A leap of faith opened the door to one of the most successful animation franchises of all time.
In 1994, a small animation company struggled to make ends meet. With constant downsizing, no financial support and a lack of interest in their product, the CEO of the company considered dismantling the studio and selling pieces to large corporations just to avoid financial ruin.
But late in the year, Pixar Animation Studios found they had a friend in The Walt Disney Company, who agreed to give their make-it-or-break-it feature a slot in the 1995 holiday lineup.
Fifteen years later, “Toy Story 3” has made over $1 billion at the box office, and the struggling animation studio has become as close to a “sure thing” as Hollywood is likely to see.
And it all started with a little trust in an unlikely ally.
“Toy Story” begins as a novelty with a straightforward premise: When we’re not playing with them, our toys, plastic and stuffed alike, come to life.
The ragtag group of toys at the heart of the film are lead by Woody (Tom Hanks), an easygoing natural leader tasked with keeping the group calm and collected as their owner, Andy, receives new toys for his birthday and prepares to move to a new house. Woody seems to have a handle on the group until Andy receives a new toy; the very popular space ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen).
Andy and all the toys, except Woody, fall in love with the action figure who truly believes himself to be a space ranger. Woody falls victim to great jealousy. When he finally decides to toss Buzz out of the window, the other toys call the cowboy on his plot and give him the same punishment as he gave Buzz.
Outside the protection of Andy’s room, Woody finds he must rely on his erstwhile rival if the two of them ever hope to make it home.
One of the things Pixar does best is use the novelty in its films as a starting point rather than a crutch. In the opening moments of “Toy Story,” the viewer is given time to acclimate to the fact that the once static toys have come to life. While doing this, Pixar lays out the rules and issues of the toy universe.
However, no more time is spent on allowing the audience to marvel at the novelty of the story, or what is essentially the feature-length debut of computer animation, than is necessary, and the writing team never leans on it.
In an age where dialogue and story only serve to move the characters from one explosion to the next, “Toy Story[’s]” dependence on character interaction is a breath of fresh air. This is, of course, not to shortchange the animation team who created a vivid, memorable world for the toys to play in.
Several scenes stand out from memory, including a stellar moment at the opening of the film where the virtual camera is poised at the height of a plastic army man on the floor, showing every crevice and aged detail of the wooden planks as possible.
This level of immersion is what helps Pixar stand out from the crowd; where most animation studios would be happy to have a realistic-looking wooden floor, Pixar infuses each piece of wood with a history all its own.
In the end, the heart of what makes “Toy Story” so memorable and versatile is simply that: heart.
When Buzz Lightyear finds out he’s not a real space ranger, we hurt as much as he does. The pain in his eyes as he falls short of flying out of a window is palpable and relatable and provides a raw emotion seldom found in a movie aimed at a young audience. It is this search for heart that drives so many people to see “Toy Story 3,” even 15 years after the original.
Though the computer animation has improved (and Andy’s dog has gotten much older), Woody and Buzz are still the buddies-that-could. In an era where a “buddy movie” is all about the formula, (see Bruce Willis’ ridiculous “Cop Out”) the “Toy Story” franchise is all about what’s inside.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Nathan Bellis at Nathan.Bellis@colorado.edu.