Retro movie review: Toy Story

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

No one likes to feel there’s easily replaceable, either in usefulness or lovability.

Yet that’s precisely what happens to Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) in Pixar’s classic Toy Story, released in 1995 and almost immediately hailed as an animation classic, not simply because it contains groundbreaking 3D animation but because of its attention to world-building, intensely-detailed characterisation and an elegantly-simple plot that nevertheless manages to pack an almighty emotional wallop, not to mention some sage, humour-laced life lessons.

In short, it pretty much ticks all the boxes animation feature wise.

But perhaps, the greatest gift from this superlatively piece of moviemaking is how very deeply human it is right throughout a narrative that never once flags or drops the ball.

In this is story which confirms all our hopeful suspicions, well yours truly anyway, that toys actually come alive when you’re not watching – it makes sense; we invest them with so much love and personality and vivacity – why should that stop just because we’re not there? – Woody, the favourite toy of Andy (John Morris) and thus, without a popular vote, the leader of the toys, grappled with being replaced in the affections of both his child and his fellow toys by bright, shiny and initially-clueless Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen).

He reacts to this usurping of his central role, both as a plaything and convenor of the toys, much as any of us would – he’s hurt, upset, then he’s angry, nasty and resentful.

It’s all too easy to see Woody as some sort of douchey demi-villain, friend and leader turned seditious a**hole but think a little more about how he reacts and you come to a startling realisation – we’d all likely react just like he does.

Sure, we’d like to think we’d take the high road, falling in line with the other toys such as the devoted classic toy Slinky Dog (Jim Varney), Rex the nervous Tyrannosaurus figurine, companion-hungry, Picasso figure wannabe Mr Potato Head (Don Rickles) and opinion-leading Hamm the piggy bank (John Ratzenberger) but would we? Would we really?

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

The genius of Toy Story, and indeed many of the Pixar films, is that they nail, with unerring warmth and truthfulness in equal measure, what it means to be human.

Toy Story, was of course, the first cab off the (almost) endlessly successful Pixar conveyor line of brilliantly-affecting animation, and it is proof, if we needed it, that Pixar began as it meant to go on.

Not only do we witness Woody struggling to redefine himself in a whole new set of circumstances, his toy room world unsettled not just by Buzz Lightyear’s (or is it Lightsnack?) arrival but by Andy’s impending move with his mother (Laurie Metcalf) and younger baby sister Hannah (Sarah Freeman) but we nod in recognition as his unwitting replacement has to deal with the fact that he is not a space ranger marooned on an alien planet but a toy, like everyone else.

This epiphany occurs in the worst of all possible places – the house of terrible Sid next door (Erik von Detten), who tortures and blows his toys, to the horror of the inhabitants of Andy’s toy room who watch in disbelief from an overlooking window – immobilising Buzz in an understandable funk where he begins to question, as we all would, who he is and what he is even capable of.

All of us have been there at one time or another, our once-secure sense of self thrust into a maelstrom of self-doubt, and writers Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, and now-disgraced director John Lasseter, beautifully and movingly evoke what it is to question you ever knew about yourself and everything around you.

But then something magical happens; Woody and Buzz meet somewhere in that overlapping place between respective existential crises, realising not simply that they are the key to each other’s salvation from Sid’s destructive tyranny (along with his mutant toys who, and another lesson learned here for Woody, aren’t even remotely as evil as their appearances might suggest) but that they need each other on a far more fundamental level (and in a recurring theme for the series, that being a toy is something wonderful and special in and of itself; something Woody knew but Buzz has to learn).

That’s a lot of self-realisation going on there, laden with affirming messages plenty but so skilled and assured is the writing that it never once feels over-done or heavy-handed.

It helps too that even in the most dire of situations, which includes Woody and Buzz, in pre-friendship mode, fighting it out under the Andy’s family on their way to Pizza Planet, the resulting captivity at Sid’s and the other toys rejection of Woody as a petulant, nasty possible killer of Buzz, that there is lots of humour.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

A huge amount in fact.

From Rex constantly wondering if he’s dinosaur enough for his role as an apex predator to Buzz blithely living out his staunch self-belief that he’s actually a space ranger and not the latest mass-produced “It” toy, to Bo Peep (Annie Peeps) sneaking Woody off for some kissing to the “Bucket of Soldiers” war movie parodies, Toy Story is constantly, cleverly funny.

Stuffed with everything from witty oneliners to visual hijinks – Slinky Dog strung out between a pursuing Buzz, Woody and remote control car RC is a highlight as are the worshipping aliens and their hilarious religious take on the arcade claw game machine – the film is relentlessly, thigh-slappingly playfully entertaining.

Again, it manages to bathe itself in comedy gold without once losing sight of the emotional core that powers it – Toy Story is both a heartfelt excursion into the very depths of the human soul, and a stand-up routine that executes on its imaginative premise with wit, verve and heart.

It is also a deliciously heartwarming slice of nostalgia, capturing the life stages we all go through from the perspective of toys who are caught in the move between classic toy room occupants to the new shiny merchandising like Buzz and who react exactly like we would, in ways that celebrate what it is to be human, both the good and the bad of it.

Toy Story is a classic not simply because its animation, heart-tugging music by the inimitable Randy Newman, characterisation or world-building is superlative or because it exquisitely balances humour and heart in such a way that you’re crying as much as you’re laughing, but because it knows none of us are perfect, and that goes for our toys, a state of being that doesn’t negate our right to life or happiness, and which, in fact, if lessons are learned correctly, opens the door to lives rich with meaning, love, friendship, and belonging.

It’s a potently-affecting cocktail and Toy Story celebrates it in all its flawed glory, given us at once a journey back into our childhood and a chance to re-evaluate the choices we have made, and continue to make, as adults, leaving us, I suspect, all the better for it (and laughing, in recognition, at the absurdity of it all).

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