About ten years before Junior decides to get a "Hail Satan" forehead tattoo on the day the Vicar is coming round for tea or your little princess opts to neglect GCSE revision for an exciting new career as a mama with the local biker gang, the worst agony of parenthood is the kiddie movie.
Not only does the release of one of these suckers mean the money you saved for Grandpa's kidney machine is about to be earmarked for action figures, tie-in sweets, colouring books and video games, but you've also got to sit through something like Pokemon 2000, The Tigger Movie or My Little Pony in a cinema full of yard-apes who've dosed up on that breakfast cereal which fills the tykes with surplus energy they need to discharge by running around, screaming and kicking and biting. It would be enough to give you a headache, if the film — a colourful riot of eye-abusing animation — hadn't already done that.
The whole point of a craze like Pokemon — and the Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Transformers, The Care Bears and every other kid-craze all the way back to Tiger Tim And His Pals (ask a pensioner) — is to alienate adults, to create a cultural space that only an eight year-old can inhabit; in which you as a grown-up may have a degree in rocket science and be among the three best cello virtuosi of the age but you're clearly a moron if you can't tell the difference between Pikachu and Mewtwo, and beneath contempt should you get Pokemon mixed up with Digimon ("Daaaad, how could you embarrass me like that?"). Then there's Toy Story.
The reason that the United Nations should strike a special medal for John Lasseter of Pixar is that Toy Story is, at last, a real film " for children of all ages ". In an age when children own videos of their favourite films and insist they be played every day for three straight years, even during funerals or the cup final telecast, Toy Story has been so intensely crafted that there are fresh jokes to appreciate every time. Some are amazingly subtle, like a slight camera jiggle to imitate a rough edit; in computer animation, it would be easier to have a perfect match shot but you need the flaw to interpret the visual information — watch it again, and be astonished at the creativity.
It's also — courtesy of the script involvement of Joss Whedon — the Scream of kiddie movies, a pointed reflection on the meaning of its genre. It deploys cutting edge technology in a film affirming the place of hand-stitched stuffed toys beside "Made In Taiwan" plastic high-tech, and unifies parent and child by encouraging a post-film debate about how toys have changed since the old days.
Given that Toy Story was the first all-CGI animated feature, it's a miracle that it didn't turn out to be as plodding as Dinosaur — which spends so much time on the tech that it forgets to include the drama, the humour and the heart. Spinning off from the old idea of the playthings that come to life when the children aren't looking (there's a creepy Victorian music hall song called When The Dolls Dance After Dark that appears in the film The House In Nightmare Park (1973), Toy Story has a genuine story in the rivalry between Sheriff Woody (Hanks), the old-fashioned stuffed cowboy doll, and Buzz Lightyear (Allen), a cartoon space-ranger that parodies the worst of kidblitz teevee. How a 1995 eight year-old has a toy from the 1950s is a question we shouldn't ask. Oddly, there's real bite in the film.
Woody, the ostensible hero, is a paranoid middle-management drone ("Staff meeting, everybody!") so jealous of his pole position in Andy's life that he's willing to murder the naively heroic Buzz (who initially refuses to believe he isn't a real space ranger). With a less supernaturally likeable voice performer than Allen, you probably wouldn't put up with him. And forget Sid the toy-torturer next door, it's Andy who's the monster, turning his toys into emotional wrecks by capriciously bestowing and witholding affection and never conscious of the agonies suffered under his feet.
Stunt voice casting is an art perfected by the corporate Disney cartoons of the 1990s, most successfully with Robin Williams in Aladdin, but see also Eddie Murphy in Mulan. Toy Story hauls in star names but also brilliantly-chosen character - actors, and comes up with animated creations, unimaginable without their voices but not completely reliant on them for humour—you hear John (Cheers) Ratzenberger (Ham the piggy-bank), Wallace ("Inconceivable!") Shawn (Rex the pathetic T-Rex), R. Lee (Full Metal Jacket) Ermey (Sarge of the Bucket O'Soldiers) and Jim ("Ernest") Varney (Slinky) but they aren't making the faces move though you'd swear they were.
This is a film that realises kids can and do love crap toys — the dinosaur whose parts don't quite match, the soldiers with bent guns and plastic mould ridges — because imagination makes them live, and there's a lovely irony in that Toy Story's merchandising means you can now buy lovingly-crafted versions of these creatures, right down to their deliberatley placed flaws.
And, miracle of miracles, Pixar managed to do it all over again with the inevitable but still magical Toy Story 2.
