Toy Story

(John Lasseter, USA, 1995)


The animated feature Toy Story starts with a flurry of intricate and imaginative surprises. The first jokes of the film play on the hilarious difference between toys in their apparently real state – brittle, floppy, inexpressive – and then in their actual state, alive and bopping as soon as their young, human owner is out of the room.


Throughout this entire opening sequence, we see glimpses of the boy in question – a hand, a leg. He looks real enough, and we assume he is an actor caught in live motion, mixed into the animation. But finally, when he is fully revealed, we realise that he too is a fully imagined creature, courtesy of the computer technology of Pixar Animation Studios (famous for its groundbreaking short Tin Toy).


These opening gags – which are, in their casual way, reflexive jokes about the very medium of animation – recall the dizzy inventions that kicked off Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). Toy Story, as it unfolds at its breakneck speed, evokes other happy memories as well: of the perfectly orchestrated slapstick gags in The Wrong Trousers (1993), and the mildly Gothic perversity of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).  

This is a classic example of what is called two-tier entertainment. To child viewers it offers a familiar but heartening parable. Woody, an old-fashioned cowboy toy, is the beloved leader of the toys belonging to young Andy. Woody's reign is challenged, however, by the arrival of the new-fangled space-toy Buzz. Feeling neglected and excluded, Woody decides to knock Buzz out a nearby window – and then the adventure really begins.


Buzz, for his part, suffers a delusion common in children's fiction: he believes he is something he is not, an astronaut with actual powers of flight and technological marvels embedded in every inch of his ersatz spacesuit. Such dreams (which can be either inspirational or destructive) pop up often in Little Golden Books, and indeed in Babe (1995).


To adult viewers, Toy Story offers many smart, sassy laughs about the consumer society, cultural fads, and the truly alien world of children's play. Where Andy is the good boy of the story, his neighbour Scud is the bad boy – and his toy collection is a carnival of mutated, macabre figures worthy of the Surrealist artist Hans Bellmer.


Of course, in reality, I believe these tiers of viewing experience are hardly so discrete. I do not doubt that some children will adore the pop jokes and the gothic touches in Toy Story as much as (if not more than) the more sanitised, morally instructive stuff. And adults, despite their years of arduous cultivation, will certainly find themselves drawn in by the film's sentimentality and its proudly silly, burlesque humour.


I have often resisted the laborious, mechanical, slightly creepy and zombie-esque look of much computer animation. Toy Story overcame my resistance effortlessly – partly because it is so well-crafted, and partly also because it embraces and exploits the very unreality of this technique.


The voice-work is terrific: Tom Hanks (as Woody) and Tim Allen (Buzz) give better performances on this soundtrack than they usually do in the flesh. I did wonder, however, about the appropriateness of Randy Newman's songs – doubtless another concession to adult taste – with their vague, abstract, rhetorical gesturing towards experiences of love, friendship, disappointment and heroism.


But there is no doubting the abundant pleasure to be had from this winning film.

MORE Pixar: Finding Nemo, Ratatouille

MORE Lasseter: A Bug's Life

© Adrian Martin December 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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