28 Days of Disney Animation: ‘Toy Story,’ Technology, and The Power of Nostalgia

The opening and closing images in the Toy Story trilogy are one and the same: a picture-perfect blue sky with a couple of carefully placed, nonthreatening fluffy clouds in the middle. While both are computer-generated facsimiles, the former is a facsimile of a facsimile: the comforting wallpaper in the bedroom of a little boy named Andy Davis. The latter is closer to the real thing, greeting the teenage Andy as he drives off to college and out of the lives of the toys with whom he populated his imagination for over a decade. As the series opens, the 6-year old Andy, a suburban Christopher Robin of sorts, proves in the confines of his tiny room, overstuffed with plush animals, board games, action figures, and other toys, that his world of make-believe is limitless. As the series closes, Andy ventures into the known unknown of the real world, secretly wished an emotional goodbye by the surviving plastic and stuffed figures of his youth, who finally reached the same conclusion he once did: that anything is possible. These toys, these fully-fledged characters who display a vast well of human emotions over three films, come to appreciate that life is the very opposite of the mundane and predictable they assumed it was.

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The Toy Story series, spanning 15 years, is the greatest, most purely American trilogy of the modern age. Its existence is a near-impossible feat, both in its many creative triumphs and in its three respective production histories. The image of the blue sky in the series, both in welcoming us us and in bidding farewell, is inherent to the ever-flourishing success of the Walt Disney Company for over 60 years; Walt Disney Imagineering is built on the concept of “blue sky” speculation, in which Imagineers conjure up ideas at the outset with no limitations. Though Pixar Animation Studios was, at first, an outside company being lured in by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner during their time as two of the most powerful executives at the Walt Disney Company, the studio’s ideals are so thoroughly and inextricably linked to what defined Walt Disney, the company, and Walt Disney, the man, in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. It’s no wonder that Pixar’s films and characters have become so important and influential, to the House of Mouse as well as to the rest of Hollywood, in the same way that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi, Fantasia, and Pinocchio were in Disney’s first golden age. More specifically, the baton with which Walt Disney Animation Studios ran in the late 1980s as the Disney Renaissance kicked off, beginning with The Little Mermaid, was, in effect, wrested from them by Pixar in 1995 with the first Toy Story. Since then, Disney, and all of the other mainstream competition, has been playing catch-up to this industry standard-bearer.

And the studio’s dominance started with a blue sky, with the notion that anything could happen, more so than would ever be accomplished with pencil and paper. The Toy Story trilogy should be held up as an exemplar of how the creative process doesn’t have to be auteur-driven to be satisfying, and that revision in the process can, despite predictable tongue-clucking from a handful of writers, sometimes leads to a positive outcome. Each Toy Story film was created under immense stress and tension, and under outrageous time constraints. The first was completely overhauled in 2 weeks, else the filmmakers’ ties with Disney be severed wholly; the second was designed initially for a direct-to-video release, and then was reconceived and rewritten within just nine months for theatrical consumption; the third was nearly crafted by an outside group, during the purgatorial time when it seemed as though Pixar would become a cinematic free agent, and Disney would be grasping for future computer animation dominance. That these three films exist in their current form is a minor miracle; that they are among the most emotional, insightful, clever, and humane films, live-action or animated, of the past 20 years is a major one. There is an important quote with which it’s worth framing the discussion around two specific aspects of the Toy Story trilogy, courtesy of a Disneyland audio tour from well before Pixar’s near-invasion of the Disney theme parks. (By this point, you cannot go to either Disneyland or Walt Disney World without seeing Pixar characters and storylines, unless you actively avoid all signs to the contrary.) The line, narrated by the late Jack Wagner, is as follows: “Disneyland is a first, an original. Since the day it opened in 1955, more than 100 million people have come here from the four corners of the earth to participate in adventures unique in all the world. Here, tomorrow is today and yesterday is forever.” In that last sentence, we have the Toy Story films in a nutshell.

