Woody has been Andy’s favorite toy since kindergarten, but when the boy receives the must-have Buzz Lightyear action figure for his birthday, Woody feels pushed aside. When he confronts the space ranger, he realizes that Buzz doesn’t even realize that he is a toy, but instead believes that he is the “real” Buzz Lightyear who can shoot lasers and fly. Woody’s intense jealousy eventually drives him to do the unthinkable, and he loses the respect of Andy’s other toys. If he is to regain their trust, he must brave the outside world and rescue Buzz from the clutches of Sid, the evil kid next door who tortures toys for fun.
Toy Story is pretty darn near to perfection. I might even argue that it is perfection, or at least it was when it came out in 1995. The story is fantastic, appealing to both children and adults. The characters are memorable, even iconic. The animation was revolutionary for its time and holds up remarkably well today. It’s a wonderful film. One of the greatest.
I’ll go ahead and get the one negative out of the way before launching into full-blown gushing fandom mode: some of the animation hasn’t aged well. Specifically, the human characters don’t….well, look fully human. It’s not their fault! Considering where computer animation was in 1995, Andy, his mother and Sid all look fantastic! But they aren’t fully convincing; they have a slight plasticine quality to their skin and their movements are slightly stiff. Twenty years ago, it was the best any animation studio could do, but to eyes accustomed to Frozen or Brave it just doesn’t look right. Andy’s little sister? Creepiest baby ever. But one could argue that the entire world is being seen through the eyes of the toys, and if they see human beings as somewhat plastic-like then that just might be a side-effect of viewing the world through plastic, painted-on eyes. And really, it’s such a minor thing that I almost feel bad for mentioning it.
The animation is perfectly suited for toys, and the attention to detail is astonishing. I love watching the plastic toy soldiers “march” through the house in formation. Just as with real green toy soldiers, the feet are melded onto a single stand, so they have to do this funny hop-march to move around. It’s great. Woody’s body is fabric, and his arms flop convincingly, especially compared to the stiff, heavy movements of Buzz and his molded plastic body. The only character who defies this logic is Bo Peep, a porcelain shepherdess who is able to walk even though she has no joints. She’s just one molded piece of clay, right? But you can’t have a porcelain character jump up and down like other single-piece toys, because she’d break, so for her Pixar ignores their toy-movement logic. But I’ll ignore that.
Another thing that Toy Story really nailed was the casting. I am not a fan of either Tom Hanks or Tim Allen, but they are both perfect in this movie. Tom Hanks captures the nuances of Woody’s personality just so, allowing the cowboy to appear nervous even as he puts up a blustery, brave front for the other toys as they all eavesdrop on Andy’s birthday party. He lets Woody be a jerk without crossing too far into meanness, and he’s such a fun character because he isn’t always well-behaved. Tim Allen’s patented over-the-top machismo act always seemed a bit too much in episodes of Home Improvement, but it sure is perfect for a delusional toy who thinks he’s a Space Ranger. He plays Buzz so straight that you don’t laugh at the spaceman’s ridiculousness, and it pays off splendidly. When Buzz realizes he’s just a toy, but attempts to fly to the window and ends up crashing down the stairs and breaking – admit it, didn’t you tear up just a little? Of course you did, because it’s heartbreaking to realize that you are just one of many, someone absolutely unspectacular and not special. As far as I’m concerned, these two actors have never been better than they are in the Toy Story franchise.
But it’s really the story that makes this movie so entertaining. It’s so so sweet and universal. Everyone had a favorite toy growing up that they took everywhere. Everyone can identify with feeling jealous when they’re eclipsed by someone prettier or smarter or just flashier . Anyone who has ever f*cked up in a major way and had to turn over heaven and earth to make it right knows how difficult that is. The world of Toy Story is so small – a bedroom, a pizza place, the house next door – and yet, to the toys, it’s so huge. It is scary to get separated from your owner at a gas station when you’re a toy and have absolutely no way of getting back home. It is terrifying to be trapped in a house with a kid who loves mutilating and blowing up toys like yourself.
Plus, this world is so inviting, so well-defined and yet so open that it really invites the viewer to join in the playtime. Do all toys come straight out of the box believing they’re “real”? If that’s the case, what was Woody like when he first appeared? A pull-string doll is clearly older than most of the toys in Andy’s room – so where did he come from? Internet speculation has long posited that Woody belonged to Andy’s absent father; if this is the case, does Woody remember him? Or do toys’ memories only extend to the current owner? (For now, ignore the Toy Story sequels, which answer some but not all of these questions.)
The villain of the film, Sid, is terrifying to toys because he destroys them. But is he evil? Not really. He’s very creative, and he has an active imagination. Look at how quickly he develops an entire story with Buzz and Woody as he plays with them! If toys did not have feelings and emotions, we’d praise Sid as a creative maker, like people who repaint My Little Pony dolls or create sculptures with found objects. (I suspect that many of the creative people who worked on the film were probably Sid-types during their childhoods rather than Andy-types.) But since the toys are alive, he’s a terrible monster, and the way he gets his comeuppance is both clever and hilarious.
I love this movie. I could watch it every day for a month and still be in love with it. It still feels fresh and new, even though it's nearly twenty years old.
Because this is one of the best movies of all time.
One really minor thing: at the beginning of the movie it’s made clear that Andy is moving soon. So why, I ask you, does he redecorate his bedroom from cowboys to space rangers? The movie takes place over the course of a week or so – why would his mom buy him new bedsheets and posters and go crazy decorating when packing up the moving van?