AFI Challenge: Toy Story

This is my second entry in the AFI Challenge (see its About page) and it’d be an understatement to say that I enjoyed watching this movie more than the last one. Whereas Ben-Hur was a 3+ hour long epic with classical sensibilities (that I still found to be great; check out my review here), this film runs at brisk 80 minutes, filling every second with fun and creativity. At #99 on the list is Toy Story.


When you watch this movie today, you laugh at the jokes, admire the creativity, and enjoy the simple story of an emerging friendship. Amidst this all, it’s easy to forget just how monumental this movie was at the time of its release. Do you want to know how many 3-D animated films were released so far just this year? Well, there’s The Lego Movie, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Rio 2, The Nut Job, Planes: Fire and Rescue, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, along with several others that I’m forgetting. That’s just the theatrical realm, not even taking into account how many came out via the straight-to-DVD format. Obviously, this method of filmmaking is quite popular in today’s culture.

Do you want to know how many 3-D animated films were released in 1995? Just one: Toy Story. And prior to that film, there were none. When it initially came into theaters, nothing like this had ever been seen on the screen. Sure, there were a couple of short films released to limited audiences (all produced by Pixar), but most people had no familiarity with this sort of silver-screen magic.

I was born a year too late, in 1996, so I never got to experience the sense of wonderment from seeing this type of movie for the first time. These were the sort of movies that I grew up with, and I just became accustomed to them after a certain point in time. However, if you put yourself in the proper mindset beforehand, I think anyone can watch this movie and see it through the eyes of someone sitting in the theater back in 1995. I’ve probably seen this movie at least ten times (I was Buzz Lightyear for Halloween one year), but I found myself marveling at the animation as I watched it once again . As familiar as I now am with the use of 3-D animation, there were certain sequences in this movie that took my breath away.

The animation process at Pixar

The animation process at Pixar

Toy Story‘s greatness, however extends far beyond its exquisite use of technology. It’s true claim to its spot on the list lies in its touching and imaginatively told story. One of the major reasons it works as well as it does is because of the convincing world it establishes. I think that, as children, everyone  imbues toys with their own distinct characteristics and backgrounds; to the innocent child, these toys are alive in much the same way as any other living person. Pixar just takes the next logical step: what if every time a child was absent, the toys truly came to life? It’s a genius concept, one that can capture the imagination of any child and tickle the nostalgia of adults. In its execution of this world, the most important aspect is Pixar’s meticulous attention to detail. Be it the layout of Andy’s (the owner of the toys) room, similar to that of any rowdy kid under the age of ten, or Andy’s name written in faded marker on each toy’s foot, complete with an adorably accidental upside down “N”, everything exudes an air of authenticity.

Contributing to the film’s authenticity is that every supporting character, no matter how minor, has their own unique (and wholly original) personalities. There’s the wimpy Tyrannosaurus Rex trying to be scary, the cynical and insolent Mr. Potato-Head, the well-intentioned but slow-witted slinky dog who’s unwavering in his commitment to his friends, and many more. The tiny-green army men, just as intense and focused as any real member of the military, orchestrate an impressively intricate operation near the film’s opening in an attempt to discover the new toys Andy’s getting for his birthday. It’s a subtly engrossing sequence; it’s ridiculous to feel such suspense from watching these miniscule toys dash around the house, yet you get nervous for them nonetheless.

The toys and the world around them feel so vividly alive that this film would warrant a spot on the list just for this aspect in conjunction with its groundbreaking animation. It’s a mark of great filmmaking when you fall in love with a movie within the first twenty minutes, before the plot even kicks into high-gear. And when it comes to Toy Story, the central story that the movie eventually evolves into is its best part. After all the world-building and character establishment, this a very human tale about self-doubt and the power of friendship. These themes are expressed through the character developments of Woody and Buzz Lightyear.

Woody and Buzz's friendship is at the heart of the movie

Woody and Buzz’s friendship is at the heart of the movie

At the film’s start, Woody is far and away Andy’s favorite toy: he gets the most playtime, his posters adorn the room, and he even earns the coveted resting spot on Andy’s bed. That’s right: out of all his toys, Andy chooses to sleep with Woody. All of this changes on the day of Andy’s birthday party, when the young boy receives the brand-new, space-ranger action figure Buzz Lightyear. Suddenly, all of the luxuries that Woody took for granted are transferred to Buzz. The movie expresses this change through a skillful montage set to Randy Newman’s score (which is universally terrific). And the worst part of it all? Buzz doesn’t even know he’s a toy; he actually thinks he’s a space-ranger who’s going to save the universe. The film sets both of these characters up to be our protagonists, but they both have crucial flaws: Woody is extremely jealous of all the attention Buzz is receiving, while Buzz is arrogant (and a bit delusional) in his belief that he is an actual space-ranger.