The toon comedy to end them all.
Release Year: 1995
Genre: Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family
Director: John Lasseter
Writer: John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, Joe Ranft, Joss Whedon, Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow
Stars: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles
We know; we know. The premise of "toys coming alive when no one is looking" sounds pretty nightmarish. And with good reason—before Toy Story, the world had met the homicidal Chucky (and his not-so-blushing bride), the creepy-as Dolly Dearest, and the demonic toys from the unimaginatively named Demonic Toys.
But Toy Story achieves the unachievable—it's a movie that makes you want your toys to be carefully concealing their sentience.
And when Toy Story hit cinemas in 1995, it didn't just change the way that little kids and grown adults alike thought about their possibly-alive dolls and toy soldiers. It made them concerned about those toys' emotional and psychological well-being.
Because these toys ain't just walking and talking—they're exploring their psyches with more neurotic introspection than Woody Allen.
And speaking of Woody…
In Toy Story we meet Woody, a cowboy doll and the hero of our story. But, like any good hero, he faces some challenges right out of the gate. When Buzz Lightyear arrives, this confident space ranger action figure outshines Woody in just about every way.
Of course, when their owner, Andy, starts playing with Buzz a whole lot, Woody's insecurity and neurosis kick into high gear. Eventually, both Woody and Buzz wind up on a wacky misadventure while they try to find their way back to Andy's house and deal with the crushing sadness of loss, change, and the kind of existential crises that would make Camus start weeping.
You know, kid stuff.
And Toy Story didn't just break ground in the field of introducing angst to young kiddos: it was also the very first movie made by a little-known animation studio called Pixar. Back in 1995, you wouldn't be able to pick them out of a production company line-up, but today, Pixar is one of the most creative, admired, and profitable companies in the world. Toy Story was the first in a series of critically acclaimed and commercially successful blockbusters like Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., and Inside Out.
And Toy Story paved the way for Pixar's signature blend of comedy and tragedy. (Seriously, just turn on any Pixar movie and try not to puddle up.)
But before the ugly-cry-inducing first ten minutes of Up, there was Toy Story. It was the little animated movie that could. Made by total storytelling novices with a budget of only $30 million, Toy Story ended up becoming the highest-grossing movie of 1995. (Source)
It made $191 million in U.S. theaters alone. That doesn't count international tickets. Or merchandise. Or later DVD sales. Or any of the sequels. (Source)
Yeah, Woody and Buzz have made some big bucks for Pixar.
At the time, Toy Story was such an impressive feat that it even got nominated for three Oscars and won a Special Achievement Award for being the first feature-length computer-animated film. Oh yeah—and this was five years before the Academy added the Best Animated Feature category. Not too shabby. (Source)
Will Toy Story make you feel bad about the way you treated your toys as a kid? Absolutely—we now feel really bad about donating our Polly Pockets to Goodwill.
But, will it also warm your heart, make you smile, make you question the meaning of life, and make you question what exactly the phrase "To infinity and beyond!" means? Also absolutely—what in the name of Mr. Potatohead is beyond infinity?
There were cartoons before Toy Story, and cartoons after Toy Story.
We know we sound like we're just being major suck-ups to the team at Pixar and the all-powerful hopping desk lamp that surely controls them.
But this not-so-little film about the floppy-armed cowboy Woody and his delusional best bud Buzz did for animated films what, say, Spiegelman's Maus did graphic novels—it showed the world that it was totally possible for cartoons to be deep, searing, and interesting for adults.
It's not like there weren't philosophical cartoons floating around before Toy Story landed in theaters in 1995. There were. But before Toy Story, most people heard "animated feature film" and thought about happy endings, singing woodland creatures, damsels in distress, and joyous musical numbers.
And after Toy Story, people heard "animated feature film" and also thought about identity crises, deep sorrow, ego death, and nuanced characterization.
This complexity is why some critics have called Toy Story the greatest animated movie of all time. But, it's also regarded as one of the best movies of all time, period. It has an 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
100%. Seriously—that's the same rating as Citizen Kane (which is routinely referred to as the best movie of all time), All About Eve, and The Maltese Falcon.
Toy Story is a trailblazer. An icon. And, yes—it will definitely make you feel all the feels. So sit back and grab a beverage—whether you're a kid stabbing a juicebox or a senior citizen grabbing a daiquiri—and watch or rewatch Toy Story. Just make sure you have a box of Kleenex (and whatever flavor of ice cream you need when existential dread hits) handy.