we are hearing. We know that ’cause their names are all over the advertisements, but they’re not just expensive voices for hire. When Woody and Buzz speak, we don’t hear Hanks and Allen; we hear Woody and Buzz ’cause the actors truly fit these characters like a glove, and after three films, with a fourth one on the way for 2017, it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else filling in for either of them.
Inventive, clever, exhilarating and heartfelt, Toy Story’s appeal spreads far and wide from the young to the old, and its impact and influence can still be seen today in not just Pixar movies, but many other animated films from various other studios as well. Pixar’s lengthy 20-year history of dominating the animated field speaks for itself loud and clear, and each subsequent film in the lineup (seven of which are Best Animated Feature winners) all owe their reason for existing to Toy Story, the one that started it all for the studio. It’s not just one of the best animated films of all-time. It’s one of the crowning achievements of the ’90s for film in general.