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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 26 - Toy Story (1995)

Toy Story (1995; Walt Disney/Pixar Studios)
Director: John Lasseter
Writers: John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Andrew Stanton, Joss Whedon, Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolov
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen

In July of 1928, Steamboat Willie became the first “talkie”, with a full spoken audio track playing over an animated short film.  It was a landmark achievement in filmmaking from an idealistic young director named Walt Disney.  A decade later, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the first feature-length animated film and set the standard for the art of animation in its time.  Walt did much more for filmmaking than adapting classic fairy tales and building theme parks, though.  He designed and engineered the multiplane camera, allowing for the effect of perspective and depth in 2D animated films and was responsible for implementing many new forms of editing and effects that would revolutionize the way we look at the art of movies.

By the 70’s, however, Disney, as a company, was at an all-time low in terms of morale and success.  When Walt Disney died from cancer in 1966, the studio had a hard time keeping up the pace and begin producing fewer and fewer successes until the late 80’s saw the Disney Renaissance, a period of massive growth for Disney as a company.  In 1994, Disney gave us The Lion King, a massive achievement in filmmaking, and a year later, a small group of animators introduced the world to the first feature-length computer animated film: Toy Story.

Toy Story is an incredibly simple, timeless story told very, very well.  It follows the secret lives of toys when their owner, a boy named Andy, is not around.  They have a hierarchical ruling structure based on how much Andy loves them, with Woody (Voice of Tom Hanks), a pull-string talking cowboy, being the favorite and thus, the leader.  On Andy’s birthday he is given the next big toy, an electronic space hero named Buzz Lightyear.  Immediately Woody feels cast aside as Buzz appears to become Andy’s favorite new toy.  The only problem is, Buzz does not believe he is a toy, and thinks he is a real interstellar action hero.  Over time, Woody becomes so angry and envious of Buzz, that at one point he is accused by the other toys of killing Buzz when the space hero disappears.  This forces Woody to take action to find Buzz and prove his innocence, the two becoming friends in the process.  The film takes several turns in the story, with one surprisingly dark subplot involving a toy-torturing, truly messed-up kid who temporarily gains possession of Buzz and Woody.

Toy Story is a tale of unlikely friendship told through the a technology that was, at the time, still very new to general audiences.  Computer animation had been around for well over a decade but it was always very shallow-looking.  Bright colors and blocky figures dominated the artform, so imagine audiences’ collective surprise when Toy Story featured fully-animated characters in highly-detailed scenes.  It was a shock to most people, and it put Pixar near the top of the animation totem pole, right up there with Walt Disney Studios (a separate entity from Pixar) and Studio Ghibli.  The characters are interesting and relatable without being too cliched, the voice performances are all top-notch and art is still astounding by today’s standards, even after we spent years sitting through one mediocre CGI-fest after another, with the medium no longer being novel, just boring.  Toy Story is a reflection on a time when talented filmmakers were still very excited about a new art-form, and the potential of this new style of animation was still on the horizon.

NOTE: I would also point out that this was an early major screenwriting project for fan-favorite filmmaker Joss Whedon, so there's that, too!

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