Twenty years ago today, Toy Story changed the movie business. Honestly I think it’s fair to say it changed the world, but I know a lot of people will take that as hyperbole.
When Toy Story came out, cartoons were ‘just for kids’. Very few major projects had been tried using animation aimed at adults, at least in America. Artists like Ralph Bakshi, and also the occasional oddity like 1992’s Cool World or 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit were considered exactly that; oddities. Pixar was an outgrowth of Lucasfilm’s effects division, and eventually backed by Steve Jobs. It was peopled by a group who were passionate about the then unheard of discipline of ‘computer animation’.
Their earlier efforts were not well received, anticipated, or at all wanted. As the head of Disney said when John Lasseter showed him The Brave Little Toaster — a computer animated short Lasseter was working on at the time — “the only reason to use computer animation is if you can do it faster or cheaper”. And Lasseter was then fired from Disney. A reoccurring theme plagued Pixar, one that everything new and different has to deal with; others didn’t get it, couldn’t open their eyes, couldn’t use some vision and imagination, and thus they disliked it.
Toy Story changed all of that. By the time its opening weekend turned into Monday, it had pulled in nearly thirty million dollars, and was the number one movie of the weekend. Not the number one kid’s movie, or the number one animated movie; the number one movie in America. It went on to make a hundred million in its first thirty days, and finally topped out at the US box office at just over $190 million. By the end of 1995, it was the number one movie for the year; beating out Batman Forever, Apollo 13, Disney’s own Pocahontas, and a score of others you might assume did more like the second Ace Ventura film, James Bond in Goldeneye, and Braveheart.
It also went on to win awards. A lot of awards. And some that were also firsts; the kind of firsts that, just like the mountain of money it had raked in — is still raking in through DVDs and merchandise and licensing — shut up doubters.and naysayers. Even one of the awards it didn’t win was a first; it was the first animated film to be nominated for an Oscar for writing.
Did you get that? An animated movie, one where everything you see is drawn, got recognized for its script. The part where what the drawings are saying, what they think and feel, is what’s being accoladed.
Ever since, people don’t downtalk computer animation. Or, at least, Pixar’s animation. Other studios get crap for their kid flicks (and rightfully so in most cases); but Pixar is treated with respect. Money talks, as the saying goes. From then on, when Pixar spoke; people listened.
We now know, twenty years on, that a lot has changed. But not nearly as much as you’d assume. We now know that Pixar has rarely misstepped with its succeeding projects. Personally, I feel only Cars 2 and Brave could count as such missteps; and even in those two instances, neither one is a bad movie. They’re just not ones a lot of folks really gush over like basically everything else in the Pixar catalog. And out of the others, they’re nearly all instant classics. In that, as soon as they release, they’re hoisted up on the shelf of treasured favorites. Their most recent, Inside Out, is just the latest example.
Also ever since Toy Story, we’ve seen a lot of other studios pursue computer animation. As if that was the only thing about Toy Story that made it resonate, that made it such a cash cow. These studios — and twenty years hence we’re talking about, more or less, all of the studios — have consistently refused to really look at, actually stop and think and analyze and understand — what made Toy Story work so well.
It’s the script stupid. A Pixar saying is something a lot of Hollywood’s work — both animated and live action — never seems to really understand. Story Sells. What Pixar did with Toy Story was take the limitations of their art and use it to build a story they could tell. Steven Spielberg famously turned the limitations of his art — the uncooperative mechanical shark in Jaws — into a tool for masterful suspense that kept audiences on the edges of their seats. Limitations are just challenges to a skilled artist. And further, Pixar infused that story with heart and soul and living, breathing characters that we care about. It’s the not-so-secret secret to all great storytelling. Whether you’re doing a movie or animation or long-form songs or theater or episodic television or books or whatever, what gets people invested — caring — are your characters.
In the early 90s, mostly 92-95 when Toy Story was being rendered, there were a lot of limitations on what the computer animators could pull off. For example, humans that looked vaguely like humans were pretty tough; so you only see Andy and his Mom a very few times, and mostly from the back or neck down. The only human who makes any sort of lengthy appearance in the film is Sid, the cameo villain. The rest of the movie is populated with toys. The limitations of the animation techniques of the time were actually advantages when it came to rendering toys. The way that was simplest — fastest and took less computer render time — to do the toys so they came out the way we saw them on screen, was actually how the toys were supposed to look. Plastic and shiny, with hard skins and surfaces that looked artificial. That’s how toys generally look.
John Lasseter and the others who worked on the script — which included not only Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton, and also Joss Whedon — used these limitations to their advantage in the story. And they developed the script to only make the animators tear their hair out a little, when the Sid sequences came up. Everything else was more straight forward, and within the reachable realm for what they had available at the time.
