At the height of the Disney Renaissance, Pixar decided to flip the switch on Hollywood animation and introduce the world to something groundbreaking and original that had never been seen before. Toy Story was the earthquake of modern animation and the aftershocks are still being felt to this day.
Andy’s Coming: What Toy Story Means to Us
When I began this write up, I was absolutely sure Toy Story had been released in the 2000s. The franchise felt so recent to me, especially with the recent release of Toy Story 4 last year. So I was momentarily stunned when I saw that Toy Story had been released in 1995. Twenty-five years! I won’t dive into how old I suddenly felt, but I will say that it speaks volumes to the impact and legacy of Toy Story that I was so convinced I was long since out of high school before its release. That’s how well it holds up, not only in terms of the animation, but the characters and the story itself. Considering I cannot remember much about what I did last week, it’s amazing to me that I can remember so vividly how I felt watching Toy Story for the first time. I nearly wrote it off as a kids’ movie I had no desire to watch, but I’m so glad I did. Buzz and Woody’s tumultuous beginning was so innovative, funny, and heartfelt. It also triggered some intense nostalgia for my youth and the toys and stuffed animals that I would spend countless hours playing with during the day. Toy Story managed to reconnect me to my childhood, something very few films, save for the sequels, have been able to do since. | Romona Comet
Growing up as a kid of the ’80s and early ’90s, action figures were a big part of my life. He-Man, G.I. Joe, wrestlers etc., I had them all. I would rage epic battles that made Endgame look like child’s play. Sports, movies, and toys were my life as a kid. But, as a teenager, playing with toys was a thing of the past. I had outgrown them and they suffered the fate of being destroyed or burned. I reenacted the final scene of Young Guns in my garage one summer. Anyway, in 1995, Toy Story came out and hit me like a ton of bricks. I had never known other people thought their toys came alive when they weren’t around. I mean, I knew they didn’t but there was always that question, right? Even though I was only a few years removed from playing with toys, Toy Story reminded me of those good times as Andy set his toys up with a storyline and everything to battle it out. It had everything to wrap you up in an engaging story where you cared about these toys and the adventure that lied ahead. From Woody and Buzz’s rough beginning of Woody trying to get Buzz to understand he was just a toy to all the individual characters with recognizable voices from my childhood. (Not to mention how great the animation was since we had never seen anything like it at the time.) Toy Story brought me back to a simpler time when I was a kid and it will always hold a special place in my movie heart.
As an eight year old kid, Toy Story marked one of the earliest times I can recall truly feeling transported. It wasn’t mere escapism, but an outer body journey into a tangible world of imagination, complicated feelings, and unfiltered joy. I was introduced to completely original characters that filled screen and space with heart. Somehow, quite remarkably, it didn’t crumble under the weight of inevitable campiness. Instead, it felt like a familiar exploration of childhood that felt lived-in and new at the same time. The impossible seemed possible and, perhaps for the first time, we understood beautiful nuances of real friendship. To pack all that in a film designed to entertain kids and inspire adults is no small thing. We saw ourselves as we watched this rare but deeply imaginative story, and that’s what gives Toy Story its lasting power. We knew jealousy like Woody, pride like Buzz, fear like Rex, complicated circumstances like Andy, anger like Sid, and blind faith like the squeaker aliens. Underneath it all, we want to be wanted. For something as messy and subjective as conflicted emotion, Toy Story found a way to be damn-near universal in message. I’m hard-pressed to think of a single person, regardless of age, that was not deeply moved by this movie on some level or another. And for what it’s worth, that means something.
The Origin of Pixar
In 1979, Ed Catmull (along with several former colleagues) left the New York Institute of Technology’s Computer Graphics Lab (CGL) to create The Graphics Group (GG) at Lucasfilm. They had originally created The Graphics Lab in the hopes of creating the world’s first computer animated film, but the lab hemorrhaged money and the group quickly realized that the only way to reach their goal was to join with a major film studio.
Before their departure, the CGL dabbled in everything from its first attempts at a feature film titled The Works (which was never completed), a precursor to Renderman called REYES (Renders Everything You Ever Saw), and developed other various technologies including particle effects and various animation tools. All really impressive and all really boring.
In 1982, they finally got to do something cool. This is their Rudy moment. After years of sitting on the bench, they finally got a taste of that big league action. The team began working on special effects film sequences with Industrial Light and Magic to create pivotal moments such as the stained glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes and the Genesis Effect in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The effects look terrible now, but back in the day it was mind blowing.
