Made in Spare Time

(#99) Toy Story: The Movie

This movie is one of those on the AFI Top 100 list that I’ve previously seen before. And I’ve seen it a bunch of times. But this is the first time in years that I sat down and watched Toy Story from start to finish.

When I first saw Toy Story on the Top 100 list, I thought it was kind of weird that one of the staple movies of my childhood was on there. Toy Story just felt like one of those good-ole movies that I watched as a kid but was not something that critics would rave about. At least not in a “leaving your mark on history” sense. But reading up on Toy Story while preparing to write this article reminded me that this was the first full-length animated film made entirely with computer generated imagery (CGI). This reminder made me look at this movie through an entirely different lens.

A Technical Eye

Lately, I’ve been enjoying the guys over at the Corridor Digital YouTube channel that release a “react” video every week. This series includes “VFX Artists React...” videos where a group of visual effects artists react to, and break down, good and bad visual effects. That channel has given me a more educated eye for looking at CGI because now I can say more than “wow that looks good (or bad).” Taking that better-trained eye to this movie, I had a real appreciation for what Pixar was able to accomplish.

I’m still genuinely impressed with just how well Pixar nailed the different plastic textures and all the little details on those toys. By far my favorite detail in the whole movie is the flashing (the extra plastic chunks left behind during the molding process) on the back of the green army men’s head. Rather than going for the idyllic toy and imagining what the toys would look like without any imperfections, Pixar leaned into realism and that’s what made me connect with the toys so much more. Even with CGI being more prevalent in movies following the release of Toy Story, Pixar’s attention to detail in is still hard to top. This level of detail is present throughout the entire movie and provides an amazing sense of fidelity. Details like the plastic molding imperfections on the toys or strategically placed background elements like Mr. Potato Heads abysmal choices in his game of battleship (see below), tell an entire story. All of these details help ground this movie in our reality and make one believe that maybe those toys that we know and love could actually come to life.

Where the movie’s effects fall short is in the living creatures. The humans have this strange rigidity to them as they move and their skin is basically another plastic texture just like the toys. Sid’s dog has this really weird walking style as he runs around on-screen. It felt more like the dog was running on stilts than on his own legs. But I thought it was smart on Pixar’s part to lean in on what they were good at by focusing on recreating the toys rather than anything else. Really, in the grand scheme of this movie, there aren’t many people or animals present. Bravo to Pixar for realizing what they could and couldn’t do and leaning into the good while cutting out as much of the bad as possible.

Looking Back

Now, Toy Story is one of the movies on this list that I have seen many times. I absolutely loved watching this movie as a kid. And now I realize why I liked Buzz Lightyear so much more than Woody all this time (beside liking space and all things aeronautics). Woody is a complete jerk in this movie! I don’t know if I just forgot that or if I never realized it before.

While I was watching the movie, I was completely taken aback by how nasty Woody can be. Although I completely understand his jealousy over being dethroned as Andy’s favorite toy, Woody is just plain mean sometimes. This was definitely something that really stood out to me while watching Toy Story this go around and made me rethink the entire movie. As a kid, I always thought of this as a happy cartoon. As an adult, I can see all the dark storylines that Pixar threaded throughout and it kind of blows me away that I did not fully grasp the gravity of certain sequences in the movie as a kid.

Leaving a Legacy

Like I said earlier, I was pretty surprised when I saw Toy Story on the AFI Top 100 list. I thought of all the animated movies that have come out since Toy Story and wondered why this one trumped all of those. And I’m even thinking of some of the other Pixar movies that I personally think are better such as Monsters, Inc. But it was that research about this movie being the first purely CGI feature length film that made me rethink Toy Story’s place on this list.

While starting this project, I thought the Top 100 list would just have the best stories, acting, visuals, sound design, etc. But I think this movie really goes to show how AFI’s list also considers a film’s legacy.

Think about it. Without this movie, we’d be missing out on some of the greatest movies to grace the highest grossing movies lists of recent years. Without Toy Story, we probably wouldn’t have movies such as Wall-E, Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon, Up, or Frozen. The subset of films that this single movie paved the way for is just astounding.

Getting the Basics Right

It wasn’t just the technical breakthroughs that make this movie so great. Toy Story nails so many of the basics for a classic movie. Buzz Lightyear is such a great protagonist that oozes heroism from the first moment he’s on-screen. But his character’s journey, especially during his “dark night of the soul,” is such a humanizing arc. The literal fall from grace as Buzz realizes that he really is just a toy is such a heart-wrenching moment that sticks with you well after you finish the movie. It’s the perfect kind of scene to teach kids about accepting themselves.

And these character lessons don’t stop with Buzz. Woody confronting the fear that he will simply be cast aside by Andy someday is a feeling that I think a lot of us can relate to. Pixar did a fantastic job of presenting the fear of “what if I’m not good enough?” in an easy-to-digest package. And they also present a great lesson on working together to overcome your fears.

From the morals to the characterization to the humor and the visuals, Pixar came out of the gate firing on all cylinders with Toy Story.

A Reminder

This movie wasn’t just made to occupy kids and sell merchandise. It is a collection of life lessons, it is a groundbreaking film in terms of moviemaking, and it’s just plain enjoyable. I’m happy I revisited this movie as part of the 100 Movies, 100 Props project because I don’t think I would have realized all of this before. Sure, I really enjoyed the movie as a kid. But I never sat down to think about why I liked the movie so much. Writing this article, I had to actually think about the movie, digest the movie, and that has made me really appreciate Toy Story that much more. It’s a fantastic film and I’m excited to memorialize this viewing experience and these revelations as I dig into making a prop from the movie.

If you’ve made it this far and are still reading, thank you so much. Be sure to share this with your friends and follow me on Twitter or Instagram to know when I publish a new article on the 100 Movies, 100 Props project. If you have any thoughts about Toy Story, share them in the comments section below!