The 1990s was truly a golden age for animation. Disney, Studio Ghibli, and Aardman were firing on all cylinders. Dreamworks was starting to make waves. The likes of The Lion King, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast were destroying the box office and proving that animation had a million stories still to tell. And in amongst this, a tiny, obscure little newcomer arrived with a whole new box of tricks: Pixar Animation Studios, and their funny little vanity project - Toy Story.
The background of Pixar is a surprisingly star-studded tale, with both George Lucas and Steve Jobs providing a quite significant amount of the legwork in perfecting Pixar's unique selling point - 3-D animation. Yes, for the first time, a whole new dimension of depth was available for animated works, and with Disney, Dreamworks and most other animation studios having now all but formally abandoned 2-D animation forever in the 20 years that have followed Toy Story, it's safe to say that this was quite a neat idea. But this is far from the only way in which Toy Story made a profound impact.
It's a very simple story, in essence - especially when compared to the complex, rich storytelling of later Pixar classics. The premise is an age-old one - imagine if your toys came to life at night? These toys do just that, with cowboy doll Woody (Tom Hanks) as the de facto leader of a rag-tag bunch of toys in the possession of their adoring owner, Andy. One day, a flashy "space-toy" arrives - Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), who isn't aware he's a toy. It's up to Woody to restore order, help Buzz come to terms with his identity, and they also have to escape nasty psycho child Sid and reunite with Andy along the way.
That's basically it really, but the whole story is handled with such effortless style, pitch-perfect dialogue and magnificent production values that Toy Story immediately feels so very, very real and relatable. The script underplays the desperate tragedy of their existence and instead encourages us to revel in the sheer joy of toys. Not for the first time in this franchise, the film awakens (or re-awakens) the child in all of us. It's feel-good viewing in the extreme, and led every child of the 1990s to change the way they play with their toys forever!
There's an embarrassment of riches on offer - how about Randy Newman's music, for starters? Even aside from the warm, elegant score, there's two or three absolutely wonderful songs littered through the film. "You've Got A Friend In Me" was so iconic it easily became Newman's biggest hit from his enormous back catalogue - the quirky crooner is just such a perfect fit for the film. The casting is inspired, not just Tim 'n' Tom - Don Rickles is very entertaining as the wise-cracking Mr. Potato Head, Wallace Shawn is hilarious as loveable dinosaur Rex, and Pixar stalwart-to-be John Ratzenberger is also good for a laugh as cynical piggy-bank Hamm.
The characterisation itself also really taps into something that we've never seen before - none of the characters are quite what we except. Rex, despite being a large dinosaur, is a very kind and shy soul, Bo Peep is a seductress with her sights on Woody, and Sid's horrible collection of toy mutants are actually nice people who just want some friends. And that's one of the key triumphs of Toy Story - it doesn't just entertain us, it inspires pause for thought and passes on some really positive messages about acceptance and friendship to children.
Sure, some of the CGI has aged a little badly after 20 long years of advances in the field, and it's all a bit light and frothy compared to the emotional heavyweights of Up, Wall-E, and Toy Story 3 that would follow in this first film's wake. But for sheer innovation, style, and imagination, Toy Story deserves enormous praise. It's hard to imagine that it will ever disappear from children's DVD shelves, and so it shouldn't. Full of heart, teeming with life, and leaving a lasting impression, Toy Story is an animation classic.
To infinity and beyond!
Andy is a writer, musician, graduate, and super-geek. Ginger glasses-wearer. Star Wars obsessive and Doctor Who enthusiast. Specialises in film music and currently writing his first book on the subject.