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TOMORROW IS TODAY

Though the Disney Renaissance is widely believed to extend from 1989, with The Little Mermaid, to 1999, with Tarzan, its highest peak occurred just under 18 months before Toy Story opened and changed the face of mainstream animation permanently. There are two halves of this decade-long era: the period ending with the release of The Lion King, the highest-grossing hand-drawn animated film ever made; and the period that began the year after, with Pocahontas. At one point, Disney’s executives (and many of its animators) presumed the latter film would be more successful, a heartfelt and sincere depiction of the love story between New World settler John Smith and Native American Pocahontas, with the English settling of the New World as the backdrop. By the time The Lion King opened, it was becoming clear that the opposite would turn out to be true. Computer animation was not as prevalent in the late 1990s as it is now (of the four computer-animated films released in the United States in that decade, three, including the first two Toy Story films, are from Pixar), but the mere existence of a new, cutting-edge style of movement and life in animation represented an even vaster shift in storytelling capabilities than what Disney created with its reinvention of the animated film as a Broadway-style musical.

Because of how quickly trends cause presentation shifts in Hollywood, it’s hard to believe that, just two decades ago, traditional animation was at its peak of popularity, whereas now, it is a forgotten sub-form. In 1995, traditional animation was the leader of the pack, but feature-length computer animation was the brash, swaggering, terrifying new kid in town. Watching Toy Story in 2014, thus, is to see its main struggle reframed as a kind of self-reflexively guilty meta-commentary: Sheriff Woody is traditional animation, the establishment figure who boils over in neurotic fear of the shiny new interloper who will eventually take his place. Buzz Lightyear is computer animation, impossible to beat based on the technological breakthroughs represented in his accessorized gadgetry. Perhaps most surprising is this fact: we are constantly meant to feel sympathy for Woody first, not Buzz. (By the end of the first film, at least, we can safely relate to both characters, but only after Buzz changes his attitude and gains self-awareness.) Though this theory is clearest in hindsight, the people behind the Toy Story films, many of whom started out in traditional animation, may well have felt a bit embarrassed at the sometimes destructive potential that computer animation represented.

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Like many unforgettable and impactful films, especially those that have been released in the past 30 years, the people who make business decisions in Hollywood took the wrong lessons from Toy Story as well as its sequels. One film does not make a trend, but within a few years of Toy Story’s release, DreamWorks Animation, then but one facet of the upstart new studio DreamWorks SKG, decided to never make a hand-drawn animated film again. (A separate, slightly digressive fact to consider: Katzenberg left the Walt Disney Company in the fall of 1994, just over a year before Toy Story was released, but it’s well documented that he frequently pushed its director, John Lasseter, and the rest of the Pixar crew, to make Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear as edgy as possible, and to include a heaping helping of adult-friendly references to keep everyone in the audience entertained, not just little kids. When, in November of 1993, a partly completed version of the film, with his many notes intact, was presented to Disney’s executives, they were horrified at how unlikable the characters had become. Lasseter convinced Disney after this screening—later dubbed “Black Friday”—that if they ignored the notes from Katzenberg, who was equally dumbstruck at the change in quality, Pixar could make a better version of Toy Story. They did, of course. But Katzenberg would soon jump to DreamWorks SKG, and, if the majority of DreamWorks Animation’s films are any evidence, he never stopped telling filmmakers to make characters “edgy” and to utilize adult-centric jokes. Consider the Shrek franchise, arguably as influential, except to a disastrous effect, to mainstream animation as Toy Story ever was.) Walt Disney Animation Studios has, perhaps, not been quite so reactionary as DreamWorks, as it’s been just 2 ½ years since their last hand-drawn animated feature, the sweet and charming (and mostly unseen) Winnie the Pooh. For the foreseeable future, however, the prospect of so-called traditional animation is dim, as even the next film from John Musker and Ron Clements, the men who co-directed The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and others, is computer-animated. In fact, the 1990s were the last, gulping gasp of hand-drawn feature animation in the mainstream, less because there has been a dearth of creativity in the form, and more because a series of computer-animated movies made a ton of money. Ergo, to executives, the message was clear: audiences were rejecting hand-drawn animation in favor of something made by a computer. The quality of the stories and character in either form never came into question.