Much of the credit for pulling these characters off in a realistic manner has to go to Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, the voice actors for Woody and Buzz respectively. We see Woody take some very selfish actions in his effort to win back Andy’s favor, some of which could construe him as almost a villainous character. But Hanks offers  an air of credibility to Woody; he feels as though Andy has abandoned him and he doesn’t know how to respond maturely. Buzz, on the other hand, could have come off as simply annoying (and he sort of does), but Allen also makes him quite endearing. You root for him in his efforts to be a superhero, even though you know that he isn’t. The personal connection you make with Buzz’s dreams and aspirations makes it all the more heartbreaking when he discovers that he is, in fact, just a child’s toy. Watching Buzz approach a stairwell after this moment, still believing that he is a space-ranger who can fly, provokes true empathy from the viewer. As he jumps, you know he’s going to fall straight to the floor, but you silently hope that, somehow, he will be able to fly.

These two characters start off the movie hating each other, which is what makes their eventual friendship so delightful. When trapped at Sid’s house, a child who enjoys mutilating and blowing up his toys, the two must come face-to-face with their imperfections: Buzz discovers that he’s just an action figure, and Woody realizes that he’s simply not as cool a toy as Buzz is. But they both reconcile and eventually overcome their innermost flaws through the help of the other. When they enter Sid’s house, they are enemies; when they leave, they are great friends. It’s poignant in a way that you don’t expect from an 80 minute kid’s movie about talking toys.

Also, it’s worth pointing out: this movie is funny. And I don’t mean in a juvenile slapstick way, or in that it throws in two or three adult oriented jokes throughout its runtime: I mean that it’s consistently hilarious. I picked up on so many little jokes on this viewing that I would never have noticed before. When Woody and Buzz are trapped in the arcade-game with “the claw,” I actually laughed out loud when Woody called the little green aliens inside zealots (because they worship the claw as a deity). Or there’s when Buzz is forced to partake in a little girl’s tea party, and Woody walks in to find him completely drunk; he takes the tea away from Buzz, saying “I think you’ve had enough to drink.” There are so many humorous comments that never would have registered as a kid, but really took hold this viewing. It’s just another great feature in this already awesome movie.

Buzz drunk after a tea party

Buzz drunk after a tea party

There’s a scene early on in the film where Woody challenges Buzz’s claim that he can fly, and Buzz sets off to prove him wrong. Instead of actually flying, Buzz ricochets around the room with the help of a bouncy ball and a model airplane attached to the ceiling, which gives the illusion of flying. When he lands, all the other toys crowd around him in amazement, while Woody simply says “That’s not flying, that’s falling with style.” Then, at the film’s climax, the two desperately chase after Andy’s moving van (the family is moving to a new home), having been left behind at Sid’s house. In an effort to catch up, they light one of Sid’s fireworks that was attached to Buzz’s back, propelling them high into the sky. Woody screams, thinking they are going to fall to the ground and die, but Buzz has other plans: he activates his wings, which catch the air around them and allow them to slowly glide to the surface. Woody shouts out “Buzz, you’re flying!” but he calmly retorts “This isn’t flying, this is falling with style.” Randy Newman’s excellent score accentuates the moment, as Woody then yells out Buzz’s classic catchphrase “To infinity and beyond!”

This quick moment is such a perfect culmination of Woody and Buzz’s friendship, tying up loose ends and connecting all the way back to the beginning of the movie. It’s one of my favorite movie moments of all time, and is one of the many reasons that I think this movie is absolutely terrific.

I give Toy Story a rating of . . .


It without a doubt earns its spot on the list.

This is one of those movies that is going to be an undisputed classic for years to come, because I think everyone loves it.

So have you seen Toy Story? If so, what do you think of it? Do you think it earns its spot as #99 on the AFI list of Top 100 Greatest American Films? Be sure to respond to the poll, and then let me know your thoughts below. See you around next week for my review of #98 on the list, Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Toy Story Info
Directed by: John Lasseter
Written by: Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen, and Alec Sokolow
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, and John Morris
Running Time: 81 minutes
Release Date: November 22, 1995
Production Company: Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures