WFTB Score: 17/20
The plot: The idyllic life of young Andy’s favourite toy Woody is turned on its head by the arrival of newcomer Buzz Lightyear, who is not only brighter and bolder than the old Sheriff but doesn’t even know he’s a toy. Woody’s resentment of Buzz leads to both going missing on the day Andy’s family is due to move: can the arguing duo overcome their differences and avoid being lost forever?
It’s Andy’s Birthday, D-Day for the toys who have spent a happy year organising themselves whenever Andy himself is not in the room. Leader of the gang – anointed by his owner’s name on his foot – is Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), an old-fashioned sheriff figure with pull-string phrases, and Woody marshals the troops together to eavesdrop on potential competitors for himself, Mr Potato Head, Rex the dinosaur and so on. All appears to be going swimmingly until a surprise toy is brought out and soon after introduced to the group in the stocky form of Buzz Lightyear.
Buzz (Tim Allen) is a plastic Space Ranger with electronic insides, wings and absolutely no idea that he’s a mass-produced toy; which Woody would find hilarious, except for the fact that everyone else – including Andy – finds Buzz irresistible, leaving Andy’s former favourite sulking on the sidelines. In a reckless moment Woody causes Buzz to fall out of the window, much to the horror of the other toys; and in the effort to rescue Buzz and restore his own reputation, Woody inadvertently leads them both into the lair of their next door neighbour Sid, a brat and renowned toy-torturer. Woody regrets the repercussions of his jealousy and Buzz makes an alarming self-discovery via a television advert, but there are more pressing matters at hand since Andy’s family is moving house and the two toys are still next door, Buzz due to be blown apart in Sid’s latest experiment. A combination of help from unlikely sources and sly bending of the rules is needed to prevent Woody and Buzz from the terrible fate of being permanently separated from their owner.
Were it dismal in every respect, Toy Story would still have a place in cinema history as the first feature-length film to be created entirely by computer animation. Happily, though, it’s not just a magnificent technological achievement but on any terms a rattling good film, from the central idea outwards. Since children are upset when they lose precious toys, it’s only natural that the toys should feel the same way, and the creative team at Pixar use this concept to craft a story that’s full of emotion, boosted by the two leads’ journeys of self-discovery.
And this is an important aspect of the film. There are plenty of animated comedies that play on the set-ups for laughs, though few of them match the sharp jabs of Toy Story’s script or its excellent sight gags (Don Rickles’ Mr Potato Head providing many of the laughs); very few explore their subject as thoroughly as Pixar’s first feature, with Buzz’s depression after realising he is ‘just’ a toy proving a particularly poignant and philosophical moment. The thought that has gone into little moments like this (there are others: where is Andy’s father? Why is Sid such a neglected child?) elevates Toy Story from a bright children’s film into something that can be savoured by all ages, especially when it is packed with other non-childish moments such as the funny horror of Sid’s ‘cannibals’ emerging from their hideaways and the not-so-funny terror of Woody coming to life in Sid’s hands.
The acting talents of Hanks and Allen make for lively sparring and invest Woody and Buzz with enormous amounts of character, a feature that also applies to the supporting toys: apart from Rickles, there’s good work from Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn and John Ratzenberger as (respectively) Slinky, Rex and Hamm the piggy bank. But at the end of the day, you have to go back to the graphics, which are little short of magical as they bring a roomful of toys to life. The computer animation is so good that you often forget that you’re watching a collection of pixels, the three-dimensional world filled with light, depth and texture, with some of the more difficult effects (Woody’s reflection in a spoon, a puddle of muddy water) still holding up today despite massive technological advances. The pastel colours and caricaturised human forms remind us that we are in a cartoon world, but it is a world that for the most part feels absolutely real. If there is to be a criticism, it would be of the occasionally stiff movements of the humans and especially of Sid’s dog, Scud; but it would be harsh to knock the film too much for simplifying something that could have taken years to perfect when the film was released (six years later, Shrek still cut corners when animating some of its characters). I’m also not too keen on the slightly intrusive nature of Randy Newman’s songs, but I don’t think they bothered me when the film was first released so the opinion is probably skewed by Family Guy (if you’ve seen the relevant episodes, you will know what I mean).
The success of Toy Story has been a blessing and a curse for the movie industry, with the march of technology making it much easier in successive years to churn out progressively cheaper (and often far inferior) animated films, though thankfully Toy Story 2 was also a notable success. I lament a little the mania for creating CG films to the almost total exclusion of traditionally-drawn animation (or even films that use both sympathetically, like The Lion King), but Toy Story cannot be blamed for what came after it. It stands on its own as both a landmark and a masterpiece.