Saturday, April 3, 2010

Toy Story 1 & 2

Looking back on Pixar's first film, Toy Story's impact on the field of animation has largely overshadowed its lingering worth as a piece of entertainment. It changed the face of popular animated films, sending the traditional cel method into further decline and promoting a whole new type of children's film. But now it looks dated; even in a sparkling high-definition transfer, the 3D animation no longer captivates like it used to, surpassed by a decade's worth of improvements and boundary-pushing.

What survives is the story, an agreeably simple tale, its plain themes of jealousy and acceptance a far cry from the more grandiose messages of Pixar's later features (which is perfectly OK). First and foremost, Toy Story begins with one of the most ingenious premises of any animated feature in history: what if toys came alive when no one looked? Various anthropomorphic mundane objects existed in older animation -- Pixar even tried the idea back in 1988 with the short Tin Toy -- but the brilliance of the film's setup is that it presents a mélange of all toys. Dolls, action figures, cars, even an Etch-a-Sketch and a Mr. Spell come to life when no one watches, devoted to pleasing their child masters but capable of feeling their own emotions.

The world of Toy Story is our own, except blown up out of proportion so as to be infinite and, often, terrifying. Ergo, it's both intimate -- with the primary action taking place in one of two bedrooms, yet vast. Set in the perspective of those wee toys, creatures no taller than a foot who can live out their entire lives in a bedroom, it also implicitly frames itself as the POV of a child. Everything -- the cars, the beds, the doors -- looks bigger, something to great for the brain to ever comprehend. People often refer to "childlike wonder," which stems from this perspective: if the world is this big, we think in our adolescence, what's out there for me?

I'd forgotten how quickly the story moves. John Lasseter, working with future Pixar directors Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton and hired hand Joss Whedon, crafted Toy Story into a zippy, episodic trek home after the initial cut of the film met with disastrous reception from Disney executives (ironic, given that the early print's weaknesses stemmed from these greenhorn animators following executive notes to the letter). In the final version, Woody (Tom Hanks), a cowboy doll and the favorite toy of a young boy named Andy, is less sarcastic and more desperate; his outbursts toward his "replacement" Buzz Lightyear, a sleek new spaceman toy who's all the rage, now contain an edge of fear of abandonment over the perceived condescension of the character as originally scripted. Lasseter introduces Woody, Buzz and all the other toys in the microcosm within minutes, establishes the jealousy Woody feels for the new arrival shortly thereafter and finally launches the two main characters into a nightmarish quest to return home after Woody attempts to kill Buzz and the two wind up stranded away from Andy's house.

He does so through a series of montages, which are prominent in Toy Story and would creep their way into most Pixar features. The dissolve from the Woody decorations that adorn the bed and walls of Andy's room melting into Buzz Lightyear posters and bedspreads, Buzz winning the hearts and minds of the other toys, even Buzz's later identity crisis when he must come to terms with the fact that he's a toy; Lasseter confines these relevant character moments to brief rhythms, allowing for instant connection but denying us a deeper connection to the more emotional elements of the narrative.

Instead, the audience is treated to a tour through bizarre scenarios, such as Pizza Planet. one of those hyperactive whirlwinds of flashing neon and dinging lights that seems to prepare kids for a life spent in a casino. Inside is a claw-grab game filled with alien plush toys who worship the metal appendage that "chooses" the worthy, as well as an uproarious Alien reference via a whack-a-mole game (Whedon came on after the initial print of the film was rejected, but I'd like to think that was his touch). Woody and Buzz eventually find themselves in the clutches of a vicious little Antichrist named Sid, Andy's next-door neighbor and a sociopath who rips apart toys for pleasure. Sid's room provides a horrific counterpoint to the lighthearted, warm feel of Andy's, whose walls even have blue skies and tiny wisps of clouds painted on them.