Through most of the Pixar films, they’ve improved their techniques in each one. And in most cases, the improvements were because of the director’s demands that something technical needed to rise to the occasion. The most famous example is Brad Bird with The Incredibles. Pixar’s animators told him “We can do pretty good people now. We can do pretty good cloth. We can even manage water if you want. What we can’t do is good hair.” If you’ve seen the movie, you know Violet and her hair are important to the story. Her long hair; and long hair moves and flows. This was a tough trick for the computer to handle, because hair has lots and lots and lots of little independent strands that all move and flex and do stuff on their own. Even cloth is easier than hair, because cloth is generally the one sheet that ripples and bends as one sheet. Hair is just . . . hair.
Brad Bird used a method leaders have since time immemorial; he put his foot down. “Figure it out.” he told the animators bluntly. Violet and her hair were critical to the story of The Incredibles. The story couldn’t be told without significant changes if Violet’s hair was changed to a render-friendly short style. And Pixar’s technicians figured it out! They came up with new methods and tricks and ways to render a character with long hair. But they didn’t trumpet it in the trailers, they didn’t plaster it across the advertisements “The Incredibles – now with long hair!” They just treated it like any other movie; where all the audience cares about is the story.
Because that’s all we do care about. We don’t go for the tricks; we go for the stories.
I’ve known people in my life who don’t “get” animated movies. Who assume, even today, that animation means kids. That’s just not true. Pixar’s movies should illustrate that; they’re sophisticated and layered stories, not simplistic tales written to top out at the age of eight. Toy Story’s themes of friendship and loyalty are ones for everyone, that should resonate with old as well as young. In fact, it’s easy to argue that a lot of the more developed parts of the story will fly right past the kids’ heads.
The thing I like to point out when people want to protest about “animated movies” has evolved into a pretty simple rebuttal. Some stories can’t be told in live action. Not even in CGI augmented live action. Toy Story is a very good example. The most change possible to it would be to replace the backgrounds with live action plates; but all the characters would still have to be animated. A Bug’s Life; can’t do it live. Finding Nemo, can’t do it live. Monsters Inc . . . maybe doable live, but it would be a Herculean task to shoot it with costumes and outlier actors who were massively tall and ridiculously short to fit into said costumes; and even then, some of the characters would have to change because you couldn’t fit a person into a real costume to play them.
Out of the entire Pixar catalog, really only Incredibles and Up could be done live action. Both would come out like a ‘typical’ big-budget Hollywood effects extravaganzas; shot live but with a lot of CG overlaid. And I’m not sure it would be cheaper or faster, or better for that matter. Live isn’t necessarily better; neither is animation, for that matter, to be fair.
The simplest example, though, is their shorts. The one I like to point to is Presto. This is the story of a magician’s rabbit, who the magician neglectfully forgets to feed before the show. In the course of the story, the hungry rabbit just wants to eat the carrot; while the magician wants the rabbit to perform for the audience. Their conflict forms the entire story. The rabbit could not be done with a puppet or marionette or even a child in a costume and really sell it the same as the wonderfully animated Pixar rabbit. It has to be done animated. The story can’t be told without the animation. And it’s a funny story, relatable and interesting.
Some stories can’t be told live. They require animation to be portrayed. That animation could be hand-drawn, it could be clay or stop-motion figures, it could be computer rendered, it could be the next thing coming down the pipe we haven’t even thought of yet. But the point is the story, not the technique used to told it. Because, again, that’s all the audience cares about; the story.
Toy Story is my very favorite movie in the whole world. Yes, in the whole wide world. I love it more than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I love it more than Aliens and Terminator. I love it more than Star Wars. Toy Story speaks to me because it tells a wonderful tale in such a clever and creative way, using the animation to shift the setting to make the metaphor and symbolism so direct. By setting the story of a favored familiar friend feeling threatened by a brand new one, and both new and old becoming deep and close friends through tremendous adversity in the realm of toys . . . it makes it something far more appealing than the same story if told in the same old way.
Toy Story’s script could be rewritten, has been told and retold and will be told again, in countless settings. Friendship and loyalty, old and new learning to come together rather than staying rejected out of fear, a group accepting change they didn’t see coming; it wasn’t the first time that tale had been told. Again, it won’t be the last either. But the same story set in an office, where the resident genius is threatened by the boss’ new wiz-wunder-kid, or set on a football team where the veteran receiver has to compete against a hot new rookie fresh from college, or … or … or …. Toy Story’s take on this formula is special to me.
Buzz Lightyear can do anything. He’s Buzz Lightyear, space ranger! There’s nothing Buzz won’t tackle, no task Buzz backs down from. When everyone else says no no no, Buzz says “To infinity and Beyond!” Where most see obstacle, Buzz sees challenge. The lowest point of Toy Story is when Buzz begins to actually believe what Woody yells at him, that he’s just a toy. The highest points of the movie — both at the beginning and very especially at the end — are when Buzz refuses to accept no or be dissuaded by ‘difficult’; when he goes for it because he believes he can succeed. Buzz Lightyear can do anything. Just watch.
“This isn’t flying; it’s falling, with style.”
Happy 20th Toy Story. Thank you so much Pixar, so very much, for bringing us this wonderful story about toys.