I grew up with Toy Story. It was an important part of my childhood, as I’m sure it was for many others who are around my age. One of the first movies I remember seeing in the theaters was the follow-up, Toy Story 2 in 1999. Funnily enough, this film was released on my birth year. So in a way both mine and Pixar’s growth has run parallel, since this was their first feature film. As a writer, Pixar taught me the importance of story and character. Needless to say, I do have a bit of nostalgia for this film.
As I was researching more about the film I realized that Toy Story, and more importantly the trilogy as a whole, are some of the best-reviewed children’s films ever. Toy Story and its first sequel both have 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the third film has a 99%. A fourth film is planned for a release in 2019, which will be 20 years after the release of its first sequel and almost 10 years after the release of its most recent sequel. The reviews and buzz are well deserved, but it got me to thinking… what is it about Toy Story that has made it stand the test of time? I hope to answer that question in this review.
There are many ways to go about answering this question. We can look at all the positives of the film and its historical impact. There is no denying the historical impact of Toy Story. The animation was revolutionary at the time, and although some of it hasn’t aged well (some of the motion, the facial expressions, and Sid’s dog Scud) it still looks rather impressive today. It was revolutionary in the field of 3D and computer animation, and it rightfully skyrocketed Pixar to success.
We can also look at the near perfect screenplay and everything that stems from it. The screenplay was written by a great group of writers, some of which went on to find future successes at Pixar and some who had other successes outside of the company (such as Joss Whedon). One thing is for sure; this screenplay needs to be taught in film schools. It is a tight script that makes excellent use of setups of payoffs, presents great stakes and raises the conflict at just the right moments.
The film also deals with exposition well, which is something that is usually lacking in children’s films. Instead of outright explaining the exposition so that children can easily understand and annoying the adults and film critics, Pixar reveals information visually. They also deal with dialogue exposition in witty ways that makes it easy to understand but not force-fed. This also provides for some of the humor, which this film delivers ten fold and for all ages.
I love the references and nods to other films. Having R. Lee Ermey play the sergeant as a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket was a genius move. Also the scene where the toys rise up and attack Sid is reminiscent of zombie movies like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Pixar has always been great at these subtle nods to other cinematic achievements.
As a result of the tight, near perfect script the film is rapidly paced, but not in a bad way. The audience flies through the narrative and each new frame builds up to a terrific third act that pays off everything setup before.
The film also speaks to the kid in us. You can’t tell me you never wanted to go to Pizza Planet. I know I did. And we all knew a kid like Sid who takes his childhood anger and aggression out in unhealthy ways.
Above all else, Toy Story is a great story. The themes are rich and there is something poignant and meaningful that hides beneath the kid friendly surface. I believe that is the true power of the film and the reason for its long-term success. The themes of friendship, redemption and finding your true purpose, are timeless and handled expertly through character. When you really think about the film it becomes deeply existential.
Woody’s arc deals with many questions. What should we do when we are replaced? When we no longer have value? He handles Andy’s adoration of Buzz in a terrible fashion, but this kick starts the plot and leads to his character development and the realization of his true purpose later in the film.
An important moment of the film is the montage sequence where Woody is slowly replaced by Buzz. This all culminates in a moment where Andy decides which toy he is going to put away in the toy box for the night. When Woody isn’t chosen, we relate, because we all know a moment in our lives where our love and attention was no longer needed or wanted.
Buzz’s arc is all about his purpose. He begins the film with a false purpose, to rid the galaxy of evil. He slowly realizes he is a toy, and in one poignant moment, attempts to prove that he can be more, but ultimately fails. This leads to a crisis of identity and an eventual realization of his true purpose. We can all relate to moments of failure when trying to achieve our dreams and desires. Buzz gives up (until the third act that is) because you can’t fail if you don’t try, right?
Woody and Buzz eventually realize their true purpose in a moment of despair. Woody is trapped in a crate, symbolizing the jail of his inner turmoil, and Buzz is attached to a rocket, symbolizing his dreams that will never be accomplished. Through a touching conversation, they both realize that their true purpose is…. to be a toy and to help bring joy to Andy’s life, and more importantly they realize they can’t do this with out each other.
As humans, learning about our purpose in the world is one of the hardest things we ever have to do. Some people never find their true purpose. Toy Story deals with these existential questions in interesting ways, all the while delivering an entertaining package for children and adults. These messages are important for children to learn and think about, and what better way to introduce children to these topics and themes than through toys. That to me is the genius of Toy Story.
Written by: William David Glenn IV