In November 1995, Pixar’s first feature film, Toy Story, made its big-screen debut. Since this month marks the 25th anniversary of the franchise that now consists of four movies (and several additional shorts) we’re looking back at how each one functions as a time capsule for Pixar as a studio as well as animated films in general.
Much like Snow White and The Seven Dwarves, the original Toy Story is always going to be one of the most important and influential movies not just for its studio, but for animation and filmmaking in general. Snow White wasn’t only Disney’s first animated feature (and cinema’s first animated feature, period) but the first motion picture to include colour and sound. Similarly, Toy Story wasn’t only Pixar’s first feature film, but the first computer-animated feature film, period.
Toy Story’s animation may look dated now (especially when we’re comparing it to the most recent entry of the series) but it was mind-blowing for 1995 audiences. The story itself is also fairly simple and straightforward compared to later instalments with more characters and subplots…but that actually fits right into its time period as well.
While Disney had not yet acquired Pixar at the time Toy Story was made and released, they did distribute the movie (and had their fingerprints on it, too, with even a snippet from a certain Lion King song making it into the film!) and 1995 was right in the middle of the era now known as the “Disney Renaissance”. This decade-long span saw Disney release some of their most successful and beloved movies, but the stories were admittedly pretty simple and followed a formula. (Many of these movies were responsible for the tropes Disney movies are still widely known for to this day.)
Toy Story’s plotline of Woody coming to terms with potentially being replaced as the favourite toy and Buzz Lightyear coming to terms with his state of being a toy is, like most of Disney’s movies at the time, quite simple and straightforward. However, it didn’t follow many – if any – of the formulaic tropes of those films and as such helped Pixar stand out not just in the style of animation, but the substance of the story.
Toy Story 2 came out in 1999, with only 1998’s A Bug’s Life sandwiched between the original and this sequel on Pixar’s release calendar. And while it was still fairly early days for Pixar as a player in the theatrical animation world, it showed that they would be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years.
The jump in animation quality in the just four years between Toy Story and Toy Story 2 was quite significant (even though the latter is also visibly dated by our current standards of computer animation) but it wasn’t just the look of the sequel that upped the ante from the first. There’s tons of worldbuilding to be found here, particularly in Al’s Toy Barn, where we get a taste of the culture of different kinds of toys. The Buzz Lightyear dolls stand firm and ready for a mission at any time (and, like “our” Buzz initially, don’t understand that they’re actually toys) while the Barbie dolls seem to be aware and pretty comfortable with their status as playthings, content to party it up at their swimming pool playset together.
Of course, we also find out more about Woody’s origins in Toy Story 2, and are introduced to the other characters from his Woody’s Roundup franchise, Jessie, Bullseye, and Stinky Pete, with the former two becoming mainstay Toy Story characters moving forward.
In addition to expanding the lore of the series, Toy Story 2 went for a slightly more complex and mature storyline; the first was about the main characters accepting who and what they were as toys and learning to get along, but this one focused on the best use of one’s life as a toy.
The main conflict the characters face in Toy Story 2 is whether or not it’s better to be loved deeply but for a relatively short period of time or admired in passing by many for years and years to come (the main focus being on Woody’s decision to stay with Andy despite likely being abandoned one day or to be part of a toy exhibit in Japan). Loyalty ultimately wins out in the end, and the question of how Woody would deal with eventually being abandoned is kind of swept under the rug at the end of the movie, leaving room for the series to dive into even deeper themes the next time around.
Toy Story 2 set the tone of the upcoming decade for Pixar: as the Disney Renaissance was ending, Pixar’s hot streak was only heating up. And the release of Toy Story 3 11 years later is widely considered to mark the end of that winning streak of hits for the studio.
Obviously, the animation quality between the second and third films rose even more than between the first two, and Toy Story 3’s look still holds up ten years later. But once again, the scale of everything else also jumped up to a whole new level.
There were plenty of new characters introduced in Toy Story 3, but the element that stands out most from the other movies is the scope of it all. The way all the scenes from the opening playtime fantasy sequence to the daycare segments and beyond feel bigger than similar ones from the previous movies did is a testament to the growth of Pixar’s creative abilities in the decade between the second and third films.
One thing that is generally praised highly but arguably makes the movie fit a little less well with the others is how…dire certain scenes get. Lotso is certainly a more diabolical antagonist than Sid or Stinky Pete, which raises the film’s stakes. However, there are times when it feels just a little too dark and not suiting with the tone of the other Toy Story movies. The incinerator scene is emotional, but part of the charm of the Toy Story franchise is how it dramatizes situation that toys would be likely to find themselves in if they were sentient, and this particular scenario doesn’t quite feel like that.
However, seeing all the toys hold hands as they await death – while a little morbid for this franchise – is a prime example of Toy Story 3’s focus on emotion. By this point in Pixar’s history, tearjerking moments had become a hallmark of the studio (see: WALL-E, Up, and of course, Toy Story 2) so considering this was intended to be the final Toy Story movie, it only makes sense that it goes all out on the feels…and the double-whammy of the climactic incinerator scene and the ending of Andy giving his toys to Bonnie certainly delivered on that front.
The significance of Toy Story 4 is less tied in with Pixar as it is with Disney in general. Perhaps more than any other Toy Story movie, this one is truly a product of its time. It came out in 2019, a year consisting almost entirely of sequels and remakes on the Disney release calendar. And it’s slightly more relaxed and nostalgia-based tone fits right in with movies like Frozen II and the live-action Aladdin remake.
However, possibly the thing that dates the film to this era of Disney history the most is the ending. For the past decade or so, Disney has had a determination to break free from their usual tropes…only for the replacement of whatever said trope is to quickly become a trope of its own (the two biggest examples of this being “surprise villains” and poking fun at the Disney Princess brand in a meta fashion).
The latest example of this is having an ending to a sequel leaving the main characters leading separate lives from one other. Ralph Breaks the Internet saw Vanellope move from the arcade to Slaughter Race, Frozen II saw Elsa move to the forest and Anna take over as Queen of Arendelle, and Toy Story 4 saw Woody decide to live as an independent Toy with Bo Peep, helping other toys find homes while the rest of the main gang returned to live with Bonnie. (Oh, and apart from the animated side of things at Disney, Avengers: Endgame had a similar ending for Captain America.)
It seems only fitting for Toy Story 4 to come out at a time of Pixar’s consistency of critical hits increasing once again. While the franchise may be over (though the fourth film’s existence proves we can never really be sure) it’s sure to remain the face of Pixar Animation for years to come.
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