Remember those days when you actively looked forward to a movie release by a particular studio. You heard rumours that Lucas was preparing for a new instalment to his Star Wars series and Spielberg was contemplating dusting off Indiana Jones' fedora and bringing him back into the frame. Oh how your heart sank when you finally saw what they eventually produced, how the once mighty fell from their high perches. Now you perhaps look on them with a little more scepticism than you once did; it only takes one, or multiples in the case of Lucas, turkey to ensure a fickle audience divert their attentions elsewhere.
One studio though has, yet, never let us down; seemingly going from strength to strength. You're eager when you hear they're in pre-production for a new movie and come the release date you'll escape the darkened confines of your own home cinema, venture out into the big bad world and see their latest incarnation as soon as possible. That studio... Pixar. All of this happened some 15 years ago; in 1995. That year people flocked to the cinemas to finally see a full length computer generated feature film. They left not only astonished by the visuals which had graced their tired eyes, but by the pure craftsmanship of storytelling. Whilst there were teams of developers (note developers not film makers) behind the scenes tweaking the last ounce of steam out of their proprietary RenderMan software, it is generally acknowledged that one man's genius was responsible for the actual story, its nuances, flowing plot, and excellent, identifiable characters. That man... John Lasseter.
Lasseter had earned his wings earlier in his career whilst at Disney; he instinctively knew what made an animation worth watching. It was as though he had almost stolen that knowledge from Disney in the Seventies because after this time Disney essentially went downhill. Yes they recovered with a few films later, but it seems to me that they never had the same touchy-feely awareness of their earlier efforts. Eventually Lasseter, and his stolen knowledge, walked the Disney plank and headed to warmer shores. Those shores funnily enough being the newly created Digital arm of LucasFilm, Lucas Computer Grahics Group.
Computers were big in the Seventies, and I'm not just talking about physical dimensions. Every man and his dog were either constructing them from kits, Tandy or ZX-80/81 anyone, or designing them in a sun soaked garage in California; Apple anyone? It seemed as though as these chips in a box were going to take the world by storm. The hurricane that followed is history now, and whilst we sit in our cabled up, broadband aware, NAS backed up homes, those early days were indeed like the gold rush of the late 1800s. Lasseter was astute, he saw the rush, and he knew that the skills in animation and storytelling he had learned at Disney would be ideally suited to this new medium. Yes those early efforts were blocky, short, and definitely crude by today's standards. The one thing they all had in common though was the back end storytelling. These shorts introduced us to standard lamps, monocycles, encased snowmen and children's toys; what they all had in common was the viewer being able to identify and relate to these once inanimate objects. Lasseter re-introduced the viewing public to a connection they had perhaps not seen since Bambi or Dumbo.
In 1988 Lasseter and his team produced an engaging little short named Tin Toy. This short introduced us to a slobbering, ill-fitting, nappy wearing baby whose toys all live in fear of destruction from their owner's drool soaked, gargantuan hands. It takes the courage of one little drummer toy to realise his purpose in life is to entertain the smooth skinned beast, no matter the consequences to himself. This eventually became the cornerstone to a film which would essentially change not only Pixar, but the way in which audiences and producers alike viewed their next movie incarnations.
Tin Toy grew up and evolved into Toy Story. Let's face it anyone old enough has probably seen this film by now but as custom dictates here's a little catch-up. It's Andy's birthday and as he and his mother put the final touches to his birthday party, Andy's toys are rallying the troops in the hope of finding out what other items will be joining them in Andy's room. Rex can't stand the thought of another dinosaur, Mr Potato Head wants a Mrs Potato Head, presumably to produce a little mash together, and Woody (the undisputed leader of the pack) is not overly concerned as to what might be coming through that door. That is until he sees the latest present Andy is gifted: a gleaming, laser sprouting, impressive wing-spanned defender of the universe as we know it... Buzz Lightyear. The toys love Buzz, Andy loves Buzz, and Woody... well he sees his perch at the top of the tree swaying in the wind somewhat: is he about to be replaced as Andy's favourite toy?