Yes, the story jumps along, frankly too quickly for its own good, but the wit is every bit as sharp and fast. Rarely has an animated film been cast so perfectly, an oddity given how many celebrities were involved instead of more capable voice actors. Hanks may not sound like a cowboy -- certainly not in the way that Tim Allen is dead-on as Buzz, but his exuberance sells the part better than someone trying to ape John Wayne or Randolph Scott could. His readings convey the wild bliss of being Andy's favorite, the mounting paranoia and resentment of Buzz's unwitting coup and the intense vulnerability that comes with his separation from Andy (though he's a toy modeled after an adult and meant for a child, Woody looks and acts like a lost kid in these moments). For his part, Allen has never sounded so interesting, save perhaps the Toy Story sequel: his programmed bravado the perfect foil for Hanks' deliberate histrionics. Allen of course came from Home Improvement, where he played up the he-man shtick in a manner that softened Al Bundy from Married with Children for easier mass consumption, but his deadpan is hysterical: listen to the way that Buzz deflates Woody's outburst at the gas station, culminating in the booming "YOU. ARE. A. TOY!" with a measured, calm, "You are a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity." Even the supporting cast is fantastic: Mr. Potato Head cracks wise the entire time, so who better to play him than the Merchant of Venom, Don Rickles? Lasseter uses the celebrities to either bolster or subvert the toys we see on the screen: how great is it to see Rex, a green, menacing Tyrannosaur revealed to be a neurotic, shy basket case voiced by Wallace Shawn? Nearly every joke sounds as if the actor delivering it ad-libbed it, so natural is the dialogue matched to the cast.

And yet, Toy Story shows its age. Lasseter wanted everything to look as real as possible -- impressive, given he had to work with 2/3 the money and 1/4 the staff that the previous year's The Lion King enjoyed -- but for all of the scuffed floors and striking foliage there is the matter of the human animation. Toy Story feature the most realistic humans in any Pixar feature, and also the creepiest. Even setting aside Sid, with his shaved hair and monstrous braces (which, frankly, aren't going to fix that jagged, gap-filled maw of his), every human looks unsettling, dipping well into the uncanny valley and never re-emerging. As quickly as I would recommend Toy Story for any animation class, I might do so as much to teach the perils of using the boundless possibilities of animation for realism as to impart the boundless possibilities it shows everywhere else.

After all, no film had such an impact on the progression of animation since Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, managing to take the limitless freedom of animation visible back in 1939 with Snow White and expand upon it. Frame animation still took hours of intensive work, but a setback as immense as Disney's immediate denial of the first cut would not damn the film to development hell. Lasseter and his crew managed to revolutionize the cinema, and if Toy Story no longer looks up to snuff (though its Blu-Ray treatment really is sensational), it still stands as one of the great cinematic achievements of the '90s. Besides, it's still Pixar's most universally appealing film, eschewing the moralizing that alienates some and crafting a straightforward, thrilling narrative that has lost only some of its charm. What more can you ask of a movie?


It is no secret that the conceit of the animated sequel ranks as one of the most abysmal, cynical forms of the cinema, a cheap cash-in released straight-to-video to drum up a bit more money for a studio looking for additional revenue in-between "legitimate" productions. Now, the notion that Toy Story 2 nearly suffered such a fate reflects the impact of the film itself; then, the fact that it did secure a theatrical release was the source of head-scratching. Yes, it carried over the same, high-profile voice actors and was the sequel to no ordinary animated hit, but that has no inherent bearing on the film's quality. For all anyone knew, Toy Story 2 would rehash the story of the first film, swapping out old jokes for new, not necessarily fresh, material and increasing the size without changing the scope. Besides, coming off the heels of the slight disappointment of A Bug's Life's reception, Toy Story 2 must have struck some as a return to the well.

When Disney took a look at some of the test footage, though, they understood that Lasseter and co. had hit upon something special once more, and their decision to give it a theatrical release speaks to the quality evident even in the early work. One imagines that the same doubts of animated sequels spelled out above weighed on the filmmakers' minds, as nearly everything about Toy Story 2 builds from the foundation of the first yet modified in ways beyond mere expansion of size. It pokes fun at the emphasis of realism in the first film by opening with a sequence set in deep space with Buzz Lightyear (complete with wry use of "Also Sprach Zarathustra") that eventually reveals itself to be a video game played by the toys in Andy's new room. Not really an "all bets are off" statement, it nevertheless rubs against the expectations placed upon it by the previous movie without self-consciously becoming everything it's not.

