Pixar has a lot to answer for. Killing off traditional animation, for starters. And Randy Newman (well, in Pixar films, at least). Indeed, one of the reasons I’m immune to the unconditional worship of the animation house’s crown jewel franchise is that I simply cannot stomach his anodyne, twee songs and lightly-sandpapered crooning. He does not have a friend in me (I’m sure he’s a very nice chap). The first Toy Story profoundly changed the industry (and won a special achievement Oscar for its troubles) and has paved the way for both the plentiful very good computer-animated movies since, as well as the multitudinous ones that aren’t. But at what cost? And is it really that good?
It’s well observed, undoubtedly. And the assembled voice cast, including Tom Hanks doing the comedy-exasperated voice he does so well (did: this is very nearly the last remnant of comedy Hanks) and Tim Allen playing commendably straight (Wallace Shawn as Rex – a character added when Joss Whedon did a rewrite – and John Ratzenberger as Hamm are my favourites, though).
But for all its pockets of “edgy” adult humour (at Jeffrey Katzenberg’s behest, with an eye to as broad a demographic as possible) – “laser envy”; “The word I’m searching for, I can’t say, because there’s preschool toys present”– and humorous asides – “I’m not actually from Mattel. I’m actually from a smaller company that was purchased by Mattel in a leveraged buyout” intones Rex – Toy Story is shot through with a mile-wide streak of sentimentality hideously compounded by Newman. I find this eminently resistible, and it’s something that put me off Monsters, Inc. even more. As such, going against the grain, my favourite Pixar until Finding Nemo came along was probably the unloved A Bug’s Life, (although, that itself is inferior to Antz).
There’s also the not inconsiderable issue that, in some areas, Toy Story has not aged well. The human children are seriously disturbing distillations, spawn of hell itself, not so much uncanny valley as ghoulish gorge. This works, to an extent, you might suggest, for devil-child-from-next-door Sid, a shoe-in for Will Poulter to play when the live-action version comes around. Generally, though, it’s distractingly crude. On the other hand, there are sequences that still seem just as fresh and masterfully assembled as ever, notably the climactic dog/van/radio-controlled car road chase, complete with the kind of escalating problems thrown into the mix that would have made peak Spielberg proud.
And, as is the nature of animation, the sheer amount of time spent crafting the picture means its littered with little details and asides. For me, it dips somewhat once Woody and Buzz are trapped in Sid’s house, but Buzz forced to take afternoon tea still tickles, and if Joe Dante did the mutilated toys better in Small Soldiers a few years later, Sid’s sick creations still have a twisted, Tim Burton Beetlejuice/ Frankenweenie vibe about them (“I don’t believe that man’s ever been to medical school”).
There have, of course, been lots of theories about the world of Toy Story, and what precisely the animators are trying to achieve – ranging from the fate of Andy’s dad, to an Illuminati exposé included in the third instalment – even if the intended premise is as unfussy as doing what it says on the tin: “Toys deeply want children to play with them, and… this drives their hopes, fears, and actions”. Naturally, however, this lends itself to various opportunities for creator-created plays/ parodies and musings.
Most famously and endearingly, the key embodiment of this is found in the alien toys at Pizza Planet, paralleling Buzz in their hermetic understanding of the world, believing in the great claw as God (“I have been chosen”) and speaking in the coded language of a cult (“A stranger from the outside”); Woody even accuses them of religious extremism (“Stop it, you zealots!”)
One might accordingly contrast this with the – on the surface – rational, knowledgeable Woody, who knows the way things are and has certainty about the tangible world; they are the products of a very nuts-and-bolts, master-and-servant system that is easily explainable. Woody’s scientific matter-of-factness could be considered equivalent to taking stock in evolutionary theory.
Which would make delusional Buzz a fantasist convinced of a fake reality, one written on his box, tantamount to a belief in God, complete with his calling on fake miracles (his ability to fly). But Woody’s scoffing at Buzz in turn exposes his own unquestioning faith in the value of the owner-toy bond, and the requirement to accept a false god as their sovereign (their true creator remains unseen, naturally).
The chief reason Toy Story works is that it fully services the buddy comedy template, though (again, a Katzenberg suggestion, made when the development process was hitting bumps). Jealous Woody learnsto appreciate and get along with interloper (for Andy’s affections) Buzz. Does that justify three sequels? For me, not really, as despite The Godfather Part II-esque praise aimed at the second in the series for improving on what went before, I’ve found the upgrades generally cosmetic, rather than truly expanding on what is essentially a stir-and-repeat formula. But then, I’m not one of the chosen.