Sunday, November 22, 2015

At 20 Years, "Toy Story" is Still the Little Computer Animated Movie That Could

Scene from Toy Story
In the grand scheme of cinema, there are few animated movies that have had as much of an impact as that of director John Lasseter's Toy Story. While CG animation has become the norm, it is difficult to note just how much of a risk the film was in 1995. It was the first feature length release by Pixar about the unlikeliest of subjects: toys that come to life. Considering the success of Disney around the time with The Lion King and Pocahontas, it almost seems like a miracle that the studio came out of the gate strong. As the film celebrates its 20th anniversary today, it feels important to look back on the film's impact, and why it continues to resonate with audiences.

Toy Story was a film about a simple thing, but one that didn't make sense when compared to the children's entertainment of the era. In an era where talking animals and china ran amok, it still seemed barbaric to make a film about toys coming to life and going on an adventure. Lasseter, with the help of a crew of writers and animators, ended up creating one of those ingenious stories that creative types only dream of. Not only are toys a nearly universal childhood memory, but it's easy to market the products to Toys R Us and various retailers. Add in a voice cast that featured Tim Allen and Tom Hanks at the height of their popularity, and you have the start of an unexpected franchise, studio company, and animation style. Even if the film failed, it would go down in history as *the* first CG animated movie.

The film ended up being more than lightning in a bottle. It was a whole storm. Along with several catchy, Oscar-nominated songs by Randy Newman, the film immediately grabbed audiences as green army men climbed the stairs to see what birthday boy Andy was getting downstairs. It was adventure condensed into a new style. In a market then crowded by hand drawn animation, it was breathtaking to see how computers created new shades and designs for its varying characters. It's impossible to think of the scene in which Buzz Lightyear "falls with style" having the same impact through hand drawn techniques. The movement of the scenery was itself a visual achievement that showed animation moving faster and details being smoother. While it likely doesn't look as good as more recent Pixar entries, there's very little that's distracting.

In fact, the story overshadows everything else. Like the best of movies, it knows that a film's longevity comes with stories that audiences want to revisit. Beyond the adventure, the story is a compelling look into a child entering a new phase of his life as the old phase jealously yells for attention. Add in some references to The Shining, and you have a surprisingly dark family movie that features toy amputation, existential crises of identity, supporting characters expressing cult-like behaviors, arguable murder attempts, and a dog that causes a traffic jam. Even if Pixar would continue to go dark while exploring emotional connections, there's no experience as raw and intense as Toy Story: a franchise that has continually focused on themes of abandonment and death at every turn. Even if the original has a corny ending, it's still a miracle that it balances its many ideas so swiftly.

While Pixar has since become the premiere studio for C.G. animation, Toy Story still seems like a fluke in a lot of ways. With most people considering A Bug's Life to be a low point in the entire studio's run, there wasn't much hope that they would make it to a decade. It wouldn't be until easily the "golden era" of the studio between 1999 and 2010 that they graduated from their novelty technique to a legitimate threat. Even if many films (including some Toy Story sequels) were better, there's something impeccable of how Toy Story continues to be enjoyable and how Newman's "You've Got a Friend in Me" is still the iconic torch song of the series. While competitive studio Universal would start up their department shortly, their big debut (Antz) fails to feature the reverence that Pixar's does. They would eventually catch up with their own hits, notably Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon, but their stories were never as endearing or emotional as Pixar's best. 

As much as Toy Story is a triumph, its unfortunate ushering in of a new style meant that hand drawn animation was on the way out. While places like Studio Ghibli and Laika continue to make more traditional animation, most studios have abandoned it for the C.G. format. It's quicker and easier to distribute. As much good as it has done, it has inspired countless knock-offs and arguably made it hard for younger audiences to embrace hand drawn animation. While Pixar and Universal continue to do it right, there's way too many giving it a bad name and sacrificing details and craft. It's a reflection of the changing times, thus adding the only real bad note onto Toy Story's everlasting impact. 

Beyond Pixar, Toy Story has become the surprising franchise that could. The film has spawned two sequels (plus another on its way), a TV show (Buzz Lightyear of Star Command), and several shorts. The 2010 entry Toy Story 3 even received a Best Picture nomination and won for Best Animated Film (the first to qualify since the category's introduction). Even if audiences can pick a dozen or so favorites from Pixar other than Toy Story, it's hard to imagine their legacy - and C.G. film period - without the 1995 film to lay the groundwork. For a film that still feels a little raw and unformed compared to later movies, it's still impressively focused with a great story and equally memorable music. 

Toy Story is one of those films that isn't just important for Pixar, but for those exploring film history. Beyond its ambitious animation technique, it managed to tell a contemporary story that was rich with adventure, heart, and creativity. With Lasseter's ingenious idea, a studio was born with an embarrassment of creative riches. It's impossible to find an audience, young or old, who doesn't know who Buzz or Woody is. While the first film can also be a commentary on the shifting interest of 50's culture from westerns to sci-fi, it's also just a great film about sympathizing with the toys that gave endless hours of entertainment. It may seem like a dumb premise, but then clearly you never saw Toy Story.

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