Toy Story works on so many different levels. Whilst marketed as a kids film, it appealed to the adults in the audience too. A neat trick when you think about it, because those kids who loved the film the first time round will be adults themselves someday, still enjoy the movie and re-introduce the movie to their own kids at some point. I remember my own son was just 3 years old when this came out. He and I went to see the film and he burst out of the cinema mumbling "To Infinity and Beyond" as best he could for his razor sharp little chops. Now somewhat older he still cracks up every time he sees this film, sees it now with different eyes, laughs at scenes he has seen all too many times before, but this time laughs for different reasons. So yes, whilst it might be regarded as a kiddie film, there's so much in there that appeals to adults. The kids in the audience knew all the time that their toys were alive (just like they know there's monsters in the closet) and took great joy in seeing them move, the adults chuckling at Bo-Peep seducing Woody, Mr Potato Head's 'laser envy' comments or a multitude or other subtle nuances spread throughout this feature film. If ever there was a family film, this is it!
Lasseter and his team hit all of the nails on all of their heads. Time and time again you have seen films as a kid, seen their toys in the background and never known what they were. Not here. These are toys that kids old and young have known for years... the string pull Woody doll, a realistic plastic dinosaur, Mr Potato Head, Slinky, Operation in the background or a bucket of soldiers, who even have the extra bits of thin plastic which you tried in vain to remove with your teeth and/or 'borrowed' Stanley knife from your father's toolbox. The list was endless though because in the background you'll be able to spot something you have played with at some point in your life. This was the attention to detail that the actual animators brought to the party. No need to show ambiguous toys; let's show real life, for real life it most certainly was.
On top of this basic grounding Lasseter introduced us to some of the best and funniest comedy characters of the last 50 years. Woody's confidence slowly eroding as he thinks he might perhaps be usurped. Ham's dry comments on life in the humble surroundings of Andy's abode. Mr Potato Head's almost continual sarcastic view on things around him has some of the best lines. Rex becomes a little too grating for my own tastes, but I can see where Lasseter was coming from by creating him the way he did and of course that now star of the show Buzz Lightyear. The comedy from Woody and Buzz is pure gold dust and some of the best interaction seen in movies, or television, for many a long while. Buzz's expressions as he breathes air for the first time, his pained expression as he surveys his damaged ship, Woody's continual comments to him or his scalding of the encased Claw worshipping aliens are absolute gems to be savoured. This just scratches the top of this incredible iceberg though because around every corner, and through every scene, you'll be chuckling to yourself almost continually.
The writing for this comedy duo was top shelf but perhaps wouldn't have worked if it hadn't been for both Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. Both on the upward curve of their own ascendancy in Hollywood, they brought life to their characters as so few had done in the past. Their vocal emotions are spot on and these days it's almost impossible to think of any others playing their parts.
And it is that buddy storyline which gave Toy Story its initially critical reception, and what continues to propel it into the hearts and minds of those new viewers; its plot is a glorious affair. It shows kiddies everywhere fear of being rejected, anger (Woody obviously leaning to the dark side a little here), friendship, romance, resolution and edge of your seat excitement. As our toys are forced to venture out into the big bad world they meet challenges they have to face, obstacles they have to overcome, and find out that working together is the only way forward for successful relationships. It's a heart warming storyline and one which captures the imaginations of both young and old alike.
Those imaginations were fuelled by the incredible renderings of a new art form, that's for sure, but it is the heart and soul of this movie which gave it its place in history, not the new fangled technology used to bring it to our screens. It's a worthwhile tale that any movie maker should listen to. By all means use the latest and greatest technology at your command to produce your films. If though your characters are 2-dimensional, or your plot doesn't joint the dots from A to B then you're facing an uphill struggle no matter how glorious it might look.
Toy Story ticks all of the boxes, is graded top of the class for all of its individual elements and can only ever be awarded full marks for the joy it has brought to countless millions of young people, young in frame or young in heart.
Our Review Ethos