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There’s no outgrowing Toy Story

There’s no outgrowing <i>Toy Story</i>
Graphic: Natalie Peeples, Screenshot: Toy Story
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The Popcorn Champs

The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?

You shouldn’t be able to make great art by committee. A great work of art is supposed to be made by one person digging deep and offering up a shred of a soul, or maybe by two people butting heads and pushing each other and finally breaking through to some universal truth. It’s not supposed to come from a corporate boardroom where everyone notes everyone else to death. That maxim has been critical consensus for nearly as long as critical consensus has existed. And yet Pixar Animation Studios has spent the past quarter-century disproving received wisdom.

Pixar functions as a corporate entity, and its movies are a result of years of painstaking rewriting and restructuring, with everyone involved working on everyone else’s projects. I can’t imagine what a pain in the ass it must be to sit in one of those meetings while your co-workers disassemble and reassemble your ideas, and yet Pixar has made it work. They had to. It’s the only way they could’ve made Toy Story.

These days, Pixar operates as a kind of emotional wrecking ball. If you’re an adult taking your kids to see one of the studio’s movie, you can be fairly certain that there will be at least one point where you will try to hide your face from your children so that they will not see you weeping. Pixar has its duds, but it seems to be the one blockbuster house in Hollywood where sharply sentimental storytelling, rather than vague name recognition, is the chief goal. Before Toy Story, though, Pixar was basically an experimental tech company without a whole lot to show for its long, chaotic history. By spending years working on Toy Story, the people at Pixar shaped themselves into master emotional manipulators. It can’t have been easy.

Disney owns Pixar now, but Pixar was an independent company when it made Toy Story, the most successful film of 1995. They made Toy Story as a partnership, spending years responding to notes and transforming the movie into something that would satisfy the bosses at Disney. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the notorious micro-manager who was Disney’s chairman at the time, was constantly blowing up everything the Pixar people were putting together, even shutting down production for a while in 1993. (Today, Katzenberg is a laughingstock for his role in the ongoing Quibi debacle. But give the man credit; he did have the idea to turn Toy Story into a buddy movie.) Toy Story has four different screenwriters, with two others getting story credits. But that group came up with a premise, a setting, and a group of characters that continue to resonate, long after they achieved the goal of making computer animation into a viable artistic and commercial pursuit.

The people who made Toy Story were true believers. Director John Lasseter had worked as a Disney animator in the 1980s, and he’d been fired for pushing the idea of computer animation too hard. (Lasseter joined Disney in the same class as Tim Burton, another ousted animator who went on to make blockbuster movies and eventually return to Disney. Later on, Lasseter became a Pixar exec under Disney, then resigned in disgrace once his history of sexual harassment became public.) Pixar, meanwhile, had its origins in a mid-’70s computer-graphics lab, and it had spent years as a division within Lucasfilm, where the company had done CGI effects work on movies like Star Trek II and Young Sherlock Holmes.

George Lucas, hurting financially after an expensive divorce, decided to sell off Pixar in the mid-’80s. Steve Jobs basically paid Lucas a few million for the company. (This was during Jobs’ wilderness years, the stretch of time after Apple fired him and he was trying to make his NeXT company happen.) In 1988, the newly hired Lasseter got $300,000 from Jobs to make Tin Toy, a five-minute computer-animated short about a wind-up one-man band and a vaguely terrifying baby. Tin Toy won the Best Animated Short Oscar that year, and that’s what brought Disney to the table.

At this point, Tin Toy looks so crude that it’s barely watchable, but the basic DNA of Toy Story is all there. Toy Story, like Tin Toy, uses its limitations. In the ’80s and ’90s, computer animation wasn’t really sharp enough to reliably depict humanity in any kind of satisfying way; that’s why Pixar didn’t make a movie entirely focused on human characters until The Incredibles in 2004. But even with those limitations in mind, Toy Story must’ve been a daunting task to take on.

Toy Story is the first-ever computer-animated feature film. That alone makes it a landmark work—maybe the most important animated movie in the 83 years since Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. But nobody watches Toy Story because of its historical significance. And nobody really paid to see it in 1995 because it represented a technological breakthrough. (I remember thinking Toy Story was going to look cheap and polygonal, like the Canadian TV cartoon Reboot.) Instead, then as now, people watch Toy Story because it’s a fun, imaginative, beautifully assembled piece of filmmaking. After the past 25 years of technological advances, the original Toy Story now looks thin and clunky, but you stop noticing that within five minutes.

There’s a lot going on in Toy Story. The central idea—toys are sentient beings who live lives of servitude and who only want to be played with—allows a whole lot of thematic wiggle room. Sometimes, the toys seem like harried and anxious workers, watching the clock run out on a dying industry. Sometimes, they seem like symbols for a childhood innocence that can’t possibly last—their fears about their own inevitable obsolescence mirror regular human fears about mortality. There’s a weird religious component, too. The kids are indifferent, all-powerful beings whose fleeting approval means everything. Maybe that means the kids are gods.

There’s a lot that Toy Story never tells us. Why are all these toys alive? Why do they need to keep their status as sentient creatures a secret from humanity? Why do some of the toys, like the army guys, reflect the characteristics of the things they’re supposed to represent, while others are the opposite of that? How come Buzz Lightyear is the only one who doesn’t know he’s a toy? (A quality he shares, in later Toy Story movies, with all the other Buzz Lightyear-branded toys.) But Toy Story is smart enough to leave those questions unanswered—to plunge us into the world that it has created and to let us figure out the rules ourselves.

