Toy Story may still be the greatest of Pixar’s creations. Like Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs before it, this artistic and commercial milestone contains a certain purity of essence from which the entirety of its descendents—no matter how deep, creative, or grand they might be in their own achievements—can never entirely distance themselves, including the arguably superior ’99 sequel. Insofar as can be said for any major studio blockbuster of the past two decades, the film is virtually perfect: Nary a frame goes to waste in the establishment and development of plot and character, with the occasionally deviant touch serving to neutralize a sense of overly manufactured calculation (Buzz Lightyear’s first sign of nervous breakdown at an impromptu tea party tops them all). Few of Toy Story’s interlocking parts are less than perfectly thought through in their rendering, though one could say the whole thing feels too brisk, effectively denying us time to simmer in the rich world it presents (but the same can be said of Dumbo and Beauty and the Beast). And importantly, embrace—don’t fight—the borderline cheesy affectations of the film’s musical montage sequences.
As the seemingly unstoppable Pixar now approaches driving age, the first thing that jumps out upon revisiting their debut effort is the rich simplicity of the animation itself. Compared to more recent technical accomplishments, it looks raw and almost primitive, though these slight imperfections (both deliberate and not, the latter exemplified by the use of eyes and uneven blinking to shape character and tone) carry with them their own baggage of grace and poetry that sheer technical perfection can rarely match. In a way, the film looks less like the forerunner of today’s computer animation than it does the direct descendent of Ray Harryhausen’s exquisite stop-motion animation, while the classic chase sequence that caps the breathless final act can be seen as this era’s response to The General. It’s but one of many instances in which Toy Story gorges itself silly on pure cinematic spectacle.
Almost unparalleled is the effectiveness with which the filmmakers utilized their technological limitations to distinctly aesthetic ends. Especially obvious in hindsight is how the synthetic nature of the toys allows the film’s primary visual elements a certain degree of intrinsic fakeness (it’s doubtful that there could have been a more perfect subject for the first fully computer generated film), which, typically meshed with painted backgrounds or carefully designed sets meant not to overwhelm, lend them an aura less of objects than inhabitants. Most impressive is the use of simple lighting, shadows, reflections, and basic textures, paired with a masterfully organic sound design—to say nothing of perfect vocal casting across the board—to add dimension and weight to the world the toys inhabit (physically and emotionally: note the use of sunlight during the lynchpin window sequence). About the only thing that keeps the film from drifting off into the hidden valley—that is, the feeling of watching special effects that prove so lifelike as to be creepy—is the deliberately fake, mannequin-like design of the human characters (they’re by far the least compelling visual elements), whose presence, like the droning adults in Charles Shultz’s Peanuts, is wisely kept at the borders as much as possible, without narrative strain.
That the creative minds at Pixar took their work as populist storytellers as seriously as any master craftsman points to the root source of Toy Story’s wunderkind success, though it’d be wrong not to suggest that a certain aligning of the planets wasn’t at work. Over the course of the film’s production, the careers of lead performers Tim Allen and Tom Hanks shot to superstardom, and the timing couldn’t have been better for the release. But all that would have been nothing without the care and feeling put into the product itself, and like a circus act or Abbot and Costello routine, the story unfolds as a straightforward adventure rendered largely via a rapid-fire assault of gags: clever characterizations (the insecure dinosaur Rex, delivered from the heavens by the inimitable Wallace Shawn, deserves more screen time), gently irreverent touches (has any other film of this kind referenced alcohol?), and jokes worth a dozen tellings (like Daffy Duck’s ceaselessly malleable beak, there’s no end to the ways one can humorously dismember Mr. Potato Head, including his own rearranging efforts that fall on dear ears). This is the obviously celebratory effort of a small, intimate team of similar minds sharing boundless enthusiasm in fine-tuning their act for as broad an audience as possible without losing anything in the way of feeling or depth (essentially, the healthy and altogether polar opposite of the sickening Shrek films and their ilk).
The fact is that we all could use a bit more of Toy Story’s sense of justice. Encoded in every action and motivation of the characters is a clear sense of right and wrong (the toy-destroying neighbor Sid, about the only genuine non-toy character, is less representative of evil than of the insurmountable). The golden rule applies across the board; what differentiates them, then, are their clearly defined vantage points. In addition to benefiting the film from a technical standpoint, the use of toys as characters works as implicit allegory for human talent and purpose (from each according to their ability and to each according to their need is an accepted fact of life here). Suddenly, Buzz Lightyear (Allen) upsets the balance in Andy’s room, usurping Woody’s (Hanks) role as favorite toy by calling to a higher but altogether unreal power: Star Command, his superiors as a Space Ranger. Right.
Unaware that he is in fact a “child’s play thing” (as Woody tells him, exasperatedly, in one of the finest moments), Buzz hilariously pursues his mission to defeat the Emperor Zurg and save the universe. Similarly oblivious are the squeaky alien toys—prizes in an arcade crane machine—who believe “the claw” to be their master, and that a trip home with Sid is to approach the mystic portal of nirvana. Less humane films might play up such ignorance for trite comedic ends, but Toy Story offers a more socially conscious look at the effects of people talking, and thinking, past each other, impeccable encapsulated by both the aforementioned moment of isolated ideological standpoints (“YOU, ARE, A, TOYYYEEEE!”) as well as the knee-jerk manner in which Buzz and Woody assume Sid’s toys—mutilated and rearranged beasts on the outside, but helpful and resourceful in manner—to be “cannibals” (only by incidence do they see past their perversions to learn that they are in the same proverbial boat). It can only speak to the depth of emotions rendered that an 80-minute film feels so utterly epic in scope; that the primary inhabitants are so relatively small is only incidental to the sleight of hand here. Like the transcendent long shot of Buzz and Woody soaring as one, Toy Story does the impossible in casting us up.