As it happened in the last film, Woody is separated from his beloved Andy, but the narrative does not simply play as another "long journey home" flick. Compared to the simple story of the original, Toy Story 2 varies its approach: where the issue of mortality played out literally in the previous film, what with Sid dynamiting toys in his backyard, here Lasseter and the writers ask a deeper question: we can now accept as read that toys are living creatures, but what do they think? Furthermore, how does one seriously define a toy's mortality? They cannot die natural deaths, so is the true test of a toy's life the length of time that a child plays with it?

This is heady stuff, and, in retrospect, Toy Story 2 prompted the shift in Pixar's storytelling to its current incarnation: adult themes nestled, not always snugly, in easily consumed children's entertainment. The movie begins properly with Andy, all set to take Woody to a cowboy-themed camp, accidentally tearing the seam in Woody's arm. So, Andy leaves Woody at home, and his mother sticks the favorite toy on the high shelf, placing him among the forgotten toys of Andy's infancy. There he finds Wheezy, a penguin squeak toy abandoned in this dusty purgatory after his squeaker broke. The experience shakes Woody, showing him the thin line between being a beloved part of a child's life to a compartmentalized memory with a tinge of sentimental reminiscence at best. Galvanized, Woody attempts to save these other toys from a yard sale, only to be stolen by a collector looking to make a hefty sum by selling Woody and a group of related toys to a Japanese museum.

Those other toys -- a cowgirl, Jessie (Joan Cusack), an old prospector, Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer), and a plush horse named Bullseye -- affect Woody's desire to return to Andy. They know what it's like to be abandoned and neglected; Woody hallucinated a nightmare in which Andy dropped him into an infinite blackness, but Jessie, Pete and Bullseye have lived that darkness in storage containers for years, and who knows how they got along before Al bought them (if a toy loses its life when it is no longer played with, then can Pete, never removed from his box as his toy model never sold units, be said to have ever lived at all?). Woody halts his attempt to escape long enough to process their plight, and he considers going with them. Better to live in a glass box beloved by children from afar for all time than to be physically involved for a few fleeting years.

This new complexity is visited upon Buzz as well, having undergone his identity crisis in the last film and finally come to grips with his reality as a toy. As he leads the charge to rescue his best friend, Buzz finds himself in a giant toy store, which contains an aisle filled with Buzz Lightyears. It's perhaps the memorable shot of the film, a commentary on the staggering overproduction and devaluation that comes with rampant consumerism marketed toward children, a visualization of the truth of a toy's feelings of individuality, a further counterpoint between Buzz and Woody (Woody now being a rare collector's item, while Buzz Lightyear is now a marked-down item due to market flooding) and, finally, as a means to allow our Buzz to pass on his received wisdom to another Buzz unit, still wrapped up in the delusion of being a real space ranger. As Woody suffers his own identity crisis, Buzz must handle someone else's.

With this leap in thematic depth and intelligence, it is perhaps no surprise, unpleasant as it occasionally is, that Toy Story 2 offsets this potentially child-alienating material by being the most pop culture-centric of Pixar's features.* At times, the Star Wars gags, as well as an ill-advised and already dated Jurassic Park reference, choke what is otherwise the wittiest of the studio's works. The biggest Star Wars reference of the film, involving the new Buzz and a toy Zurg, is extremely broad, yet the moment is amusingly parlayed into the deeper questions of identity that the film poses. Among the many jabs and pokes is a silly swing at Lassie-style exposition that people interpret from animal noises, as we see on an old clip of a Woody-based show where a group of woodland critters jabbers urgently at the Woody from the old program, who translates their chirps into an impossibly detailed account of the peril to which he must attend. Lasseter also inserts grand physical gags like Buzz and the other toys walking across the heavily-trafficked street to the toy store covered by traffic cones, thus causing a massive pile-up as cars halt and screech around unseen construction.