So we can watch Toy Story through this lens and better understand Woody’s intense and destructive concern about being replaced. All of the toys in Andy’s bedroom, throughout the trilogy, are very conscious of what happens to a toy that outlives its usefulness to a child. They’re surrounded by, and sometimes represent, examples of the callowness of youth. There is Combat Carl, a GI Joe-esque toy used so an obnoxious kid can blow something up; there is Wheezy, the squeeze-toy penguin relegated to a shelf in Andy’s bedroom that’s so high that his mother has to get up on her tiptoes to reach it, because his squeaker no longer functions correctly; there is Little Bo Peep, the sole female toy in Andy’s original collection, who’s given away between the second and third Toy Story films, never to be seen or heard from again aside from a wistful line of dialogue from Woody; and there is Jessie, the cowgirl whose original owner outgrew her, as children tend to mature past such toys, and left her to rot in a Goodwill box. Whatever shame we may transfer from these fictional toys to our own, imagining what our toys might have thought if they, too, were alive when we weren’t around, is amplified throughout the series. This remorse climaxes in the final 20 minutes of Toy Story 3, as the symbols of our collective childhood are nearly obliterated in an all-consuming fire. Whatever similarly apocalyptic moments there may be in Disney’s hand-drawn past—the Firebird Suite sequence in Fantasia 2000 or the climax of Bambi, for example—are surpassed by the shocking photorealism of a moment in which a group of toys face their death with as much dignity as is allowed.

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How appropriate (and somehow amazing) it is to see Woody, Buzz, Rex, Hamm, Mr. Potato Head, and the rest stare down their fiery demise with a legitimate amount of grace. This moment works on a number of levels, from our latent emotional attachment to the characters, extending throughout the past three films, to the very idea that it is our own childhoods heading down the green mile to execution. Without expert-level animation, this cathartic scene would fall flat. Pixar’s animators are akin to the elderly cleaner in the second film, brought in to fix Woody and his torn arm. “You can’t rush art,” he chides the portly Al, the impatient avatar for the average Disney executive, desperate to make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible, by cashing in on these priceless collectibles. (The line is particularly funny considering the aforementioned rushed production of Toy Story 2.) The Toy Story trilogy is not as artistically remarkable as Ratatouille or WALL-E, the latter specifically championed for looking extremely realistic. The first Toy Story, in its background designs especially, is marked by its quaintness, instead of what we now consider truly cutting-edge technology. The visual leaps and bounds of computer animation are not clearly apparent until Toy Story 2, when the human characters seem less mushy and half-formed and non-toy inanimate objects exist in a clearer reality as opposed to appearing flat. (In truth, A Bug’s Life is visually more stimulating than either of the first two Toy Story films, but is not as memorable in its character depth or storytelling, so it’s frequently forgotten and underrated.) But the series, as a whole, is built less on technical perfection, and more on emotional complexity. In the early moments of Toy Story, Woody clarifies that what should matter to toys is being present for their human owner, when that human owner needs them to be present. First, they serve Andy as a childhood conduit; by the end of the trilogy, they’ve transferred themselves to the adorable Bonnie, who seems less attached to these toys based on what they might have represented originally, and more as props for her outrageous daydream fantasies. As the series evolves, the battle between old and new is pushed back; Woody remains a little vexed by Buzz’s cool demeanor, able to deflect neurotic thoughts calmly, but they co-exist easily. What begins, in hindsight, as a near-apologia from Pixar’s animators for how they killed traditional animation ends as a call for more diversity in the form. If the old and new can comfortably live with each other in this world, they should be able to do so in the real one.

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YESTERDAY IS FOREVER

The toys with whom we become acquainted in this series come a long way from squabbling over a spot on a child’s bed to accepting their apparent death. The original struggle, between the old and the new, a cowboy doll and a spaceman action figure, seems quaint relative to the ending of Toy Story 3, but it is no less rooted in nostalgia. What the Toy Story trilogy did so effortlessly well in its trafficking of nostalgia, starting in the fleet and funny opener, is introduce popular culture in such a universal manner to never date itself. So often, nostalgia is coded to a specific time, emphasizing the old adage that you had to be there to appreciate something. Thank God it’s not the case here. There are references to specific bits of culture in the dialogue (as when Mr. Potato Head, in one of his first lines, angrily asks a literal hockey puck, “What are you looking at, you hockey puck?”, nodding to Don Rickles’ well-known catchphrase; or when the familiar notes of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” play as Buzz hops on a bridge in the opening of Toy Story 2), but it’s rare for any cultural touchstone to be so aggressively referenced that it yanks the audience out of the timeless experience of watching a boy play out fantastical scenarios on his bedroom floor.

