It’s ironic how entirely nostalgic it is viewing Toy Story for the first time in a decade. Though I suppose that nostalgia shouldn’t surprise me, as nearly any Disney title awakens vivid memories of childhood and the wonder of animated cinema. Obviously the world of Disney pre-Pixar is iconic, particularly for those of us lucky enough to grow up during their late 80s/early 90s renaissance. My particular favorite was Aladdin, but I’ve never been picky, and would gladly sit through a viewing of The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast. Heck, I’d even watch Pocahontas. Still, while Disney’s astounding talent for inserting themselves into childhood is something I’m grateful for, it’s only part of what makes my adult viewing of Toy Story ironic. The more relevant aspect of that irony is the reality that Toy Story is a movie about nostalgia. Or at the very least it’s a movie that recognizes the heft of it. Memories of childhood are either beautiful or awful, and rarely of the mundane; what trauma or drama is there in the tedium of childhood? Though we catch only glimpses of the story from adolescent Andy’s perspective, the one requirement for enjoying this film is to have been that age, and to have loved those toys. Perhaps one of Disney’s, Pixar’s and director John Lasseter‘s most charming notions is imagining that those toys could love you back.
As is often the case with Disney/Pixar films, Toy‘s story is simple enough for children and deep enough for everybody. Woody (Tom Hanks) the toy cowboy and chief plaything in Andy’s Room finds himself neglected when Andy receives a Buzz Lightyear Action Figure for his birthday. Buzz (Tim Allen) is flashy, impressive, and delightfully thick-headed as he unknowingly usurps Woody’s throne. After a poorly devised prank goes horribly awry and Buzz is forcibly ejected from the safety of Andy’s room, Woody is made a pariah. In his quest to return to Andy, Woody suddenly has no choice but to follow Buzz across Pizza Planets and the rooms of youthful despots (The evil Sid easily ranks in the top Disney villains of all time–he’s a genocidal maniac, just with toys). Clean and concise, and clocking in at just under 82 minutes. A refreshingly comfortable viewing experience, particularly for an avid week night movie watcher. I suppose it stands to reason that a film for a fidgety audience of kids isn’t going to surpass the two-hour mark, but it’s also nice to be reminded that a good film doesn’t have to be an epic.
Though in it’s legacy, epic is one of many words that could describe Toy Story. Pixar and Disney’s first combined effort, as well as the first feature-length film done entirely in CGI, Toy Story is a landmark. It is the first in a line of films that, as we all well know, have been as critically successful as they have been financially. It represents one of the greatest voice casts ever assembled, with Tom Hanks and Tim Allen truly defining their characters and leading a group so colorful they may never be outdone. Toy Story‘s visual aesthetic has become both familiar and constantly re-imagined as Pixar has pushed computer-generated films ever forward. And on top of all the adornments, the script is simply great. In fact, of all the praise heaped upon this criterion film, screenwriting was one of it’s just three Oscar nominations (the other two were music, which we’ll get to momentarily). Essentially it’s a buddy movie, with two antithetic characters overcoming adversity together and bonding for life. If there’s any doubt as to the theme of the film, one need only listen to Randy Newman‘s Oscar-nominated theme song “You’ve Got A Friend.” There’s no shortage of comedy either, with one-liners that feel as hilarious to a 27-year-old as they did to a 12-year old. “Tuesday night’s plastic corrosion awareness meeting, was I think, a big success. We’d like to thank Mr. Spell for putting that on for us, thank you Mr. Spell…”
What keeps the story from being completely enveloped by it’s comedy is the perspective of Woody. While Buzz may be a mostly comedic character, Woody is the heart of the film. He loves Andy heroically, and unhesitatingly befriends the cause of his heartache because doing so means he can remain with the boy. It’s this kind of purity of character that has become almost unbelievable anymore, with anti-heroes running amok. Woody is charming and endearing and Buzz is lovably doltish and fool-hardy. They make a perfect team.
Still, hindsight being what it is, the film bears a few small chinks. Certainly the pictures have aged. While being reminded of that Pixar charm that won us all over so completely back in 1995, you can’t help but see the discrepancy between Toy Story and it’s modern day descendants. I certainly won’t pretend this is a criticism, but it’s a shame our children won’t be able to experience the film as magically as we once did. The soundtrack presents a similar dilemma, with Randy Newman’s words feeling at once wonderfully familiar and wearily unambiguous. As a kid it’s nice to have some music to help you grasp the plot, but as an adult this musical breaking down of story becomes just a bit frustrating. When Buzz finally must come to terms with his toydom, and Randy Newman’s voice becomes more or less an inner-monologue outlining Buzz’s frustration and sadness, it’s hard not to smirk.
Perhaps though this is the beauty of telling a story to children. They’re pleasantly uncritical, which gives the writers and director just a little more play in the line. There’s no lack of kid’s films that take full advantage of this fact, winning young minds over with colorful characters and loud noises. So then Toy Story and Disney/Pixar are all the more impressive. They have become master craftsmen of subtlety in kid’s cinema, and they have somehow simultaneously made movies that parents will be glad to have to watch. I can only predict how frustrating it will be to have my film choices limited by the sweet little simpleton in the extra bedroom, but I find my reassurance in the knowledge that Pixar will probably be making films for a very long time.
Just sitting in the darkened theater with my 5 year old’s eyes glistening with such awe was worth every minute of Toy Story 3!