Last year I decided that I wanted to talk more about movies on this blog, so I embarked on a massive project where I watched every Disney Animation Studios feature ever, in order of release. A lot of the movies from the 80’s and 90’s were directly impacted by what started off as a tiny computer animation studio called Pixar. They handled all of the digital effects in movies like The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under and even as far back as The Black Cauldron. All of those released before Beauty and the Beast. Pixar also created a couple short films here and there, but their first feature film finally released in 1995.
It’s time to begin my Pixar movie blogathon. With 19 movies, it’ll be much quicker than Disney Animation Studios’ massive 56 movie catalogue. But at the same time this won’t quite be a short marathon either. Unlike Disney where I had seen just over half of them going in, I’ve seen the vast majority of Pixar’s movies already. The only ones I haven’t seen are Cars 2, Monsters University and everything that’s released since Inside Out. Out of 19 movies, I’ve seen 13 and there are 6 I haven’t seen.
Just a heads up, this is going to be one of those posts where I talk a lot more about the movie’s background than the movie itself. Although for a movie like Toy Story that needs no introduction, that’s just fine.
If there is one animation studio that can rival Disney’s main studio’s legacy, it’s Pixar. That’s not just because they share a history. Disney Animation Studios changed filmmaking time and time again. It proved that animation could be a successful business. It proved that animation could still tell a dramatic story. Although there are other studios that have found success lately, like Dreamworks and to a lesser extent, Sony, none of them have truly impacted the industry like Disney. Pixar did change the industry however, by introducing us to fully computerized feature animated films. It proved that a fully CGI movie could be made, and it could be successful. And for a movie that released the same year as Windows 95, its visuals hold up surprisingly well.
To talk about this movie properly, one can’t go on without talking a bit about John Lasseter himself. And I won’t be mentioning the recent misconduct allegations against him or his self-imposed leave of absence because I don’t know much about it. There don’t seem to be many details on how serious these accusations are, and I do respect that he willingly took a leave of absence instead of waiting to get kicked out like a lot of other people involved in the recent scandals. I believe that rapists should face the full extent of the law, and that while it’s all disgusting, there’s a huge difference between harassment and physical assault. That’s all I have to say on the matter.
Anyway, Lasseter’s first experience with computer animation was during his work as an animator for Disney. His friends showed him the lightcycle scene from Tron, and it awakened him with the possibilities of computer animation. He tried pitching The Brave Little Toaster as a fully CGI movie to Disney, but they rejected the idea and fired him. He worked at Lucasfilm for a while, and later founded Pixar, which was quickly bought by Apple. At Pixar, he created an animated CGI short, Tin Toy, in 1988. It was a 5-minute short about a toy trying to escape from a destructive baby, and it won the 1988 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.
Tin Toy grabbed the attention of the Disney Corporation, and they worked hard at convincing him to return. Unable to convince him to return to Disney, they instead recruited Pixar to help Disney with more of their animation features, increasing the amount of computer animation in the backgrounds. You can clearly see the end result of this in Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, both of which made huge advancements in animation technology. The negotiations get a bit complex, but in the end Disney and Pixar came up with a multi film deal in 1991, with Disney holding a bit too much power. That would eventually become a point of contention between Disney and Pixar, almost leading Pixar to permanently split from Disney. We’ll get into that later in this blogathon.
While they worked on a general story, the main writers realized that nobody on the team had any experience with writing for a feature film. They all went to a three-day seminar in Los Angeles to help refine their craft. The characters went through serious changes, like Tinny feeling too antiquated, and he eventually changed from a dummy, to a military action figure, and then eventually into a space toy. Partially named after Buzz Aldrin, this space toy eventually became Buzz Lightyear. They also greatly toned down Woody’s personality (he was originally an unlikeable ventriloquist dummy made of wood). With Buzz being a space toy, they also changed Woody into a cowboy doll for directly contrasting themes.
Toy Story’s script was approved in January, 1993, and casting began almost immediately afterwards. I mentioned how at first, Woody was a jerk. Tom Hanks, who was already voicing Woody, often exclaimed that his character was too much of a jerk. That iteration of the character still lasted all the way to November of 1993, where they about finished the first half of the movie and screened it. The reception was a disaster. Even Lasseter said of the screening “It was a story filled with the most unhappy, mean characters that I’ve ever seen.” Production completely shut down so that the writing team could spend several weeks rewriting the entire project. Disney’s Animation Studio also got more involved, giving Lasseter’s team some experienced help in developing the characters. Joss Whedon (Yes, Avengers director Joss Whedon) also got involved as the movie’s new lead writer.
