- Director: John Lasseter
- Writers: Story by John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, and Joe Ranft, Screenplay by Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen, and Alec Sokolow
- Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Annie Potts, John Morris, and Erik von Detten
- Accolades: AFI 2012 Top 100 list (#99), Honorary Oscar for “Special Achievement,” 3 additional Oscar nominations (Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Original Song – “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”)
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Disney Plus, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV
There are only two animated films on the 2007 American Film Institute 100 Greatest American Films list, and both of these are clearly on the list more for their contributions in pioneering the medium than because they are somehow “better” than 20 other animated movies. One is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was the first feature-length hand-drawn animated film ever produced. The second, barely sneaking onto the list at #99, is Toy Story, the first feature film created using computer animation. That Toy Story is a very, very good movie is sort of beside the point. Basically ever since, it’s been hand-drawn animation that’s been the exception, not the other way around.
Toy Story spent at least eight years in development, and underwent extensive changes to the story over that time. At one point, Disney seemed to almost lose interest in the project, but Steve Jobs, of all people, talked them into allowing Pixar to re-work the story. It centers around the toys of a young boy, Andy, who come to life when no one else is around. Andy’s favorite toy is a cowboy named Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks). But Woody’s position at the top of the pecking order is threatening by a new, shiny Buzz Lightyear spaceman toy Andy gets for his birthday (Tim Allen), who spends much of the movie convinced he’s “real” and just “on an alien planet.” Woody devises a scheme to knock Buzz behind Andy’s bed, but accidentally knocks him out the window. Accused of murder and ostracized by his fellow toys, Woody has to go out into the world to rescue Buzz before Andy and his family move in a couple days. Along the way they end up at what seems to be like a space-themed Chuck E Cheese and then almost get blown up the insufficiently supervised neighbor child.
Given all the cooks in the kitchen, that Toy Story is as charming as it is is pretty much a miracle. It’s really funny, and has lots of jokes that kids will like and jokes that their parents will like. It was pretty much the first animated movie that really strikes that balance between the two different levels, a sweet spot that successors have been trying to hit (mostly unsuccessfully) ever since. It also set the trend of the modern computer animated feature with a superstar voice cast. While previous Disney movies had mostly not been voiced by “name” actors, Pixar hired big stars Hanks and Allen and then backed them up with a cast of well-known voices in parts that were perfect for them. I seriously think John Ratzenberger might have been born to play a talking piggy bank, he was just biding his time on Cheers all those years.
The thing that can get lost about Toy Story, along with its several sequels, is that they are very downbeat for children’s movies. This is a story about obsolescence, a feeling much more often felt by adults than by children. In particular, there is a scene where Buzz Lightyear discovers that he is actually a toy and his life is meaningless, tries to fly, falls down the stairs, and lies there with one of his arms broken off while Randy Newman croons, “I will go sailing no more.” It’s the sort of feeling that we feel a lot in real life, but it’s not portrayed much in movies, much less animated movies about sentient toys. It can be hard to still see this underneath all the “Infinity and Beyond” and theme park rides, but it’s there.
Toy Story was created, written, cast, designed, etc. mostly by people who hadn’t made a feature film before. Pixar had been kind of a cute little subsidiary of Apple for years, making shorts and demonstrating the possibilities of computer technology. In 1988, John Lasseter won the Oscar for Best Animated Short for Tin Toy, the first Oscar won for computer animation. He had worked for Disney until 1986, when he was fired after trying to pitch The Brave Little Toaster as a fully computer-animated film. But Tin Toy impressed Disney, and they approached Lasseter and Pixar about collaborating on a film based on the idea. Disney had a long-standing policy of not working with anyone outside the studio, but they broke this in 1989 when they made a deal with Tim Burton for The Nightmare Before Christmas. In 1990, Disney struck a deal with Pixar to produce Toy Story, on which production would continue for six years. Lasseter and Pixar spent years agonizing over the details of the story, which changed greatly over time. Disney ended up bringing in several “script doctors” to try and fix the script, including Joss Whedon, the future creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of the first two Avengers films. Despite the huge number of cooks in the kitchen, everything worked out.
Pixar has since been purchased by Disney, and become a major wing of the studio. Three full-length sequels to Toy Story have been produced, all of which have received critical acclaim and made oodles of money, along with multiple spin-off TV series. Lasseter went on to also direct the first two Cars films and A Bug’s Life, while his original writer and lieutenant Andrew Stanton went on to direct several animated movies, including Finding Nemo and Wall-E, before attempting to transition to live action. Another writer, Pete Docter, started his career here and went on to direct Monsters, Inc., Up, and Inside Out. Based on the success of Toy Story, Pixar has become the powerhouse of the Animation industry.
I would feel remiss if I did not mention the reasons for John Lasseter’s exit from Pixar in 2018. After being accused of sexual harassment, he resigned due to what he described as “missteps in dealing with staff.” In fact, Variety reported that his harassment was so well known within the industry that Pixar at one point assigned Lasseter a “minder” to “rein in his impulses.” He has since been hired by Paramount to head their new computer animation division, a move that resulted in, among other objections, the actress Emma Thompson quitting a project she had been working with them on.
Pixar in its early days spent quite a bit of time on toys and lamps because they didn’t really think they’d cracked believably animating humans yet. Despite this, Toy Story doesn’t shy away from showing various humans, and the animation… isn’t great? There’s an initial shock when watching Toy Story in 2020 that the animation is so primitive compared to what we often see now, but once the movie gets going, the mark of the skill of the animators is that you mostly forget about the difference in technology and concentrate on the story.