From a certain angle, Woody, the hero of Toy Story, is a religious fanatic. Other toys are workers with their own lives, and they don’t always trust the idea that their prime purpose on the planet is to serve a child. But Woody almost never questions it, and he badgers the other toys into going along with his belief system. He’s also kind of an asshole, jealous and petty enough to put Buzz in harm’s way when his own favorite-toy status is challenged. In early drafts of the movie, Woody was the villain, a dictatorial leader who used his status to bully the other toys into submission. There’s still a bit of that in the final product, at least until Woody goes on his personal journey and becomes the worthy leader that he’d always pretended to be.

Buzz is a more tragic figure. Early on, he’s a clueless naif whose total lack of self-knowledge is a kind of superpower. Buzz understands that he’s got a purpose, a mission, and that gives him the swagger needed to, for instance, convince all the other toys that he can really fly. The problem is that he’s absolutely wrong, and when he discovers that he really is just a toy—that his entire self-conception was an illusion—it sends him into a suicidal identity-crisis funk.

Tom Hanks was, smartly, Pixar’s first choice to play Woody. He hadn’t yet gone on his absurd ’90s winning streak when he was cast in Toy Story: He recorded his parts while he was filming 1992’s A League Of Their Own and 1993’s Sleepless In Seattle. (You can hear traces of League’s boorish, grumpy manager and Sleepless’ lovingly aggravated dad in Woody.) But Toy Story, however unintentionally, still finds interesting ways to subvert Hanks’s movie-star persona.

Five months before Toy Story was in theaters, Hanks had been the calming presence at the center of Apollo 13, the guy responsible for staying cool, keeping himself and his fellow spacemen alive. In Toy Story, Hanks is the opposite—an insecure wreck who just wants the spaceman in his life to get out already. In the end, though, his role in both movies is the same. He’s the guy with the luck and ingenuity and supportive grace needed to lead cooperative efforts and get everyone safely back home.

As Buzz Lightyear, Tim Allen didn’t have the same kind of persona to subvert. At the time, Allen was America’s best-loved sitcom dad: The ABC comedy based on his grunting, power-tool-obsessed stand-up act, Home Improvement, was coming of season when it was the No. 3 TV series in America, behind Seinfeld and ER. In 1994, Allen had starred in the bafflingly popular family comedy The Santa Clause, while his TV son Jonathan Taylor Thomas had led the voice cast of The Lion King, that year’s biggest animated film. But Allen doesn’t bring much Home Improvement baggage to Toy Story, just as he hasn’t brought any of his more-recent right-wing-crank baggage to any of the sequels. He’s just good as a warm-hearted, square-jawed lug. It’s baffling to even consider how the movie would’ve turned out if both of Pixar’s first picks landed the leading roles: The studio had initially wanted Billy Crystal for Buzz.

Even beyond those characters, Toy Story is some kind of masterpiece of casting. The legendary insult comic Don Rickles and the Cheers supporting player John Ratzenberger play Mr. Potato Head and Hamm, the two cynics in the toy family. Jim Varney, who was most famous for playing the rubbery-faced Ernest P. Worrell and who would die of lung cancer five years later, plays Slinky Dog, the most devout of Woody’s disciples. (I always thought Slinky Dog was a deeply illogical toy, one that offered all the maddening tangled-up fragility of actual Slinkys without the cool walking-down-stairs action. But the Slinky Dog, it turns out, was a real toy that had dated back to the ’50s.) Wallace Shawn is Rex, the neurotic dinosaur—a fun twist on the still-fresh Jurassic Park phenomenon. R. Lee Ermey, the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, is a plastic army man. Few movies have character-actor benches that deep.

Toy Story bears the clear imprint and writers and animators squeezing every clever trick they can conjure into the frame—the Exorcist head-spin, the Alien-style whack-a-mole game, the constant stream of one-liners that we can almost certainly credit to co-writer Joss Whedon. (Whedon had done script-doctor work on films like Speed and Waterworld, but his only real credit before Toy Story was for the original Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie. Toy Story became the first animated film ever to be nominated for a screenwriting Oscar—it lost to The Usual Suspects—and that remains the only Oscar nomination of Whedon’s career.) The scene where neighbor kid Sid’s mutant creations emerge from the shadows is a minute of great horror filmmaking. For all the difficult work that went into its creation, Toy Story seems like it was fun to make.

It’s fun to watch, too. 1995’s biggest hits are mostly family films, which makes sense; by this point, millennials were old enough to make up a huge chunk of the moviegoing audience. Disney Animation Studios’ big traditional-animation film, the historically ridiculous Pocahontas, couldn’t come close to Toy Story’s grosses, but it still did business. Casper and Jumanji and the proudly juvenile Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls did, too. Warner Bros. brought the surging Jim Carrey in to frantically mug his way through Batman Forever, banking on the idea that kids would pay to see him fight Batman. They were right; Batman Forever was the year’s second-biggest earner. On a smaller scale, Babe made a ton of money and got a long-shot Best Picture nomination.

But all those movies feel like relics of a moviegoing moment, products of their time. Toy Story could’ve easily been that, too—a novelty, a historically interesting proof-of-concept for computer animation. Instead, Toy Story is eternal—a wellspring of sequels and theme-park rides and actual toys that never quite gets old. Maybe that’s because it’s great art.

The contender: While dozens of other action movies were ripping off his original Die Hard, John McTiernan’s sequel Die Hard: With A Vengeance gleefully discards its own blueprint, sending Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson madly ping-ponging across New York City to stop Jeremy Irons’ mad bomber. With A Vengeance is a definitive New York movie and a proud example of ’90s-style big-budget action done right. At the U.S. box office, Die Hard: With A Vengeance was the No. 10 movie of 1995. Globally, it was No. 1.

Next time: Independence Day becomes a juggernaut on the strength of ecstatic-destruction spectacle, beautifully dumb rah-rah speechifying, and the electric crackle of Will Smith’s presence.