Besides being even funnier than the first, Toy Story 2 also contains a deeper emotional base. It can be somewhat bewildering to return to these films with a greater knowledge of Randy Newman; for my generation, the Toy Story films introduced us to Newman, not his albums, records like Good Old Boys and Sail Away, filled with the most biting, mordant pop songs ever recorded. His big moment in the previous film, "You've Got a Friend in Me," stands as one of his most upbeat numbers, a mite sarcastic when played at the start of the film, before Woody casts Buzz out of Andy's room in jealousy and spite, but by the end any trace of irony was scrubbed from the song. One could almost trace the maturation across the two films through the standout tracks of each: here, Newman counters the lighthearted "You've Got a Friend in Me," Newman stops the show with one of his most somber tunes, "When She Loved Me," made all the more depressing by giving it to Sarah MacLachlan to sing. Toy Story overloaded on the montages to save time and money, but the most affecting moment of its sequel comes in a clip series, showing Jessie's past before winding up in Al's collection. As we watch her owner, Emily, grow and play with Jessie less and less until she finally leaves her in a box filled with assorted crap to be given to charity, the strains of Newman's song does not so much tug on the heartstrings as rip them out as a replacement for a broken piano wire or two.

That the film also looks better than its predecessor should probably go without saying, given the significant difference in time, money, staff and available technology from what Lasseter had to work with four years previously. But the improvement in aesthetic reflects more than just the sleekness that comes with a bigger budget. Lasseter clearly reviewed the work done on the first Toy Story and concluded that the humans really were a bit creepy. While he did not run in the other direction with the people in the movie -- Andy looks mostly unchanged save a graphics update that benefits him immensely -- human rendering is more interpretive in Toy Story 2. Al's bad comb-over looks so real you could slick it back into place, but his frame is more cartoony, a caricature of a fat man that stops short of being insulting. The old man who comes to his apartment to repair Woody looks completely like a cartoon, a composite of every spindly old man who ever was (he may very well be a cousin or some other relative of the old lady at the start of Ratatouille). A Bug's Life marked a significant step forward for the studio aesthetically, but Toy Story 2 finds a balance between these sharp, unmistakably artistic looks with a story that's smart enough to enrich them.

It is miracle enough that Toy Story 2 matches its predecessor, not simply because it is an animated sequel but because it is a sequel at all. As a young(er) lad, I preferred the original's faster story and zippier one-liners to a sequel that I still loved, but now I wonder if Toy Story 2 isn't one of the few -- and it is certainly fewer than some of the more effusive supporters of the studio, including a younger me, would have you believe -- truly great films to come out of the studio. If every passing year makes the easily rationalized flaws of Toy Story more dated and noticeable, it also makes plainer the simple truth that this is a masterpiece, one of the few Pixar films for which this is applicable to all films and not simply its genre.

Personally, though, I would not separate one from the other. I cannot admit much particular enthusiasm for the upcoming third installment, though I have faith that it will be at least be worth the ticket price (increasingly high praise as theaters continue to find creative ways to screw their customers), but few franchise films play off each other as well as these two do: both Toy Story movies are, ultimately, about families and how, despite the old adage, we can choose them. It's an idea communicated most visibly and lucidly in the second film when Andy returns home from his camp to find Woody, Buzz and co. back safe, joined by some new toys to be appreciated by their imaginative owner, if only for a few more years. The boy enters his room to find the toys arranged on his bed welcoming him home even as they return to their plastic, immobile selves that they show to the humans. These toys feel love and friendship and joy and passion, so what's the use of fretting over tomorrow?

*And no, Joss Whedon wasn't involved with this one.


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  2. "*And no, Joss Whedon wasn't involved with this one."

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! That made my day.

    I think these two will probably be my favorite Pixar films. Up is, in my opinion, one of the better ones, though a little too depressing for my true tastes. I liked Monster's Inc a little more the last time I saw it, and the only film I would consider calling bad is Cars.