After their new found success and acclaim, the lab decided this was the perfect time to branch out from LucasArts and become its own entity. Or was it?
*cue dramatic record scratch accompanied by freeze frame*
The history of Pixar will most likely cite this as the moment when it decided to strike while the iron was hot, but the truth is a little more complicated. There’s another, more ridiculous reason why the company was jumping ship. And that reason was Howard the Duck.
Between 1982-86, while the GG was living the dream, George Lucas was falling apart financially behind the scenes. He was going through a divorce, a sudden dropoff in Star Wars licensing revenues following Return of the Jedi, and gambling his career on the $36 million big screen adaptation of Howard the Duck.
Because the Graphics Group was made up of people with functioning eyes, they immediately saw the writing on the wall. Fearing Lucas would most likely sell the company to recoup some of his debt (seriously, I cannot stress enough how incompetent Lucas is as a business man), the group made the preemptive decision to become an independent company. After two decades, two studios, and two name changes, Pixar was finally born.
Steve Jobs, John Lasseter, and Disney
Due to the technological limitations of the time, Pixar realized their dream of creating the first computer animated film was still years away. So Pixar decided to be a hardware company until technology caught up to their ambition. Its first and only product, the Pixar Image Computer, was a commercial disaster and almost tanked the company before it even began. Luckily, a generous investor saw their potential for greatness. His name was Steve Jobs.
While Jobs was slowly buying more and more of the company to keep it afloat, Disney partnered up with them to create CAPS (Computer Animation Production System). It was a program that helped streamline the ink and paint part of the 2D animation process.
During that time, an animator named John Lasseter was using their computer to create short demonstration animations to show off the computers capabilities. His first short was Luxo Jr. and it was a huge hit when it premiered at SIGGRAPH. That’s short for Special Interest Group on Computer GRAPHics and Interactive Techniques. I only mention this because I don’t understand how you can create an acronym and then get to pick and choose what gets to go in said acronym. Who decided to just slap “Interactive Techniques” in there?
By mid-1990, the company completely abandoned the hardware division and focused solely on producing computer-animated commercials for outside companies. Early successes included ads for Tropicana, Listerine, and LifeSavers. After a year of literal commercial success and producing more software tools, Pixar’s partnership with Disney was about to become extremely lucrative for them. Disney made a historic (in the days before they owned everything) deal with Pixar to produce three computer animated feature films.
The first of which was Toy Story. Well technically, it was supposed to be The Brave Little Toaster, but that’s a complicated history lesson for another day. Toy Story was set in a world where toys are living things who pretend to be lifeless when humans are present (*cough Brave Little Toaster cough*). The film followed a pull-string cowboy named Woody (Tom Hanks) becoming jealous of his kid Andy’s new favorite toy, a space ranger action figure named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen).
The Legacy of Pixar’s First Masterpiece
Toy Story was released 16 years after CGL’s original dream. It is proof positive that the best dreams are the ones you never give up on, because those are the ones that reap the greatest rewards. And what a reward it is.
There are few films, if any, that are as entertaining as they are culturally and historically significant. No offense to Eisenstein but I don’t believe there’s a single person alive that watched Battleship Potemkin because they heard it was fun. If you know me, you know I tend to make huge declarations such as “greatest of all time” or “best ever made.” I’m a fan of my superlatives, but there’s no denying Toy Story’s impact on cinema. I believe it is one of the only films that can accurately be described as a masterpiece.
There’s a quadrant system every significant work of art has to hit in order to be considered the best of its medium:
- Legacy: Is it still talked about years after its creation?
- Impact: Did this thing change the world in anyway?
- Influence: Did it inspire other works of art?
- Entertainment: Is it any good?
Now, that last one is subjective, but I don’t believe it would still be in the public conscience twenty-five years later if people didn’t like it. I could rattle off its perfect Rotten Tomato or talk about its record shattering box office earnings, but those facts don’t necessarily mean the film is good. In fact, there’s nothing I can say to prove to you that it’s a great film. So instead of listing all of its numerous awards and accolades, I’m just going to tell you to go watch it. The proof is in the pudding.
What are your fond memories of Toy Story? Do you have a fun fact or piece of trivia on the film? Share it in the comments below!