Those who know me are quick to describe my childlike nature. Perhaps it’s no wonder then that among my favorite animated movies of all time would be Disney.Pixar’s iconic franchise Toy Story. In fact, on my shelf sits a 12 inch Buzz Lightyear action figure while a Sheriff Woody doll sits on my bed, just where they are supposed to be. For twenty years these characters have been part of my life. In fact I would venture to say that Buzz Lightyear and Woody are to me what Anna and Elsa from Frozen are to my youngest sister.
It was 20 years ago now that I first met this animated odd couple. Who would imagine that a cowboy and a space man could ever be best friends or more over become the symbols for an entire animation studio? Their introduction was something of a special event. I can still remember seeing the first TV spot for the movie during an episode of the TV show Home Improvement.
The familiar Disney announcer voice talked about all the ground breaking work in animation Disney had done in the past with clips from old favorites like Snow White, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and even the stop motion of Nightmare Before Christmas. Now we were going to see something new. It was the first ever full length computer animated film about toys that came to life. It quickly became a must see movie for my family and that December, my family and I went to see the movie in theaters and I was blown away.
Some may attribute the success of the movie, to its two lead actors, Tom Hanks as Woody and Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear, and rightfully so. After all, at the time it was released, between his two Oscar wins for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, and having starred in one of that summer’s highest grossing at the box-office, Apollo 13, Hanks was quickly solidifying his role as one of America’s leading men. Tim Allen meanwhile, was the star of Home Improvement, the number one sitcom in America at the time ( with the show itself being only the second highest rated TV show after the weekly news magazine 60 Minutes.)
Joining Tom and Tim were other comedy legend Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head, John Ratzenberger from TV’s Cheers as Hamm the know-it-all piggy bank ( who would go on to voice a character in every single Pixar movie), Wallace Shawn ( The Princess Bride) as Rex the T-Rex, Annie Potts ( Ghostbusters and Designing Women) as Bo Peep, and the late Jim Varney from the Earnest movies as the loyal Slinky Dog. The sequels would only add to the greatness of the Toy Story franchise’s voice cast with the likes of Joan Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Michael Keaton, Ned Beatty, and former James Bond Timothy Dalton.
The cast of characters in the original film is structured almost like what one would expect in an old sitcom. Bo Peep is the love interest, Slinky is the all-to-loyal best friend, Rex is the neurotic worrywart in need of encouragement, Hamm is the town know-it-all, Mr. Potato Head is the cantankerous old-timer, and Woody is the all-American everyman hero who acts as the glue that holds them together doing everything from taking time to play chess with slinky, go on dates with Bo, sort out everyone’s problems and even hold staff meetings, almost like Sheriff Andy Taylor on the Andy Griffith Show. Then along comes the naive newcomer Buzz Lightyear who upsets the delicate social order and steals the affections not only of their owner Andy, but of the other toys. Much to Woody’s chagrin, Buzz believes he is a real space man, and the rest of the toys don’t make it any better as they go right along with him.
Jealous, Woody stages an accident hoping to simply knock Buzz behind a desk, resulting in him falling into the yard. The other toys turn on Woody, and when Buzz turns up in the car and confronts Woody the two get in a brawl and fall out in a gas station. They are forced to try to work together to get back to Andy, but in the process they get captured by their worst nightmare: Sid the Toy Destroyer. Along the way Buzz accepts that he is in fact a toy, while Woody comes to see the spaceman as his friend in a high flying finish that was only the beginning of great things to come.
The movie also focuses on Andy, his relationship with his toys, his wild and wacky playtimes, and his family’s upcoming move. With a story written Pixar mainstays John Lasseter, Pete Doctor, Andrew Stanton, and the late Joe Ranft, and a screen play that included a then up and coming writer by the name of “Joss Whedon” who would later go on to do a little movie called Marvel’s The Avengers , and it’s cutting edge animation Toy Story became the highest grossing film of 1995.
The end result is one of the most poignant tales of toys coming to life since The Velveteen Rabbit. You care about these toys and their struggles. You want to see Buzz and Woody put aside their differences and become buddies. You want to see them get home safely to Andy and escape Sid the Toy Destroyers clutches. You gasp when Buzz breaks an arm, and then you cheer when he and Woody soar through the sky and land safely in the box next to Andy. It’s almost like watching your own beloved childhood toys go through the same thing.
Yet, it goes beyond just our fondness for toys, and transcends to something deeper. These toys, in their own special way deal with many of the same things we do. Who has not felt hurt or disillusioned about their place in life upon receiving reality crushing news like Buzz? Like Woody, hasn’t there been times in our life where we’ve felt replaced by someone they love when someone newer or better comes along? Yet at the same time, who hasn’t had to have someone come beside us and remind us that we are loved by someone and that in life that is all that matters.
More importantly, in their own special way they have taught me, and others just what it means to be a friend. As Woody says “it’s not about if we get played with, it’s about being there when he needs us.” Being a good friend isn’t about how often you may see each other, or the wild adventures you go on, but being there for someone when they need you. Whether it’s the toys with Andy or the toys with each other, they demonstrate this to us time and time again in all their adventures.
Ever since Toy Story Pixar has had a steady stream of hits. As many critics have pointed out even their worst movie is better than most of the other kids films put out today. They continually try to write fun, smart films that kids and grownups can enjoy that will tug at the heart strings. Whether it’s cars, princesses, toys, monsters, fish, bugs, old people, emotions or superheroes Pixar can and will deliver. But for me, my favorite Pixar film will always be Toy Story.
Some may wonder if the series has any life left in it and I firmly believe that it does. Each new installment has been just as much fun if not better than the original in terms of animation and storytelling. Much of this is because they not only take their time with the story and make sure it is good, their driving mentality has always been to tell a great story about these group of people who happen to be toys. Whether it’s a buddy comedy like the first film, a search and rescue mission like Toy Story 2, a prison break like Toy Story 3, an old school horror movie with a Whedon-esque heroine like Toy Story of Terror or a fantasy epic like Toy Story that Time Forgot, this group of toys can do what every child knows by heart: at playtime imagination has no limits. That’s the real secret of Toy Story’s success. These movies are not unlike any of the wondrous adventures we would send our toys on when we were kids, with all the warmth, love, fun, and emotion that we gave our own games.
To Woody and Buzz Lightyear, I say thank you for twenty great years. And thank you Pixar for your excellent films. Here’s to being friends to Infinity and Beyond.