We know that the films all take place, roughly speaking, in the present day, but Andy may well have been a child of the 1960s as opposed to the 1990s: at his youngest, we see him choosing to play with an astronaut instead of a pull-string cowboy. The battle between the Wild West and outer space seems decidedly more rooted in the 50s. Seeing as one of the few specific pop-culture references in the first film is the inclusion of “Hakuna Matata” on the soundtrack, though, Andy’s very much a Millennial kid. It’s easy to surmise that Woody was a hand-me-down toy for Andy, possibly from his (notably absent) father; in Toy Story 2, the previously unaware Woody is awestruck at the TV show centered around him, which is presented in black-and-white and is clearly designed after the massively popular 1950s series Howdy Doody. Although Buzz is, in that second film, the central figure of an apparently popular video game (successful enough that local toy stores are selling cheat-code guides), he’s closer to a modern version of the Russian satellite Sputnik, which took the world by storm in 1957 and set our eyes away from the dusty plains of the West, upward to the infinite vastness of space. (Note also that Stinky Pete’s bitterness is inspired by the Woody’s Roundup show being canceled due to such space-race interest. Old vs. new is a neverending fight.)

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There is something particularly winning about a trilogy built on progressive filmmaking technology that focuses primarily on both the importance and debilitating influence of childhood nostalgia. The beauty of the Toy Story series is that, because each of the central toy characters was designed to echo the members of ensemble casts of such long-running sitcoms as Cheers and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, we can look at almost every toy and see portions of ourselves. Andy, so frequently absent from the series (how else could Woody, Buzz, and friends get involved in such action-packed exploits?), is, as mentioned earlier, the Christopher Robin of this series, an audience surrogate with a bevy of toys and a goofy sense of play at his disposal. While the A.A. Milne creation may have been conscious of how his toys got into scrapes, unlike Andy, who’s blissfully unaware (if he’s not secretly mentally along for the ride with his inanimate friends), Christopher’s toys are arguably parallels to Andy’s. Winnie the Pooh and Woody are both older and worn toys, though Winnie is too scatterbrained to carry Woody’s neuroses. Tigger, like Buzz Lightyear, is the newcomer who swaggers into any scenario (at least, for the latter, in the first Toy Story) with a surprising lack of self-awareness as well as an intense and inaccurate amount of confidence. Rex and Eeyore are both crippled by self-esteem issues; one is more upbeat than the other, but Rex’s chipper attitude often seems as if it masks a deeper depression. Slinky Dog and Piglet both function as the lead character’s goodhearted sidekick with a childlike way of seeing the world. Hamm and Owl are both chatty know-it-alls who don’t offer much in the way of concrete help when it is required of them. And so on.

Reductively, both Milne’s stories and the Toy Story films are partly designed, it seems, to make us feel bad. We never worry, granted, about the future or well-being of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger and the rest; they are a fixed point in the life of Christopher Robin, a bland and well-meaning boy with an overactive but always pleasant and calm imagination. Christopher, unlike Andy, does not age. He is maybe a more idealized version of a little boy, someone who doesn’t have the capacity or interest to be a bully or an adult. Andy is an idealized version of the Millennial child, someone who grew up in an imperfect family, not the American-dream nuclear family of the Baby Boomer era. His toys are an outlet for his escape from the mundanely real world, which may explain why he holds onto so many of them until the point when he departs for college. We watch the exploits of Woody, Buzz, and friends, and wish that we’d kept onto more of our toys, more of our material objects, for longer, that we hadn’t donated them to Goodwill. If only we had more time with these toys, more adventures in which to take part. In some respects, the Toy Story films almost inspire a slight amount of hoarding among its more susceptible audience members.

Take the aforementioned scene in Toy Story 2 in which we find out exactly why Jessie harbors such aggression to Woody, her cowboy counterpart who’s so eager to get back to Andy instead of being shipped off to a Japanese museum and held at a distance from humanity permanently. In a scene scored by a painfully beautiful Randy Newman song performed by Sarah McLachlan (one that seems tailor-made for usage in an ASPCA ad, were it not so damn depressing), we find ourselves aching in pain for Jessie, because we have been her old owner Emily. We have, as all people do, aged past the point when a pull-string cowboy or cowgirl is worth keeping around. We have moved to talking on the phone with human friends instead of concocting fictional adventures for our plastic ones, trading up in a sense. And we have left toys on the side of the road, unaware and uncaring of those toys’ future. (A similar carelessness is on display in Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear’s backstory, though his original owner is young and thoughtless enough to just get a duplicate.) Somehow, each of these movies makes us feel bad for how we treat those inanimate objects we imbued with life at an impressionable age. One imagines the filmmakers felt a similar gnawing guilt, appreciating only too late what it meant to have those toys in the first place.

