Andy Davis is an ordinary boy growing up in a suburban home. Like many kids, he loves playing with toys. His favorite toy is a cowboy figure named Woody. However, the world in which Andy lives has a secret. Toys are living beings that simply pretend to be lifeless whenever humans are present. Because Andy’s family intends to move soon, his parents decide to celebrate his birthday a week early. Little does he know that one toy he receives will end up disrupting the dynamic between the ones he currently owns.
Having received a wide release on November 22, 1995, Toy Story has the honor of being the first feature-length film to be entirely computer-animated. When one considers the technology at the time, it is truly incredible how well the visuals hold up. Then again, the decision to cast toys in the lead role was a very clever way for the technicians to deal with the limitations at the time. It would have been exceptionally difficult to render 3D human figures without evoking the Uncanny Valley effect. By focusing primarily on the toys, any accidental evocation of this effect is deftly avoided. To their credit, the Pixar team did an admirable job rendering their human figures – even if the results have begun to show their age by now.
The 1990s featured no shortage of films with high concepts such as Groundhog Day, so it seems highly fitting that the animation studio Pixar would conceive a world in which toys are alive. As with many films operating on a high concept, a lot of what makes Toy Story so effective is that it doesn’t overcomplicate the narrative. There is no reason stated as to how the toys gained sentience, so we’re just led to believe it has always been this way. Given how disorganized many children are during playtime, toys getting lost and miraculously turning up where one least expects it is not an uncommon occurrence. This means the toys don’t necessarily have to worry about becoming dormant exactly where the humans last left them.
Shortly after establishing its central concept, the narrative immediately explores the implications of the universe with its first development. The other toys, including the shepherdess Bo Peep, Mr. Potato Head, a green Tyrannosaurs Rex, a piggy bank, and Slinky Dog are understandably worried that they will be replaced by one of Andy’s presents. To assuage their fears, Woody sends out army men on a reconnaissance mission so they can learn what Andy has received. At first, it appears none of them are being replaced, but Andy receives a surprise gift in the form of a Buzz Lightyear action figure.
Although a kid receiving the trendy toy is a common occurrence in real life, in this universe, it completely disrupts the status quo. Buzz, believing himself to be a real space ranger, manages to impress Woody’s friends with his laser, button-activated phrase, and ostensible ability to fly, though the last of these only occurred through a freak accident. Suddenly, Woody ceases being the head honcho, and like a passing fad, fades into the background. The sheriff slowly watches the Western-themed posters adorning Andy’s room being replaced with space and science fiction-flavored ones.
The central conflict begins in earnest when Andy learns he is being taken to Pizza Planet for his birthday. His mother only allows him to bring a single toy. Realizing Andy would likely pick Buzz, he attempts to trap the action figure behind a desk, but inadvertently knocks him out of a window. This creates a major rift between himself and the other toys, who believe he attempted to kill Buzz. Before they can take revenge, Andy arrives. It turns out Woody’s fears were well-founded, for Andy does indeed seek Buzz out first. Only when he is left with no choice does he take Woody.
Given that the protagonists of this film are toys, it is highly fitting how the antagonist is a teenager by the name of Sid Phillips. While Andy enjoys playing with his toys, Sid is especially fond of destroying them. After entering his house, Woody and Buzz learn Sid also takes his sister’s toys and makes unsightly chimeras out of them, though it’s later revealed they’re not evil. In his first scene, he uses a firecracker to explode an army man. Through a set of bizarre circumstances following Buzz accosting Woody and the two of them ending up in a crane game in Pizza Planet, they end up in the possession of Sid. Even though Buzz is the current hot commodity among kids’ toys, Sid intends tie him to a fireworks rocket and launch him. Only a timely thunderstorm prevents Sid’s plans from coming to fruition.
A lot of what makes this story so compelling is the arc its two lead characters undergo. Woody has to eventually come to grips that he is no longer the big man on campus. Being Andy’s favorite, he was considered the toys’ leader – any pretenses of which came to an end the minute Buzz entered the picture. He naturally has a lot of resentment towards Buzz, though he didn’t intend to knock him out of the window. He then spends the duration of the film attempting to and, until the very end, failing to win back the trust of his friends.
Buzz, on other the other hand, is a fish out of water. As a new toy with no real memories to speak of, believes himself to be the genuine article. He dismisses all of the evidence suggesting otherwise until he sees a Buzz Lightyear commercial. Reality begins to set in when he attempts to fly out of an open window only to fall down a staircase and lose an arm. After having come to blows with the new toy throughout the film, Woody realizes Andy’s happiness is more important than his own and gives Buzz a much-needed pep talk.
Buzz’s confidence is restored, but the dawn breaks shortly thereafter and Sid enacts his master plan. Enlisting the help of the chimeras Sid created, Woody, breaking the fundamental rules of the universe, warns the teenager not to abuse toys anymore. This is the single greatest sequence in the film, playing out like an inverted horror scenario. For good measure, Woody even takes cues from The Exorcist by turning his head all the way around when telling Sid toys see everything. It does raise the question of why Buzz acted insentient whenever humans were around before he realized what he truly was, but it’s possible he felt it appropriate to adopt the locals’ habits.
Woody and Buzz eventually make their way to Andy’s van. After spending a majority of the film not knowing where his favorite toys were, Andy becomes more appreciative of Woody. In his new room, he is shown to have put the Western-themed posters back up. Accompanying the space-themed posters, they serve as a metaphor for the friendship formed between Woody and Buzz. The bond will then be put to the test when, on Christmas Day, they learn one of Andy’s presents is a puppy.
Toy Story is frequently considered one of the greatest animated films of all time, and this status is well-deserved. Although one could make a fairly reasonable case the film’s visuals have not held up well, there is no denying that it was a technical marvel at the time. The ultimate takeaway is that the film has aged well in the most important fields, boasting a great story with excellent characters. This is a rare kind of film that has something to offer anyone who watches it, treating kids with respect and allowing adults to appreciate its nuances. Whether or not you consider yourself an animation buff, Toy Story is a recommended watch and a worthy debut of a stellar production company.
Final Score: 8/10