When this column began its theme of highlighting the so-called “Pixar moment” in various Pixar films (we’re still waiting on that patent to go through), it was predominantly about focusing on moments of powerful emotion in films that are targeted primarily at the family audience. That animation can inspire adults and kids alike to grab for a tissue isn’t terribly unique—though few modern animated films would attempt to echo its impact, let’s not forget the iconic moment in Bambi when the title character’s mother is killed by a hunter—but Pixar’s later films, such as Ratatouille and Up, reach for emotion in surprisingly mature and complex fashion. So in starting off 2014 with a look at the Pixar moment in Pixar’s first film, Toy Story, you might think this column would look for the origins of those unforgettable, tearjerking moments.
Not so. There’s a couple of scenes in this 1995 gem that strive to make us well up with tears—Buzz’s painful realization that, just as Sheriff Woody has been telling him, he really is just a toy and not an actual space ranger; and Woody’s monologue about how Buzz’s coolness has turned him into a selfish jerk while both are trapped in the bedroom of a maniacal, destructive neighborhood kid—but neither will be the focus of today’s column. Arguably, the emotion that constitutes a common type of Pixar moment wouldn’t become nearly so striking until the 1999 sequel. (Anyone who’s seen Toy Story 2 knows exactly what scene will be the focus of that film’s specific column. No surprises there.) Regarding the original Toy Story, though, the scene that matters most to the film’s success doesn’t have Buzz lying helpless on a tile floor or Woody looking inward to admit his neuroses. No, the scene in the spotlight today is one of the all-time great movie introductions, as Woody and the rest of the toys in Andy Davis’ bedroom meet “the real” Buzz Lightyear.
To watch Toy Story now is to marvel at a perfectly, tightly constructed screenplay. When the film opened in the 1995 holiday season, everyone was mostly curious about what a full-length computer-animated feature would look like compared to Disney’s traditional animation. Compared to Pocahontas, which opened earlier that year, you could even argue that this retelling of a love story set amidst the settlement of the New World is a far more technically accomplished feature. The second and third Toy Story films took technological leaps forward, and simply look more polished and photorealistic (especially the third one, for obvious reasons of progress) than the original. The reason why most of us treasure Toy Story and its sequels in ways that far surpass that of Pocahontas, then, isn’t how its world looks, but the characters who populate that world. The story and screenplay for Toy Story, credited to seven different people, including its director John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Joe Ranft, Pete Docter, and the then-not-nearly-as-beloved Joss Whedon, is tasked with letting us into Andy’s bedroom and how it operates, as well as telling a coherent buddy-comedy in just 77 minutes, excluding end credits.
We meet Woody and many of his friends before they meet Buzz, but it’s the scene when everyone comes face to face with this pompous spaceman that counts. Because the core of the movie is the relationship between Woody and Buzz, starting out fractious but turning friendly almost as quickly, there’s not as much time to spend with Mr. Potato Head, Hamm, Rex, and the rest of Andy’s toys. (In hindsight, seeing as the other films and shorts in the franchise give these characters more to do, it’s even less of a niggling issue.) As such, what little time we get with the entire ensemble, gauging their interactions and chemistry, counts even more. Like many of the best scenes in the Toy Story franchise, it starts small and expands to a point where it threatens to careen out of control before righting itself. After Woody and the gang send out Andy’s soldier toys to spy on his birthday party so they know what new toys will be taking up real estate in the boy’s bedroom, they’re thrown into disarray when Andy and his friends play with a mysterious new toy whose identity is unknown (thanks to Rex’s accidental destruction of Andy’s walkie-talkie, currently being used for communication with the soldiers). Andy and his pals head up to his bedroom for a minute or two, but once they leave to eat cake downstairs—interestingly, this is the only time in the films when Andy interacts with any other kids outside of his sister—a shocked quiet falls over the bedroom. Andy’s carelessly knocked Woody from his perch on his bed, placing the new toy in his place.
“Now, let’s all be polite and give whatever it is up there a nice, big Andy’s-room welcome!” Woody says, attempting to counter Potato Head’s innate cynicism with enthusiasm. And so he clambers up to the bed, in awe at Buzz Lightyear, space ranger. (The camera pans slowly up Buzz’s plastic exterior, apparently as impressed as everyone else is.) He’s the prototype of the flashy new toy, replete with extendable wings, a whooshing helmet, a voice box with multiple phrases, a laser on his arm, and more. His arrogance and lack of awareness are initially charming to the other toys; they don’t seem to care that he thinks he’s an actual space ranger, because all of his shiny doo-dads and gadgets are just too cool to ignore. Woody, of course, is bothered by Buzz in part because he fears getting “replaced,” a common theme in the series; Woody’s also set off by the fact that Buzz, in his deluded form, is obnoxious and somewhat insufferable. By the end of the movie (really, by the end of the first hour), Buzz has come down to Earth and appreciated his limitations in surprisingly graceful fashion. He’s still a far cooler-looking toy than Sheriff Woody (not without his charms, but decidedly old-fashioned), but he appreciates that he is, finally, a “child’s plaything.”