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The toys in Andy’s bedroom function similarly to Christopher Robin’s (and they will likely serve the same function for Bonnie): they are the pieces with which future nostalgia is created. So many of us mark our adulthoods by chasing our childhoods, trying to recreate the idyll of youth. Toy Story 3, aside from being a massive cash cow for Disney, is as successful a recreation of what made the first two films in the series work as well as they do. (Both Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 echo many of the themes the first film touches upon, but these sequels dive deep instead of wading into those general ideas.) Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, as voiced by Ned Beatty, is a powerful hybrid of Jessie and Stinky Pete, a character who’s smart enough to realize how most kids treat their toys once they become teenagers; it is the dominion he holds over the other toys at Sunnyside Day Care that makes him the most terrifying tangible villain of the trilogy, as opposed to the intangible antagonistic force of time itself.

Everyone around these toys will outgrow them; the perceived bliss of Sunnyside is that, even if one child gets too old, there will always be someone to play with Woody and Buzz. They will be unstuck in time, frozen permanently with no fear of an abrupt end. Woody, at first, is the only one who wants to avoid this impersonal option, choosing instead to get dusty in Andy’s attic until he has children who would hopefully want to play with a long-obsolete cowboy. Instead of being a blip to a group of children, he (and the rest of the toys, eventually) decides that he’d rather be a truly dominant figure. Andy Davis’ childhood is not marked by his time at cowboy camp or that night he spent at Pizza Planet with his sister and mother before they moved, but by the loosey-goosey scenarios he concocted, where Woody and Buzz play savior to Jessie, fighting against Mr. Potato Head and Hamm and the little green men. It is, thus, fitting for Toy Story 3 to be a deliberately intense exploration of the death of childhood, a literal trial by fire, followed by rebirth and renewal.

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In the Toy Story franchise, childhood is infinite. Childhood, here as in life, endures beyond one bedroom, beyond one house, beyond one neighborhood. Through children like Andy and his sister Molly, the toys at the heart of the series gain a vicarious sense of humanity. With one exception, they never reveal their true nature to their owners or those around them, but toys like Woody and Buzz have approached maturity well before those same children. When Buzz Lightyear shook his head subtly in despair, his plastic arm cleaved from the rest of his body after an attempt at actual flight; when Jessie stared bleakly through the hole in a cardboard box left on the side of a road; and when Woody finally gripped onto the hands of his brethren, acknowledging his mortality as he descended to the depths of a fiery pit, these toys became 21st-century versions of Pinocchio, or a Disneyfied take on David, the artificial boy in Steven Spielberg’s chilly masterwork AI. Woody and company never plead so blatantly to be made real, because when they are in the hands of a loving child, their own personal Blue Fairy, they are real. There may be some troubling aspects to the overreliance on nostalgia in modern mainstream filmmaking, utilizing familiar properties to capitalize on our deep-seated love of childhood action figures and board games; what the Toy Story films do expertly is treat and comment upon nostalgia intelligently, as opposed to simply embracing and encouraging it thoughtlessly. This is a series as much about the nature and force of childhood, as it is about friendship, not just between toys, but that untenable bond between the animate child and inanimate toy. By now, Randy Newman’s song “You’ve Got a Friend In Me” is connected to the friendly rivalry between Woody and Buzz; however, it is telling to note that its first usage is during Toy Story’s opening credits, when Andy is hopping around his living room with Woody. This is the key friendship of the series, one that is dealt with more subtly because the filmmakers are smart enough to let us do the legwork, to see our best selves in Andy and our worst selves in Sid, Al, and Lots-O. The Toy Story films are rooted in a technological breakthrough that could’ve failed, becoming instantly dated; instead, this trilogy is one of the most universal and timeless accomplishments in all cinema.

— Josh Spiegel




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