I took a great class yesterday from Marshall Vandruff, a terrific artist and teacher. The class was a Visual Storytelling Analysis of the film Toy Story, where we went through the entire film, stopping after each sequence and discussing the story structure and emotional line of the film. It was an absolutely terrific seminar. I wanted to talk a little bit about Toy Story as a film in general, because it really is such a great, well told story. This is a film where the story was allowed to be what it should have been. There was a tremendous amount of searching to find the film this would eventually become, but this movie turned out to be the ultimate game changer for animation. What’s even more astounding is that this film does not feel dated in the slightest. While the animation and visuals would technically be considered “primitive” to what CG films can do know, Toy Story was still approached with a wonderful artistic eye, and the visuals are still just as wonderful and aesthetically pleasing to the eye as it was when it first premiered.
I was 14 when Toy Story first came out. From what I do remember about seeing the film, I remember how much I liked it although I didn’t know the impact it would have that one day CG would completely take over the animation field. I never saw myself wanting to go into a career in CG after this, but I saw it as the use of a different medium. The story was great, and the film itself was a lot of fun. There was one particular scene that hit me pretty hard when I first saw it, and still today it’s my favorite scene in the whole film. It’s basically the fall of Buzz Lightyear when he discovers that he’s not a space ranger, just “an insignificant stupid little toy”. It’s his fall from grace and his discovery that the world was never what he imagined it would be. The scene I refer to in this is where Buzz and Woody are talking in the middle of the night at Sid’s house and Woody is trying to get Buzz to help him escape. Buzz just sits their alone with his sad line, “I can’t help. I can’t help anybody.” It’s been a few years since I’ve watched this film, but yesterday as I watched the film I couldn’t help but be moved to tears by this sequence. Not in a heavy depressed way, but as the scene plays out, the two of them have reached a penultimate moment where they couldn’t get any lower and two guys that were once enemies finally reach common ground. It’s a beautiful scene. And when Buzz finally sees the words “Andy” on his shoe and gets the message that there is a new, better life for him out there, you see a character that finds bliss in that moment.
There’s a lot of great visual storytelling devices in this movie. I’ve always liked the opening sequence with Andy playing with his toys. The camera is always kept at the Toy’s point of view, even though they are in “play mode”, meaning they don’t move. When we’re introduced to Woody, who appears to us as just an ordinary toy, the camera keeps everything so that we see what he sees in his head, from going down the stair railing to spinning in the chair with Andy. One of the interesting things that was pointed out when I was in the class was an idea that started out as a cliche joke and goes on to become an important part of the story. The scene starts with the army men going to investigate the new birthday presents Andy is getting. After one of them gets crushed, the wounded soldier shouts out “Go on without me!” to which the Army captain returns and says, “A good soldier never leaves a man behind!” This theme is echoed through to the final sequence in the film, where twice Woody and Buzz make self sacrifices for each other. For instance, the first time Buzz is caught in a fence as the moving van is leaving, and he shouts to Woody, “Go on, I’ll catch up”, to which Woody who is right at his moment of victory, decides to jump down and help Buzz. Then the second time it happens, Woody’s leg is caught in the dogs mouth and he cries out to Buzz, “Take care of Andy for me!”, to which Buzz shouts No! and jumps on the dog, pulling up and snapping its eyelids.
From a structural standpoint it was interesting to see how so many different elements are set up and paid off later in the movie. The story structure of this film is a solid as they come. The sequels were never quite the same when it came to this film, and one of the things I enjoyed about this film was Mr. Potato Head, who is much more of a smart ass, and while he’s not a villain, he is a bit more of an antagonist figure here. A part of it is that he’s somewhat jealous of Woody’s position as Andy’s favorite toy, and manages to convince the other toys not to let Woody come back to them after what he did to Buzz. While Potato Head makes some good points, at the same time, you can’t help but feel his motives are a little ulterior even if he’s not conscieous about what he’s doing. There’s a part of him that already wants Woody to go away anyway, just because Woody decided to be self-proclaimed leader of the toys. Potato head even gets a bit of comeuppance at the end of the film when the race car flies into him and his body parts scatter all over the place. And then of course, he gets a happy ending when he finally gets Ms. Potato Head!
I’ve always had problems with the sequels for this film, because to me the idea of the toys getting replaced because their masters grew up or moved on…for some reason that story was never important to me. It’s almost like it comes to a shock to all the toys that their master is going to grow up, when I think if every toy before hand had to deal with this, you’d think toys would have some plan or initiative on what to do when they had to move on to another master. You’d think instead of “holding on” to each other, that one day they would split up and move on to other people, and one day eventually end up in the trash pile. But that’s just what their existence is. It seems like they’re not okay with the idea of dying or moving on. I was more interested in the first Toy Story because it dealt with the toys dealing with ordinary problems that we can relate to as people. The jealousy of a new toy coming into the picture when Buzz arrives, which angers Woody, is very human and a story we can all relate to when somebody comes into our lives we didn’t ask for and we don’t know how to deal when that person comes in with newer or more impressive ideas than the old toy. Some of the aspects we talked about in this film were the metaphors about how the space race came in during the 60’s and took over when before every kid was interested in cowboys and Indians and then suddenly everyone was into space and astronauts. All of this helps to build on a great rivalry with the characters.
Toy Story will always be one of Pixar’s greatest triumphs. The story is so solid as well because the filmmakers had no choice but to go in that direction. They had to accept and allow the story to unfold and be what it wanted to be. It’s disappointing to me that the rest of the Pixar films (at least everything after The Incredibles) couldn’t be as on par and allow their films to bloom in the way that Toy Story does. It’s just a great solid film, and one of my favorite animated films ever made.