The Joy of the Toy in ‘Toy Story’ / ‘Toy Story 2’ / ‘Toy Story 3’

Pixar’s Toy Story trilogy has spanned 15 years, put forth striking advancements in computer animation, and produced one of the most satisfying movie franchises of all time. A series that has taken the childhood toys of one boy and transformed them into full, three-dimensional characters and created a strong emotional connection to them seems almost unthinkable in concept. Yet, Pixar has managed to transform these universal artifacts into more than just things, but connections to our childhoods.

Toy Story, released in 1995, has the distinction of being the first full length computer animated movie. It’s the story of a toy, a cowboy named Woody, who serves as the de-facto leader of all the other toys in Andy’s room. However, when Andy gets a new Buzz Lightyear action figure for his birthday, Woody is suddenly threatened by Buzz’s popularity. Gradually the two build a friendship that carries through in all three movies, but not without certain insecurities.

Initially, Buzz believes himself to be an actual astronaut and it’s only through Woody’s relentless insistence that he finally realizes he’s a toy. The back and forth, up and down dynamic of Woody and Buzz’s friendship is both amusing and moving, and they serve as the main protagonists in the trilogy.

Five years later, Toy Story 2 was released and expectations for the sequel were understandably high. The second film took a different tack in offering life from the perspective of a toy, as Woody becomes the sought after missing piece of a collector’s set. Life in a pristine and well-maintained box may be easier, but it goes against everything the previous movie instilled in its audience: toys are meant to be played with, and they are happiest when they are part of a child’s life.

Toy Story 2 also introduces the audience to a part of Woody’s past – a part that he wasn’t even aware of – that of the popular star of his own cowboy television show. The pure joy that Woody experiences from discovering his former life is only eclipsed by the happiness he feels as a well-loved and used toy. In introducing Jessie (along with Pete and Bullseye) as part of his television show, and the accompanying figures in the collectible set Woody is a part of, he serves as a kind of mentor to her and eventually, as a way for her to reconnect with a child again.

It would be another ten years before Toy Story 3 premiered in 2010, but it was certainly worth the wait. The culmination of all three movies, and in some ways, of Pixar’s entire output up top that point, the movie is a brilliant continuation of the franchise in that it stays true to the now larger cast of characters, and still manages to tell a new story with them.

As Andy is getting older and going off to college, the toys all begin to worry about their fates: the dreaded trash can, or being put on display at a yard sale, left to collect dust in the attic, or leaving with Andy. The toys eventually get inadvertently donated to the Sunnyside Daycare center and the series takes a decidedly darker turn. While initially seeming like a toy paradise with so many children to play with, it quickly becomes clear that there is a hierarchy in place and an old stuffed bear, Lotso, is in charge.

Lotso offers a shift in tone for the Toy Story movies. His sad backstory has turned him into a manipulative, selfish, and bitter toy only out for his own interests. In introducing a character so seemingly irredeemable, Toy Story 3 moves further into more ambiguous and adult storytelling, and in turn, tells a richer story with more at stake. Despite the sinister undertones to Lotso’s role in the movie, Toy Story 3 still retains the humor so integral to the trilogy.

All three of the Toy Story films are a blend of smart and witty observations, and broader physical and slapstick comedy. They are able to make excellent use of both in terms of highlighting character traits, as well as lending certain action-packed scenes a bit of levity. By bringing humor to the stories, the films are better able to balance the more muted and emotional moments, such as Jessie’s back story and the brilliantly bittersweet ending of Toy Story 3. In fact, that final scene in Toy Story 3 is perhaps the best encapsulation of all three films in that it achieves closure for the characters that is true to them, all the while making Andy’s ultimate choice both heartbreaking and the right one.

The emotional resonance of the three films has always been an essential component of their success. Toy Story imbues these characters – not only Woody and Buzz, but a larger cast of supporting, but integral fellow toys – with real feelings and reactions. They feel real because they act real, and in doing so they go beyond a by-the-numbers superficial cartoon to a fully realized and meaningful film.

In the end, these movies are about childhood and imagination. They resonate because the bond that children feel with their toys, and the stories they create for their toys, feel universal. The inspire nostalgia of the best kind, the connection to a more innocent time in all our lives. The Toy Story films are not only completely entertaining, but they are also uplifting, funny, and heartbreaking – a beautifully rendered trilogy that stands at the top of Pixar’s excellent output of movies.

These new Blu-ray editions of the DVDs offer tons of extras that include the original bonus features from the earlier editions, as well as newer ones. They offer commentaries, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and excellent Pixar shorts.

RATING 8 / 10