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Toy Story •••••

Toy_StoryStarring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles
Director: John Lasseter
Screenplay: John Lasseter & Pete Docter
Animation/Adventure/Comedy, Rated: G
Running Time: 81 minutes
Release Date: November 22, 1995


As part of a special series, we will be reviewing the first 5 movies released by Pixar studios. Keep your eyes peeled for our upcoming mini-book on the heroes of Pixar!

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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it’s time we review Toy Story, one of the groundbreaking animated films of the 1990s.

It’s one of those animations that appeals to both adults and children. Let’s recap:

We meet a small pullstring cowboy doll named Woody (Tom Hanks), who belongs to a small boy named Andy (John Morris). Woody is one of many toys owned by Andy, and all the toys act like inanimate objects when humans are present but spring to life when humans are absent. Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, but a birthday gift to Andy contains a new toy that becomes Andy’s new favorite: Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), an astronaut action figure.

Woody is filled with jealousy as Andy begins to favor Buzz over him. Woody attempts to push Buzz behind a dresser and accidentally pushes him out the window. The other toys turn on Woody blaming him for Buzz’s demise. Meanwhile, Andy’s mom takes him to Planet Pizza and Andy takes Woody along for the ride. Buzz jumps into the moving car. When the car stops for gas, the two toys get out and have an argument – but the car leaves them at the gas station. Woody and Buzz jump into a Pizza Planet delivery truck. Now their goal is to find Andy and return home before the sun rises – because tomorrow Andy is moving to a new house.

Greg, Toy Story’s arrival on the Big Screen in 1995 marked a revolution in computer-animated feature films. I remember at the time being enthralled by the exquisite realism and detailing of the visuals. And the movie also manages to tell a great hero story that carries meaning for audiences of all ages. No wonder Toy Story was inducted into the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

In our first Reel Heroes book, we describe “buddy heroes” as a common type of social unit of movie hero. Woody and Buzz are buddy heroes because their relationship follows the typical buddy arc: they first dislike each other, then go on a journey together, and eventually grow into friends. A great strength of this film is that Woody and Buzz are each missing different inner qualities and thus undergo separate personal transformations. Woody is wracked with jealousy and must learn humility along with the need to place the good of the greater community ahead of his own selfish interests. Buzz is ignorant of his true status as a toy and must learn to accept his authentic identity.

Pixar tells a story like no one else. They have a deep understanding of the importance of the hero in a narrative. Woody suffers from jealousy. He feels like he is getting nudged out of his rightful place as Andy’s favorite toy. So, when a new, flashy, Buzz Lightyear shows up, Woody wonders how he, as an ordinary cowboy toy, can compare. But in Woody we see a strong sense of loyalty to his boy. Woody recognizes his importance as a quality toy in Andy’s life and acts as the leader of all the lesser toys. He constantly strives to make sure Andy is happy. Woody has the rare qualities of giving and selflessness.

Buzz on the other hand is full of himself. He doesn’t recognize that his role is to be Andy’s toy – to make sure that Andy is happy. Buzz is constantly worried about returning to Star Command and talks boastfully of his importance to the universe in defense of the evil Emperor Zurg. It’s not until the two toys are stranded that they create an alliance. It is their joint goal to return to Andy that ultimately turns this into a buddy film.

Buzz has a revelation that he is in fact merely a child’s toy when he sees a commercial for a Buzz Lightyear action figure on television. He goes into a deep depression as he finally understands that he is not the actual Buzz Lightyear. It is Woody who convinces Buzz that the ultimate purpose in his life is to make Andy happy by being a great toy. Woody even confesses to Buzz that he admires Buzz’s flashing lights and futuristic sounds. This bonding moment is the “convergence” that you and I look for, Scott, when we review the buddy story.

Toy Story may be an animated adventure but it’s densely packed with many elements of the hero journey. Included among these elements are a few villainous forces that attempt to thwart Woody and Buzz from achieving their aims. Chief among the villains is the rather disturbing neighbor boy Sid. We’ve all known kids like Sid; he’s nasty and physically mutilates toys for no reason other than because he can. Sid’s plan to blow-up Buzz is necessary to provide Woody with an opportunity for redemption.

Also appearing to get in the way of Woody’s rescue of Buzz is the collection of misfit toys that Sid has created in macabre fashion. I’m guessing that these disturbing toys are writer Joss Whedon’s handiwork. Toy Story wisely reveals these toys to be Woody’s allies instead of foes. Ironically, Woody’s toy friends in Andy’s bedroom are outraged at Woody’s mistreatment of Buzz, and they inadvertently foil Woody’s rescue plans, too. Even Buzz himself, disconsolate about his true identity, hampers Woody’s efforts. In all, it’s a fun yet complicated set of oppositional forces that Woody faces.

What’s interesting about Sid as a villain is that he is transformed in the end. Woody and the mutilated toys come to life in an effort to scare Sid straight. And they are apparently successful. In all the villains we’ve analyzed in the past year, Scott, I don’t think we’ve seen one example of a villain who gave up his villainous ways. This is a great example of how heroes transform those around them.

