Let’s Talk About… ‘Toy Story’ (1995)

Film #39 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

[Ed. Note: Potentially unsuitable language/content for children below]

In 1979, Ed Catmull (along with several former colleagues) left the New York Institute of Technology’s, Computer Graphics Lab to join Lucasfilm to create The Graphics Group. 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.

Within those first couple of years, the CGL dabbled in everything from their first attempts at a feature film titled The Works (which was never completed), a precursor to Renderman called REYES (for “renders everything you ever saw” because nerds), and developed other various technologies including particle effects and various animation tools. All really impressive and all boring. These are the nerd years.

In 1982, the GCL finally got to do something cool. This is their Rudy moment. After years of sitting on the bench or filling up the water cooler (or whatever the fuck Rudy was doing when he wasn’t on the field doing cool shit), they finally got a taste of that sweet football grass action. Look, I’m not good at sports analogies. It’s big league time is what I’m saying.

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 like hot liquid ass now but back in the day, that shit was mind blowing.

After their new found success and sudden acclaim from their many years in the business, the lab decided that this was the perfect time to branch out from Lucasarts to 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 they decided to strike while the iron was hot but the truth is a little more complicated.

While the above statement is most certainly true, there’s another, more ridiculous reason why the company that would eventually be Pixar was jumping ship.

And that reason, was Howard the fucking Duck.

This stupid piece of shit.

While the GCL was living the dream aka the Rudy years (82-86), Lucas was falling apart financially behind the scenes. He was going through a divorce, saw a sudden dropoff in revenues from Star Wars licenses following the release of Return of the Jedi and the piece de ridiculous came in the form of a 36 million dollar turd named Howard the Duck. 

Lucas, for no real rhyme or reason, decided to gamble his career and a good chunk of change on a big screen adaptation of a comic nobody gave two fucks about. Marvel was crazy when they gambled the entire MCU on Iron Man but that at least had the immense charms of a Robert Downey Jr. Howard the Duck had a little person in a terrible animatronic suit. If Star Wars was the birth of a new cinematic landscape, this was the after birth.

A cinematic abortion that lost a lot of goddamn money. Because obviously.

At least it gave furries something to add to their spank bank. 

Because the GCL was made up of people with functioning eyes, they immediately saw the writing on the wall. Which is a kind way of saying that they were grabbing their umbrellas because a shitstorm was a-comin’.

Fearing Lucas would most likely sell the whole Graphics Group to recoup some of his dumbass debt (seriously, I can’t stress enough how incompetent Lucas is as a business man), the GCL made the preemptive decision to turn the group into an independent company.

After two decades, two studios and two name changes, Pixar was finally born.

Realizing their dream of creating the first computer animated film was still years away due to the technological limitations of the time, they decided to be a hardware company until technology caught up to their ambition. Their first and only product–the Pixar Image Computer–was a commercial disaster and almost tanked the company before they even began but 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), which was a program that helped streamline the ink and paint part of the 2D animation process. I Googled what it is or does and I can’t make heads or tails of it. All of this is nerd talk.

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. Which is 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 the fuck decided to just slap “interactive techniques” in there? It’s not even included in the goddamn acronym. Get it together nerds.

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 that do things I don’t understand, their continually partnership with Disney was about to become extremely lucrative for them.

Disney made an historic (ah, the good ol’ days before they owned everyone and 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 story that I can easily dedicate two hundred more words to but nobody gives a fuck.

In a world where toys are living things who pretend to be lifeless when humans are present (cough Brave Little Toaster cough), the film follows a pull-string cowboy named Woody (Tom Hanks) becoming jealous of his owners new favorite toy– a space ranger action figure named Buzz Lightyear. (Tim Allen)

Released 16 years after their original dream, Toy Story 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’s 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, impact, influence and entertainment.

Is this thing still talked about years after its creation?

Did this thing change the world in anyway?

Didn’t it inspire other works of art?

Is it any good?

Now, that last one is subjective but I don’t believe it would still be in the public conscience twenty odd years later if people didn’t like it. I could rattle off its perfect Rotten Tomato meter and its near perfect Metacritic scores 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 and writing a slightly articulate, occasionally witty defense of why I believe it definitely deserves its place among the AFI top 100, I’m just going to tell you to watch it.

The proof is in the pudding.