Thursday, 24 October 2013

Toy Story

Well, since I'd finally gotten around to getting some thoughts on A Bug's Life recorded, it seemed a good idea to finish the full circle and write about the first Toy Story. Now I have a full house of Pixar films, and this was one I'd been meaning to rewatch properly for quite some time. 

Of course, most animation fans know the story of Pixar. Formed of a chunk of Lucasfilm's animation department when a divorce-ravaged George was selling whatever he could (short of rights to Star Wars to Disney or anything crazy like that), Pixar by the mid-90s didn't seem that secure a prospect to their effective owner Steve Jobs. That is, except for that lucrative deal they had made with Disney for 3 animated feature films to showcase just what computer graphics could do. With Disney long-termer John Lasseter providing his signature big-heart style within a quirky setting, Toy Story was of course a smash hit and totally changed what was expected of an animated feature. Today, traditional cel animation is the rarity in America while CG films get churned out, and we have the success of this film to thank for that. As the first feature-length CG animation ever completed, it remains groundbreaking. 

Toy Story, aptly enough, is a story about toys, which builds upon ideas established in Lasseter's 1988 Oscar winner Tin Toy, which put Pixar on the map. Just as many children suspect, their toys come alive when nobody is around to see it, and have their own little societies in kids' bedrooms. One pleasant kid named Andy has a favourite toy, the slightly raggedy cowboy Woody. That is, until a birthday comes along and the all-new multi-functional Buzz Lightyear seems to be taking the top spot, in an inspired bit of contrast: Westerns vs Sci-Fi. A fit of jealous action sends the two on a lengthy odd-couple adventure, where the two prove perfect foils to one another and the unlikely pairing of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen proves utterly perfect. 

As the opening credits rolled to the still-familiar strains of Randy Newman's excellent songs, I reflected on how much more these names meant to me now. There's John Lasseter, who was then unknown. There's Andrew Stanton, not quite co-directing yet but clearly in a position of importance. There's Steve Jobs, many years from a household name still, and not even part of Apple any more when this film was coming out. Hey look - Lee Unkrich was just an editor! There's an example of a guy working his way up quickly. Wait, Joss Whedon is credited as one of the four writers? I had no idea! He hadn't even made Buffy by this point...I'll have to stop saying his being kept under the thumb for The Avengers was the only thing he's made that I've liked except that one episode of Firefly where they find the planet of people who worship Jayne. 

And well done Mr Whedon and others, because when it all boils down to the core, what makes Toy Story the success that it is can without hesitation be said to be its writing. Unless you're a real stickler for coincidence - yes, a Pizza Planet delivery van accessible for toys just happens to pass at the right time, and yes next door neighbour Sid just happens to be at the restaurant at the same time, and yes, a lit firework can be controlled in just that way by a simple toy - what you get is a very well-polished, well-paced and highly entertaining script. It's actually quite a feat that Woody is as likeable as he is, being at first smug, then petty, then malicious, then very belligerent, but thanks in no small part to Tom Hanks' performance but also because he is the butt of his fair share of jokes, he's very easy to root for – though apparently during a low point in production even Hanks thought him a ‘jerk’. Then there's clueless Buzz, whose utter failure to understand his position is endearing, and the fact that the two have such great chemistry as chalk and cheese types. Just having the two sparking off each other makes for good entertainment, but the pace of the adventure also works brilliantly - you have the chase dynamic of trying to get back to Andy, the brilliant surreal moment of the alien toys who are in thrall to 'the Claw', the suspense of future-garbage-guy Sid's house, then the big action finale. The humour is also spot-on, with the wisecracking Mr. Potato Head and Hamm not only getting brilliant one-liners but being part of the utterly inspired gags where they think Woody has become murderous. 

The film ticks a whole lot of boxes - pathos and then relief with Andy, romance with Bo Peep (much missed in the third film!), the foolishness of snap judgements with Sid's toys and even some horror pastiche. 

It doesn't do to think too hard about the toys' world - about how many of them must have truly miserable yet near-eternal existences, about why the rules of keeping still even exist in the first place, about the physics involved - but the film doesn't ask you to. Accepting the magical premise and simply enjoying is very easy. It is also of course a technical triumph, and while it is obviously the most primitive of Pixar's work and technically far behind even A Bug's Life, eyelids and animals in particular being noticeably less developed, but there is such joy to the animation, to making Woody's funny limbs move and Slinky the loyal dog stretch out, from the way toy soldiers have to waddle to Buzz's silly episode after he has an identity crisis, that the sheer amount of effort is demonstrable. 

One of the most important animated films in history, it could also have been a disaster, and what ensured that it was a hit was not the technical achievements or the bold new aesthetic. It was the writing, the concept and the performances, which in all mediums are the things that matter most. 

Toy Story 2: link
Toy Story 3: link

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