Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Eight


#8 — Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)
It can be taken as an indicator of the faultiness of my prognostication skills that I thought Toy Story would never work. I’d seen a couple of the Pixar studio shorts previously, and, while I liked them, I was sure that the studio was overreaching by making a feature length film. Computer animation wasn’t in its infancy, but it was young enough that it still had a wobbly toddler quality about it. I even remember finding the trailer a little off-putting. It looked visually cold, almost antiseptic. To my eye, it certainly lacked the warmth of the hand-drawn animation from Disney studios, enjoying a mini-Renaissance at the time. I was a devoted skeptic. Ahem. I was as wrong as could be.

Toy Story begins with the irresistible premise that playthings return the love bestowed upon them by the children that hold them close. Who didn’t fall asleep clutching a teddy bear with the secret hope that the stuffed companion was happily contented in their arms? From this, John Lasseter and his collaborators spun an elaborate and resolutely logical social order within the confines of Andy’s room. Every toy has its place and purpose, and every birthday is a cause for alarm with its parade of complicating factors emerging one by one from festively wrapped boxes. No matter how steady life may seem, it can all be upended by the arrival of some little punk in a rocket.

Even setting aside the resonance of some of the embedded themes, Toy Story is a masterful exhibition of the craft of writing and directing a film. The screenplay–credited to seven different writers, but undoubtedly the product of even more given Pixar’s enduring ethos that celebrates and incorporates a worthy contribution from any member of the vast team–establishes its characters with an economical vividness. It takes just a few lines of dialogue to get a handle on who each of them is, which isn’t an indication of one-note creations. Even before a pair of excellent sequels added to their complexity, all the characters on screen, from piggy bank to slinky dog, have fully realized, distinct personalities shaded with nuance and contradictions. As befits their prominence in the story, Woody and Buzz are especially strong characters. Woody is the born leader, bringing a pragmatic, calming style to his dominion over the other toys, at least until undercurrents of jealousy and self-doubt begin to reshape his actions. Buzz Lightyear is informed by Tim Allen’s wonderful voice characterization, which the artists at Pixar interpreted as “just a guy doin’ his job.” He’s a space ranger, an intergalactic cop walking the beat, until disillusionment springs up, which in turn inspires real heroism within him.

John Lasseter’s directing is as sophisticated as the screenplay. He takes advantages of the endless possibilities afforded by building the film one pixel at a time to get the visuals exactly right, not to dazzle the audience with eye-popping, world-bending splendor, but with clear, coherent, perfectly executed storytelling. The sequences involving action are little master classes in framing and editing. They are dynamic, exciting, and still convey every bit of necessary information. Throughout the film, emotional beats are hit without being hammered, and the comedic grace notes notes are deployed with atomic clock timing. Turns out Toy Story was the opening salvo in an enviable string of masterworks from Pixar, a collection that has helped set the benchmark for quality in the current cinematic era. At the time of its release, there was no way of knowing that, but the movie itself stood on its own as something special. There’s brilliance in those frames, and in those pixels.

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