Less New, Still Shiny
Ten years on, much of Pixar’s Toy Story, the first computer-animated feature film, is as sweet and smart as ever. The story of cowboy doll Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) dealing with the arrival of Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), a shiny new threat to Woody’s status as favorite toy, is a family-friendly buddy comedy that refuses to talk down to any portion of its wide audience. But in contrast to the appropriately laudatory behind-the-scenes features included on this new DVD, there are some cracks in its generally pleasing veneer; Toy Story is wonderful, a breakthrough, but not quite a flawless experience.
During the informative and chummy “Filmmakers Reflect” segment (featuring key Pixar personnel, including director John Lasseter, and Joe Ranft, a story editor who passed away a few months before the DVD release), the filmmakers run through a sizeable list of what their animated feature is not. Unlike traditional Disney films of this era, it is not a musical; as such, there is an absence of what the filmmakers call the “I want” song (e.g., “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid , or “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast ). Lasseter and his associates also stress that they wanted the lead characters to be funny and interesting, in contrast to the usual bland prince/princess Disney model.
All fair enough. But Toy Story deploys its own formulaic devices. The Randy Newman song score, for example, is only a baby step away from musicals; the story is overly dependent on Newman-accompanied montages (the filmmakers sometimes sound too ambitious in the commentary, when they liken their use of these songs to The Graduate ). Similarly, many of the jokes depend on a particular shtick—creating nudge-nudge parallels between the toy world and the human world—less refined than the verbal and visual wit of later Pixar productions like The Incredibles (2004) and, yes, Toy Story 2 (1999). The supporting toys—Hamm the piggy bank, Mr. Potato Head, Rex the cowardly dinosaur—provide a lot of character-based interaction in the latter, whereas they’re more a cranky chorus in the original film.
Still, some of Toy Story‘s clichés were certainly newer in 1995 and, moreover, there is plenty of innovation, too. The reimagination of an arcade claw machine as a religious cult (populated by toy aliens who wait to be “chosen” by the claw) is weirdly brilliant, and the misfit toys created/deformed by miscreant next-door neighbor Sid must’ve made onetime Disney animator Tim Burton swell with pride. And it’s still poignant when Buzz, who spends much of the film not understanding he is a toy and not an actual “space ranger,” sees himself on a TV commercial, emblazoned with a blunt label: “NOT A FLYING TOY.”
While the commentary and retrospectives are informative enough, it is the deleted material that provides the clearest window into Pixar’s creative process. With most live-action films, deleted scenes, if we’re lucky, are the juiciest material, with “alternate takes,” storyboards, screen tests, etc., mostly just filling up disc space. Here, the roughest material is the strongest. Because animation is too costly to simply shoot miles of footage and sort things out in the editing room, the most ambitious unused ideas turn up in storyboard sequences cut together into de facto deleted scenes (the more polished deleted bits are simply extensions of a couple of scenes at Sid’s house).
The Toy Story storyboards include whole other characters, such as a grizzled, tiger-shaped baby toy telling the cautionary tale of “Shakes the Rattle.” There are also scenes, like an energetic duel between Buzz and his TV-show nemesis Emperor Zurg, that clearly lead the way for sequences in the 1999 sequel.
That sequel (due for its own DVD re-release in a few months, presumably to be followed by its own 10th Anniversary edition in 2009) grows both emotionally and visually from the 1995 original, but Toy Story on its own remains tremendously influential—and superior to most every non-Pixar film following in its footsteps. Indeed, watching it today, it seems reverse-engineered from less charming efforts, as if answering the question: What if you took the fish-out-of-water wackiness of Madagascar (2005), the in-jokes of Shrek (2001), and the visual splendor of Robots (2005), and somehow made them all fresh again?