Toy Story: 20 Years Later
I was the perfect child. My parents will tell you so. Emphatically, even. Why they went on to have a second child is a mystery my family – and this world – may never resolve. But one fateful November morning two and a half decades ago, I lost my only child status to a very round, undeniably adorable baby sister. My parents had made the tragic mistake of replacing me with a chubby, bald, wide eyed baby, and I simply couldn’t compete*. It unleashed the start of the great Maxwell sibling rivalry—for the following 16 years.
In 1995, Toy Story debuted, and I was lucky enough to be seeing the revolutionary film in theaters. I sat firmly in the aisle seat, next to my sister, as the blue sky wall paper scrolled across the screen. I have only three distinct memories of movies I’ve seen in theaters: the first movie date my now-husband and I shared, seeing Titanic with my elementary school best friend, and, surprisingly enough, Toy Story. And it was unlike any movie I had ever been a part of—and it felt like just that: an all-encompassing world that I was experiencing along with the characters, too.
Toy Story’s innovations made it a landmark film in the ‘90s. The first full-length feature film to showcase an entirely computer generated world, the work was often fondly hailed as “one giant special effect,” rightly so, as each frame took 4-13 painstaking hours to create. In fact, Pixar’s first movie was so revolutionary, it was the first animated picture to win a special achievement Academy Award for the techniques developed and used for the film. But 20 years later, the technological triumphs of the time have little bearing on its continued success. While the movie is still stunning, the improvements made to each subsequent Pixar flick allow audiences to see just how much progress has been made, especially in creating more dynamic, realistic looking people, hair, and sets. Toy Story has certainly been technologically surpassed by other computer animated films in the last two decades—as it should have been. But what makes it part of the greatest trilogy of all time? What makes it one of the greatest animated films ever created? The answer lies in the story telling. The film we see today endured a barrage of rewrites—the original screenplay boasting much darker, less sympathetic characters. Pixar took the rough start (something that almost took down the production entirely) and brilliantly constructed a film for not just children but adults alike with decades old references, humor, and nods to pop culture to appease the grownups —a concept that has since been adopted in every wildly successful children’s film. The humor is strategically woven into the story, allowing complex characters and heavy themes of insecurity, jealousy, loyalty, and friendship, to be humanized and softened, respectively. The creators of Toy Story wisely understood the reasons for its success, even at the time:
“Animation-wise it was great to have the chance to have the story with characters with subtext and arcs and to be able to try to have people forget that this is computer animation—that all they care about is the character, and they’re relating to this person, a real person to them, and I think that thanks to the great animators that worked on the film, we succeeded.”
As I sat in the sold out theater, I looked around to catch the faces of fellow movie-goers. For the first (and maybe last) time, I was interested in what the strangers around me were thinking mid-movie. I wanted some sort of visual cue that someone, anyone, was seeing just what I was seeing. It was that magical. Andy and I were the same age. And though seven-going-on-eight sounds as uncomplicated as it gets, where toys and imagination still hold a crucial spot in a kid’s life, it was nearing the end of the time toys were going to matter to me like they once did. My five-year-old sister, though, was still very much interested in her toys, the baby of the family continuing to do endearing baby things.
The Toy Story franchise can simply be summed up as stories about the importance of being a good friend. But the first film delves into darker, much more complicated emotions but ones very much felt by children, no matter how quickly adults may forget. In the chaos that ensues after Buzz makes his “landing” onto Andy’s bed—in Woody’s spot, no less—the toys cry “replacement,” though Woody feigns optimism as he proclaims, “No one is getting replaced.” It’s in his insecurity, with a series of all-too relatable expressions of that feeling, that even only children might gather what it must feel like to go from “first” and “only” to “oldest,” demanded to learn how to share in an instant. Much like the baby of a growing family, Buzz Lightyear is new, naïve, and innocent. He’s phenomenally, unintentionally funny and perfectly lovable, even if our allegiance is supposed to reside with Woody. And like any second child, Buzz isn’t competing for the attention of his “parent”; he’s blissfully unaware that there even is a competition. While Woody wishes no malice toward Buzz—any mishap being accidental or misunderstood—his desire for life to return to pre-Buzz bliss drives him to uncharacteristic desperation. Much of Woody’s jealousy yields consequences he didn’t intend, and in his attempts to repair each misstep, he finds himself forced to confront the negative emotions that drove his decisions. But no singular moment between Woody and Buzz truly resolved the unspoken competition. Simply enough, time and a brand of forced compassion (whether it be through escaping the explosives enthusiast neighbor or whether it’s a mom who won’t stop reminding you your sister is your greatest ally) both have a way of diffusing the greatest of rivalries. Yes, even the sibling kind.
I won’t pretend that at seven I could see the parallel between my sister and me and Buzz and Woody. I doubt I even fully comprehended the shared feelings of jealousy and insecurity. And I won’t claim that my sister and I truly got along until we were in college—separate colleges in towns far, far away—our rivalry reaching far beyond an 81 minute runtime. To me, Toy Story was simply a great movie that resonated with me like nothing else. It still ranks in my top ten favorite films, and Buzz Lightyear is surely my all-time-favorite character. And while I am hopelessly, helplessly forever a Sheriff Woody, I admire Mr. Lightyear more and more with each repeat viewing. Much like my younger sister, the beautiful, free-spirited entertainer, Buzz Lightyear is the best friend Woody needed, whether he initially realized it or not.
*At three-years-old, I can’t say I quite remember being unceremoniously cast aside, but for the sake of this article, that’s exactly how it happened.