While helped along by an energetic marketing campaign and widespread media attention, “Toy Story” was still a major industry question mark when it opened in November of 1995. The first CG-animated feature film, “Toy Story” walked a very specific tightrope of expectation, introducing a cinematic tool and language that nobody expected much from. Upon release, the clarity was blinding: Pixar had created an instant classic set to revolutionize animated entertainment.For the toys in Andy’s room, cowboy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) is king. As the leader and top plaything, Woody makes it his job to keep order among the plastic distractions, which include piggybank Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Slinky Dog (Jim Varney), Bo Peep (Annie Potts), and neurotic dinosaur, Rex (Wallace Shawn). With Andy’s birthday comes the arrival of Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), a sci-fi action figure who has no idea that he’s just a toy. Stealing Andy’s attention, Woody grows jealous of Buzz, and, in an effort to get rid of the delusional spaceman, accidently jettisons him from the house. Hoping to rescue Buzz and restore what’s left of his reputation, Woody heads out into the world, finding a horror much worse than abandonment: vicious, toy-mangling neighbor kid, Sid (Erik von Detten).
"They've made a friend in me"
Now established as a brand name of sometimes exceptional family entertainment, Pixar was young and hungry during the first “Toy Story” years. The worry shows in the picture, which has remained the most free-spirited, hilarious, and poignant feature film to ever emerge from the studio. It’s a magnificent film, created with a then unproven playful spirit that merges broad cartoon antics with an endearing eye toward nostalgia -- the heartbreaking years when wonder turns to knowledge and maturation.
Director John Lasseter, working in a medium that had no established boundaries, shows such care for his characters, and that joy for this colorful spectrum of personalities leaps right off the screen. While tentatively luring and shaping the CG animation away from its short-film lineage, Lasseter deftly juggles the visual dexterity of the film with sucker-punch emotional content that has come to define Pixar’s touch, for better and worse. Woody, Buzz, and the gang are comedic devices with slapstick urges, but they also represent a potent nostalgic lightning strike for older viewers, inviting warm memories of afternoons lost playing with beloved toys. Lose the silliness and artful animation, and a core of crippling sentiment is left behind, nursed superbly by Pixar in a sparkling, innovative manner they’ve never matched. They lunged for the young and the young-at-heart with this one. What a brilliant way to kickstart a studio.
While the Pixar wizards supplied some amazing work here, the voice casting makes up at least 50% of the experience. A cornucopia of gracious, wry vocal performances, the cast of “Toy Story” reinforce everything Lasseter angles for with his direction. Can you imagine Woody without Hanks? Delivering some of his most cartwheeling acting as the disgruntled cowboy, Hanks makes “Toy Story” as engaging, uproarious, and convincing as humanly possible, spitting out the comedic venom and aw shucks resignation of Woody in a blustery, chirpy, projected performance that I’ve never been able to get enough of. Obviously it’s a tremendous, now-classic ensemble, and Allen is winning as the heroic, clueless space ranger, but Hanks devours the film as Woody, grabbing the biggest laughs and slam-dunking all lump-in-the-throat moments Lasseter throws into the mix.
14 years later (ouch), “Toy Story” reveals some stiff animation and wonderful faith in cartoony behaviors. Those aren’t complaints, it’s more of a yearning for simpler times when Pixar was run in a state of panic and untested creativity, pouring its heart out into the unknown, with industry-dominating success only a pipe dream. “Toy Story,” with its frantic energy, earned pathos, demented touches, and a breakneck chase finale (a truly classic final reel if there ever was one), is such a pure offering of entertainment, losing none of its appeal over the years. Even the skin-crawlingly overplayed Randy Newman songs (the ubiquitous anthem, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”) feel welcome in their proper screen placement. “Toy Story” was a surprise multiplex gift in 1995, and remains an exhilarating legend today.And to think, all those years ago, some people swore a CG-animated film would never work.
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originally posted: 10/17/09 00:25:43