Conquering the Classics
Not long ago Bart realized he needed to expand his horizons beyond sequels and superhero movies. What could be better than tackling the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movies list? At last count he’s only seen about half of them, so Bart’s goal is to watch all of them in a year’s time, and review every stinking one of them, placing each in their cultural context while bringing a modern sensibility to the viewing experience.
Previously: Ben Hur.
1995 was the start of the Pixar revolution. I was 11 years old at the time, and had drifted away from Disney after The Lion King, but Toy Story was something new. It wasn’t a musical, first of all, as my pre-pubescent self didn’t understand that genre just yet, equating it with women and children. It also was entirely computer generated; the first of its kind, and still a novelty in the years following Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. The key component, however, and what sets the Pixar brand apart nearly 20 years later, is how it understands children while respecting adults. On the border of 30, I find myself conjuring up nostalgia for the time in my life when I first saw this in theaters (one of the few movies on this list I can say that about), but I also gain even more by viewing this through more mature eyes. Toy Story transcends its associations and subject matter through clever writing, empathetic characters, a subversive sense of dark humor and fascinating subtext dealing with relationships, community, the power of perspective and religious faith. This complexity, however, may have been a catalyst for, or a symptom of, a generation’s failure to launch.
Everyone involved with the production aspects have prospered in subsequent years. The writers include Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow, Andrew Stanton (who went on to write and direct Finding Nemo and Wall-E, amongst others), and the master himself Joss Whedon. Director John Lasseter has stayed with Pixar, directing Toy Story 2 and the two Cars movies. Stars Tom Hanks and Tim Allen were already firmly established, and although these may not be their most lauded roles they are, arguably, their most iconic even if there is debate of the legitimacy of voice acting versus live action roles. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, and won for Special Achievement, awarded to director John Lasseter for First Feature-Length Computer-Animated Film, the last time that award was handed out. It was one of the new additions for the 2007 update, and one of only two animated films on the list (the other being Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).
The plot is relatively simple and straight forward, and yet rich in characterization and thematic complexity. Andy (John Morris, who has mostly stayed out of Hollywood but continued to voice Andy in both sequels) is a young boy that is unaware his toys, and in fact all the toys on Earth, are alive and mime being inanimate objects in the presence of people. Woody (Tom Hanks), a good hearted cowboy doll, is the leader of this tight-knit community that is preparing for Andy’s family’s upcoming move (possibly prompted by a divorce or death of the family, the movie never clarifies). Just prior to the move, Andy celebrates a birthday and receives Buzz (Tim Allen), a space ranger action figure with all the bells and whistles. Woody is immediately jealous at Buzz being the next big thing, and his attempts to get rid of Buzz lead to them both getting left behind and trapped in the house of the sadistic Sid, the toy torturer that lives next door. With the deck stacked against them, Buzz and Woody have to learn how to work together to escape Sid and find Andy before it’s too late.
The real heart of the movie is the relationships, especially between Woody and Andy. Woody is Andy’s “favorite”, and it’s clear that toys thrive on, but are not powered by, the love of their children. That’s a harrowing concept, actually, in that toys can continue on even after children forget them, something that’s explored in depth in the sequels. It’s also fascinating how the toys aren’t restricted by the presence of humans and choose to act inanimate, but Buzz goes catatonic in the presence of Andy. Perhaps that’s a side effect of him being a new toy? Or a defense mechanism so toys don’t get caught? It can’t be mandatory, however, because the toys rebel against Sid late in the film, but the beauty of this is it doesn’t make the film inconsistent but instead adds a layer of mystique along the lines of how sentient vehicles came to be in the Cars series, and gravitas in how the life of a toy is everlasting and yet incredibly finite.
Another nice touch is the care that’s taken with Buzz realizing he’s a toy, and that there’s no rush for Buzz and Woody to be friends or even like each other until the third act. Again, this “magical realism” tone that the film maintains doesn’t encourage much mythology dissection, but it’s provocative that new toys have to be “deprogrammed” by the community. One would think this would be a risk to new toys that might spill the beans to humans, but the aforementioned catatonia covers that. More importantly is how welcoming Woody and the community are to newcomers, even if there’s apparent, immediate jealousy on Woody’s part. He’s only threatened by Buzz when his fellow fickle toys become enthralled by the next big thing. The movie is also not afraid to shy away from complex emotion, as not only does Woody become violent toward Buzz, but the community seems to enable Buzz’s continued fugue state (as does Woody, seemingly, with the green army men), not knowing he’s a play thing.