But in the opening act, he’s utterly convinced that the box in which he was stored for Andy’s amusement is his spaceship, a fact that rankles Woody to a breaking point of frustration during the initial encounter. He’s also put upon by the other toys, who immediately take to comparing all of Buzz’s accessories to those Woody has. (Buzz’s voice box is instantly connected to Woody’s pull string, a unique take on measuring one’s masculinity to someone else’s, emphasized by Woody guiltily holding onto his pull string behind his back.) One slight leads to another, and finally, Woody challenges Buzz to fly via those wings. And Buzz ends up proving that he can fly (or fall with style, depending on your point of view), although merely by happenstance does he not fall on the floor, landing headfirst. Thus, Woody’s inspired to loathe Buzz as the other toys celebrate his feat of derring-do instead of marvel at exactly how lucky he was. (One arguable improvement in the second and third films is that characters like Mr. Potato Head and Hamm are less enamored of, respectively, the duplicate Buzz toy found in Al’s Toy Barn and the Spanish Buzz. Even they grow weary of the toy who would be space ranger.)
This five-minute sequence is most impactful not just in how it sets the conflict in motion, but how it firmly establishes who each of the toys are, defining their personalities often with just one or two lines of dialogue. (It isn’t surprising to consider that Lasseter and the rest of the writers compared the toys in Andy’s bedroom to the denizens of the newsroom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, equally as recognizable with one pithy punchline after another.) Rex, for instance, is as fleshed in as a character by not being able to roar ferociously as a T-Rex should, as he is by saying, “I’m from Mattel. Well, I’m not really from Mattel, I’m actually from a smaller company that was purchased in a leveraged buyout.” A kid may not be able to grasp exactly what a leveraged buyout is, perhaps, but the tone with which the line is delivered and the awkward doubling back informs Rex as a character. The same goes for John Ratzenberger’s Hamm, who’s as much a know-it-all as Cliff Clavin was on Cheers. Here, as in the second and third films, it is the ensemble voice cast that elevates an already crisply written screenplay. No doubt, other actors could have put on a level of bluster in their voices as Tim Allen does in playing Buzz Lightyear. (The character seems partly inspired, in his space-ranger form, by the braggadocio that helped define Captain James Kirk in the Star Trek series; fitting, then, that Allen’s two best film roles involve him tapping into a Kirk-like swagger, both in the Toy Story franchise and in Galaxy Quest.) Wallace Shawn’s had a handful of memorable supporting roles, including that of Rex; certainly, his Vizzini in The Princess Bride belongs to the same category as the diminutive boss Bob Parr flattens in The Incredibles. But Rex the dinosaur toy feels as if it was a perfect character for Shawn to play, utilizing his reedy, whine-like voice to excellent effect.
We do not get nearly enough time with Rex, Hamm, Little Bo Peep, or the acidic and wily Mr. Potato Head (who else but Don Rickles?) in the first Toy Story. But when all of these essentially kind-hearted toys and their prior leader, Sheriff Woody, make first contact with Buzz Lightyear, this movie comes alive in ways that the simple techniques of computer animation could never replicate. The animation in Toy Story does hold up, for the most part. (Molly is the only human who looks a little too old-fashioned, but then, as evidenced by the Tin Toy short, babies had never been Pixar’s strong suit, design-wise.) But in the nearly two decades since its release, it is the characters, their inimitable traits and flaws, and their interactions that stand out most of all. So many of the lines from Toy Story have stood the test of time, from Buzz’s recognizable catchphrase to Woody’s spluttering fury underneath an 18-wheeler at his astronomical counterpart’s unwillingness to accept that he’s just a toy. (Though it is Buzz’s confident rejoinder—“You are a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity.”—that may still inspire the most laughter.) The Toy Story sequels would trade up on the first film’s fast-paced, witty, and uncondescending humor by invoking surprisingly strong emotion, forcing these humane toys to face death in the eye. But in the opening salvo in the era of computer-animated features, what made Toy Story so special was the characters and their voices, not the zippy design of the world they inhabited.