Both Lasseter and Whedon didn’t want the movie to be a musical, unlike pretty much every Disney animated movie up to that point. Whedon said “it would have been a really bad musical, because it’s a buddy movie. It’s about people who won’t admit what they want, much less sing about it.” However Disney still wanted Toy Story to be a musical. They reached a compromise, where instead of the characters going into song, Randy Newman would compose several songs for the movie. Amazingly enough, he developed the trilogy’s signature song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”, in one day.
In terms of the animation, I’ll just encourage you to watch the different documentaries on Toy Story because this background information is getting long enough, and the documentaries on the DVD and Blu-ray releases are fantastic.
There were a lot of worries that Toy Story wouldn’t do so well. As an entirely new form of animation was behind it, it was hard for people to tell how progress was moving during development. But in the end, it received massive critical acclaim. It earned a rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average rating of 9/10. Critics praised the movie’s revolutionary visuals, brilliant voice acting from Hanks as Woody and Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear and its overall great storytelling. Director Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) praised the movie as a work of genius; a movie that helps people understand what toys are really about. The movie also performed very well, earning $373 million on a $30 million budget. That means it earned more than Disney’s Pocahontas, released the same year. And Pocahontas was the movie that Disney was really banking on in 1995.
Not only did Toy Story’s success kick start an entire new sub-genre of animated movies that’s since completely overtaken animation, but it pretty much instantly turned Pixar into a big name themselves. It spawned two theatrical sequels, both of which also performed very well critically and commercially, with a third sequel planned for 2019. It even spawned a sub-franchise for Buzz Lightyear that created a TV show, a ride at Disney World and a couple video games.
As for my personal experience, Toy Story was one of the first movies I saw in theaters. I fell in love with the story very quickly. The idea of toys coming to life captured my young and overly active imagination for years. I was so fascinated by the idea that I didn’t even realize how genuinely funny yet dramatic this movie is. Although the way I look at the movie has changed over the years, I still enjoy it just as much as I did the first time. Even now, it’s on my small list of movies that, no matter how I feel before I put it on, I’m always in a good mood by the time it’s over.
Toy Story’s story needs no introduction. It’s about toys that come to life, treat being toys like it’s their day job and otherwise each have unique personalities. Beyond that, it’s a well-told tale of getting over jealousy. It’s about two completely opposite people learning to become close friends and partners. It’s about Woody finding his way back home and regaining the trust of his co-workers. It’s about Buzz coming to terms that he’s not a real space ranger, but a really cool toy. And of course it’s about a kid who may be too obsessed with his toys.
What’s hilarious about Andy (the kid in Toy Story) is that he’s very caring about his toys. He gets distressed when they’re damaged. He takes his favourite toys everywhere he goes. He’s portrayed by the movie as a good kid. Meanwhile you’ve got his neighbor Sid, who enjoys destroying toys in as many different ways as he can. He’s portrayed as a villain, yet if anything he’s a far more normal kid than Andy. I mean, what boy doesn’t like blowing things up every now and then? I didn’t like Sid when I was a kid, but now I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for him when he’s traumatized near the end of the movie. With that said, I was kind of more like Andy as a kid (although nowhere nearly as obsessive or emotional over my toys).
Pixar needed to fight to get this movie made, and there were multiple kinds of struggles along the way. But in the end, Toy Story changed the animation business almost as much as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs did. It introduced the world to an entirely new kind of animation, while also telling a genuinely heartfelt story about likeable characters. The movie didn’t do well because computer animation as new and fascinating. If it wasn’t a good movie, then it probably wouldn’t have been received very well. It could have tainted the entire CGI medium, and then we’d still be in an era of traditional animation being king. Regardless about how you feel about Toy Story itself, John Lasseter after the recent allegations or how Pixar doesn’t have the near perfect track record that it used to have, there’s no denying Pixar’s impact on the industry. And it all started with Toy Story.
Next up is A Bugs Life, followed by Toy Story 2 and Monster’s Inc. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this blogathon. Even if the overall quality will slowly drop over time, there are works of genius spread evenly throughout their catalogue. And even Pixar’s bad movies are usually better than average animated features.