I’m glad you brought up the support characters, Scott. Andy’s toys are all clean and well taken care of. Sid’s, on the other hand are in various states of disrepair. And, as you point out, we think Sid’s toys are going to be evil because they are ugly. But it turns out that they are benevolent and willing to help Woody in his plan to save Buzz. While none of Sid’s toys takes on a personality (as each of Andy’s toys does), as a group they are helpers in Woody’s plan to save Buzz – and to divert Sid in his evil ways.

Another thing I want to point out is the divergence from the hero’s journey that we are accustomed to. In Toy Story there is a climax which is resolved by saving Buzz from Sid’s demonic attempt to blow him up. Once that climax is resolved, we would expect the story to slide into the resolution phase. But instead, there is a new conflict as Andy and his mother are driving off to Andy’s new home. Woody makes it to the car and is about to leave with Andy when he realizes that Buzz is stuck in the fence. Woody then gives up his chance to return to Andy’s ordinary world and goes back to lend assistance to Buzz. This then results in a new climactic event as Woody and Buzz chase Andy’s car across town to find Andy. It’s a thrilling chase scene and delivers a dual climax at the end of the story.

Toy Story comes as close to representing the perfect animated movie as one can get. At the level of story, the plot is sweet and simple, yet deceptively rich in incorporating all the elements of a good hero story. At the level of writing, the screenplay is impeccably crafted with witty dialogue sure to appeal to people of all ages. At the level of animation, Pixar’s revolutionary CGI effects are both superb and timeless. In terms of characters, we’re introduced to unforgettable characters who move us and teach us something important about the human condition. The rating here is a no-brainer: 5 full Reels out of 5.  And I nominate this film to occupy a worthy space in our Reel Heroes Hall of Fame.

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You’re so right, Scott. Toy Story is very well-crafted. The technology that created the movie creates a complete and believable world. The voice acting is delightful and engaging. The storytelling is intelligent and comical. And the hero’s journey is complete. While the film is aimed at children, the writers don’t condescend. I agree, 5 Reels out of 5. I second your nomination to the Reel Heroes Hall of Fame.

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Woody and Buzz are classic, unforgettable buddy heroes. I can’t tell you how impressive it is that a children’s film can so effortlessly portray the evolution of an unlikely friendship along with the development of two individually separate hero journeys. This is textbook stuff here and done to near perfection. Again, I happily assign this duo 5 Heroes out of 5 here.

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They are definitely Buddy Heroes, alright. They start out as adversaries and end up as good friends. However, I see them as starting out on different paths and then joining up to have the same goal by the end of the story: that of making Andy happy by being great toys. Woody and Buzz each go through their own transformation. Woody gets over his jealousy and Buzz realizes his place in Andy’s world. It’s a wonderful hero’s journey and I award Woody and Buzz 5 out of 5 Heroes.

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The villain Sid is an effective foe for Woody and Buzz to contend with, but I can’t use the same superlatives to describe Sid’s development as a character. Yes, you are correct, Greg, that there are hints to Sid’s redemption at the end, but we don’t learn much about Sid’s backstory nor much else about the darkness of his nature. His character exists merely to provide roadblocks for our heroes, and that’s certainly sufficient for this movie. In all, I award 3 Villains out of 5 here.

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I liked Sid more than you did, Scott. I felt he offered a great contrast to good-kid Andy. Sid was evil and calculating. And, if left unchecked, would probably have gone on from mangling innocent toys to insects and animals. I was impressed with the “Villain’s Journey” in this story. And while I have to agree with you that there wasn’t any backstory to Sid that explains his vicious actions, I still give Sid 4 out of 5 Villains.

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And now let’s rate the supporting cast. This includes the other toys in Andy’s room, Andy himself, and Sid’s misfit toys. These characters, especially Andy’s toys, are all marvelously constructed. They are distinct, quirky, funny, charming, loving, and loyal. We get to know them and cherish them the way Andy must love and cherish them. Interestingly, as you note, Greg, Sid’s toys are a monolithic bunch but that’s okay — they serve their purpose. Conspicuously absent is a mentor figure for Woody, but his pangs of conscience serve this role and inform his choices throughout the story. It’s a very strong supporting cast and I award the Supporting Cast 4 Casts out of 5.

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I have to agree, Scott. The supporting cast of Slinky, Mr. Potato Head, T-Rex, and the others, were given a distinct set of personalities. They did a great job of playing up Woody and Buzz’s characters. Interestingly, Sid’s toys could not speak. That tended to give them less dimension than Andy’s toys. I noticed a number of missing archetypes in Toy Story including the gatekeeper, the herald, and as you mentioned, the mentor. I wasn’t as impressed with these characters as you were, I give them just 3 out of 5 for Supporting Cast.

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1 Comment

  1. Vic Smith says:

    An interesting sidelight, to me anyway, is that the country/western group “The Riders in the Sky” sang the songs like “Woody’s Roundup” and “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”. The fiddler of the group is named Woody Paul and looks a lot like the hero in “Toy Story”. Here are a couple of URL’s to their site. The group is talented and funny. http://www.ridersinthesky.com/bio and http://www.ridersinthesky.com/media . Just highlight and right click to get the list of options. Click on the “go to” option for info and a little entertainment “The Cowboy Way”.

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