It may have been 20 years ago, but I can still vividly remember seeing Toy Story in my local movie theater. From the rigid recreated marching of the Army Men at the start of the film, to the reunification of Woody and Buzz Lightyear with their owner Andy at its close, Pixar managed to take the idea of a “buddy comedy” and believably translate it into a film that comes from the perspectives of a few toys.
Looking back it seems almost inevitable that Toy Story would go on to would kick off the illustrious legacy of Pixar animated feature films, but even this juggernaut and its studio had its fair share of roadblocks and misconceptions. But when it was all said and done, like the toys themselves, this film shouldn’t and couldn’t be taken at face value—proving that even a few computer animated characters could stir up genuine emotions that the real live humans (kids and adults) sitting in the audience could feel.
While Toy Story is both Pixar’s first theatrical release and the first-ever computer animated feature-length picture, the company had already set itself up as a premiere digital animation studio. With Toy Story’s predecessor—the short film Tin Toy—winning the 1988 Academy Award for “Best Animated Short Film,” the studio proved that it had the skill set to win over audiences with its then-revolutionary technology. More importantly though, Tin Toy proved that, under the creative direction of John Lasseter (Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer), the idea of telling a story from a toy’s point of view was something that could explore wider human emotions. Following the accolades garnered from Tin Toy (along with a few TV commercials), Disney ultimately approached Lasseter and Steve Jobs—who, as a Pixar founder, was intimately involved in the computer graphics studio—to create a film concept around toys for them.
For this concept to work, it would first need to impress filmgoers visually. Sure, Tin Toy had proven the team could make an animated short with some computers, but this feature-length undertaking would require full-on innovation. While other films had, over time, contributed advancements and guidelines to the world of hand-drawn animation, Pixar was still building the very groundwork upon which modern-day computer animation exists today. And unlike hand-drawn features, this film would require even the most minute details—like physical textures and daytime shadows—to be created away from an artist’s pencil, inside of a computer; over and over again, for each of the film’s appoximately 1,700 shots. Naturally, this prompted the development teams at Pixar to advance the very art of computer animation itself, with processes like RGB painting, motion blur effects, and texture mapping all seeing major technical advances as a result of the work on Toy Story. Pixar even created an advanced rendering system, named RenderMan, that would literally make computer graphics practical for use in motion pictures. Needless to say, it’s a program that’s still used today.
But for all the optimism that Pixar was embodying, the upbeat Disney we now think of today was not the Disney of the mid-1990’s. Helmed by then-Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, the original concept for Toy Story’s plot was much more mean-spirited. Sure, Disney animation was in the middle of its post-The Little Mermaid “Disney Renaissance,” but Katzenberg was constantly pushing for “more cynical, more edgy, and more adult” attitude from the Pixar writers. Unfortunately this made the characters—more specifically Woody—generally unlikable and miserable. Even Lasseter, who was directing the production, was “pretty much embarrassed with what was on the screen” when showing demo reels of the film in 1993. When Katzenberg and his team determined that the spiteful direction wasn’t working, Lasseter went back to what he felt in his gut, taking his small team of animators and writers and reworking the story to carry the light-hearted aesthetic that earned Pixar accolades with Tin Toy. Instead of hating the film’s leading man, Woody, Lasseter turned Woody into a relatably flawed character; he might have been a jerk to Buzz, but that was out of his own humanistic insecurities—not because he was simply a jerk.
That change affected far more than just Pixar’s future creative reputation and freedom in the halls of Disney—the new direction allowed Pixar to produce a film that was true to the team’s original intention, with a story that targeted very real emotions of identity, purpose, and loss in a way that both children and adults could comprehend. What’s more “Disney” that that, amirite?
The entire plot hinges on one person’s (or rather, toy’s) jealousy of another, setting the hijinx of the film into motion. Hardly a grounding topic for a children’s movie, especially in the '90s. But the film—and reexamined from the perspective of a child’s favorite toy—explores those feelings of doubt, fear, and neglect in a way that a child can comprehend and empathize with. Putting yourself in Woody’s boots (snake not included), you could understand why he wanted to “accidentally” exile Buzz from what was once exclusively his domain.
If it’s not grappling with jealousy and the fear of replacement, the film dissects how people (and toys) establish identity. As Woody’s comic foil, Buzz spends most of Toy Story insisting that he’s not a toy, but rather a genuine space ranger from the “Galactic Alliance.” Near the tail end of the film, when Buzz tries to escape from the clutches of sadistic neighborhood kid Sid Phillips, he is confronted with his own “toy humanity” while watching a Buzz Lightyear commercial, realizing that when Woody was insisting that he was just a toy, he was right. Identity now shaken to its core, Buzz attempts to prove himself right by flying out of a window to his freedom. When Buzz’s fateful escape attempt fails miserably and leaves him one arm short, we see this deep depression overwhelming him as the camera zooms out—leaving Buzz literally broken and small on the floor. In theory, the children in the audience can feel the sadness in having a broken toy, while the adults can insert their own histories of identity loss or confusion. Either way, the entire audience can emotionally and metaphorically step into Buzz’s space ranger boots.
The idea that something computer animated could physically express those emotions was deemed nearly impossible with this burgeoning, relatively untested computer technology. Not to mention the even harder task of simply writing complex enough characters that another human could identify with what they’re going through emotionally. Pixar managed to do both at the same time in its very first feature-length film.
At a time when cinemas are inundated with CG characters and crossover animated movies targeting kids and adults, it’s easy to forget Toy Story, especially considering the string of hits that Pixar followed it up with—like Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc.—proving that the studio was far more than a gimmick or a one-hit wonder. Toy Story’s graphics may no longer be revolutionary-looking anymore, but there’s little doubt that it was the first full-length film to prove that computer animation was a viable cinematic medium for both story and art. From the Pixar-developed programs moving computer animation forward; to the modern, complex characters making deep human struggles digestible for both kids and adults, it’s no surprise that Toy Story was a film that took animated filmmaking “to infinity and beyond.”