This allows a fascinating, subtle examination of the power of perspective and nature vs. nurture running through the narrative. Visual signifiers are necessary shorthand in reality, but in the world of Toy Story they can be dangerous. Not only does Buzz act like Buzz Lightyear, Space Ranger, because he looks like him, but when he’s dressed like Mrs. Nesbitt late in the film, in his hysteria, he takes on her personality. Furthermore, when Sid’s macabre creations are introduced they’re “shot” like a horror film at first, terrifying Buzz and Woody only to be revealed as a caring community of their own. They also seem to retain their “essence”, regardless of how their limbs and parts have been switched out. As well, Buzz at first follows his back story and literally is Buzz, whereas Woody has adapted his skills as a sheriff into a leadership role for the toy community but toys like Rex (Wallace Shawn) have completely rejected their nature.
Although the supernatural is left undisclosed, the toy community can also be seen as a kind of religious faith. The squeaky aliens are the most evident, having formed a cult mentality centered around The Claw that hangs above them. Woody’s community, meanwhile, has a pact with their god, Andy, having his name tattooed onto their bodies, and Sid is an ever-present Satan figure. When Andy intervenes in their lives they are powerless to stop him, and although he may handle them roughly at times he is a benevolent deity. This plays into the running theme of predestination permeating the plot, as there’s a certain degree of free will within the microcosm of the bedroom that is superseded by the higher power’s interventions. The aforementioned Sid monstrosities are a nice subversion of that, however, as their outward appearances hint at sinister beings but their actions are something else entirely, contradicting the medieval concept of inner evil being manifested externally, allowing them to break free of their physical burden. Furthermore, it’s a provocative choice to leave adult faces obscured or in the background, making the story entirely child-centered, as their only concerns are their little worlds.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, Toy Story cemented a legitimacy that had been building for the animated film since Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture. Akin to Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns convincing people that comics “aren’t just for kids anymore,” Toy Story began a trend of critical and commercial acceptance of animation in the mainstream United States that is still felt today. This elevation of the animated medium, however, hasn’t resulted in the format being used to tell more adult stories (few attempts, like Heavy Metal 2000, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and Eight Crazy Nights, have been miserable failures), but adults appropriating material originally intended for children. The nostalgia for childhood that the movie espouses so well spilled over into the viewing of the movie itself, creating a loop of adults feeling justified in indulging their nostalgia, evidenced in 2013 by such subcultures as Bronies, but that’s a whole other argument.
The movie itself can’t be blamed for what followed, and instead should be judged as a stand-alone text. With that in mind, it’s hilarious, it’s heartbreaking, and truly awe inspiring in a way that cinema hardly achieves these days. Tom Hanks has amazing comic timing, investing Woody with real pathos as a classical heroic figure and desperate every man simultaneously, while Tim Allen’s stoic, stubborn Buzz manages to be compelling even in ignorance and existentially engaging after he finally accepts he’s a toy. The rest of the cast is full of familiar names that are welcome and comforting in a folksy, homey sort of way. The same could be said for Randy Newman’s soundtrack that borders on hokey but strikes that perfect balance of earnestness and bittersweet self awareness. Every time I watch the “I will Go Sailing No More” scene, I want Buzz to make it out that window! In large part, that can also be attributed to the beautiful CGI rendering. From the shadows in Sid’s room to rain drops streaking down a window, there’s still a lot to be impressed by here even when other effects, like Scud the dog, are too evidently pixels.
Toy Story’s ubiquity today can’t be denied, and it’s refreshing to go back to the beginning and see so much self-assurance and confidence on display. I’ll take a guess and say, with Toy Story 3 having cemented the series’ legacy, this movie will have moved up the list for the 2017 draft.