No other film franchise is quite as universally loved as Toy Story. I remember the palpable tension in the cinema when I went to the press screening of Toy Story 3, as grown critics fretted about having to write a nasty review if Pixar messed it up. They didn’t, of course, and one of the reasons why the studio has managed to maintain the series’ extraordinary high standards is that they haven’t made that many of the films.
While there was a mere four-year gap between the original 1995 film and Toy Story 2, which is often cited as one of the greatest sequels of all time, 11 long years elapsed before the arrival of Toy Story 3. That was in 2010, and only now is Toy Story 4 being unleashed: it’s clear that Pixar are very protective of this franchise, and never rush the preparation of movies that always aspire to perfection.
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The new film picks up the adventures of Woody, Buzz and friends a few years after Andy passed his beloved toys on to his younger sister, Bonnie. She has just created a new toy called ‘Forky’, which she fashioned from pipe-cleaners and a piece of plastic cutlery. But Forky is not one bit happy about the idea of coming to life, and must be guided through an existential crisis by Woody; then she goes missing when the toys accompany Bonnie on a family road trip.
It’s delightful stuff for the most part, as funny and charming and brilliantly animated as you’d expect. And watching it, it occurred to me that parents who saw the original film as kids will now be bringing their children to this sequel. This franchise is special to lots of people, not least its makers, because without Toy Story there wouldn’t have been any Pixar at all.
It all started with John Lasseter, Pixar’s now departed founding father, who was forced out at the end of last year over allegations of repeated sexual misconduct with employees. Lasseter started his career as an animator at Disney way back in the 1980s, but became disillusioned with the great studio’s lacklustre animated output during that period, and began experimenting with computer-generated imagery.
After founding Pixar with Steve Jobs in 1986, Lasseter produced a string of ground-breaking CGI shorts, and one of them attracted the attention of his old employers, Disney. In the 1988 short Tin Toy, a small mechanical toy called Tinny endured a difficult relationship with his temperamental child owner.
It looked totally different from any animation that had preceded it, and Lasseter and Disney saw potential for a feature film. In July 1991, Disney and Pixar signed an agreement to work on a movie based on the Tin Toy characters, to be called Toy Story.
In Lasseter’s initial storyline, Tinny got lost on a family trip and found his way home with the help of a sarcastic ventriloquist’s dummy. The dummy was ultimately given the identity of a cowboy, and became Woody, but Lasseter then decided that Tinny was too old-fashioned looking. He wanted a toy that would provide more of a contrast as Woody’s dramatic foil, and came up with a spaceman loosely based on the ‘GI Joe’ action dolls.
The spaceman was called Buzz Lightyear, and Lasseter and his writers came up with the idea of his being a new arrival who disrupts the established order among the toys in a child’s bedroom. Woody would be the one with his nose most out of joint, but this was a buddy movie, and eventually he and Buzz would reach an accommodation.
From the word go, the legendary Pixar attention to detail was in evidence. To make sure that the movement of a platoon of toy soldiers would look right, animators glued a pair of runners to a piece of wood and tried walking around in them. They gave the characters extraordinary back stories that would come in handy for Toy Story 2: Woody, for instance, found out that he was based on a famous TV character who had gone disastrously out of fashion, while Buzz has an identity crisis when he finds out he’s not an actual space hero but a mass-produced toy.
Lasseter was equally particular about his choice of voice actors. Billy Crystal was initially approached about voicing Buzz but turned it down, a decision he says he always regretted. But Lasseter had always wanted Tom Hanks for Woody, feeling that the actor’s innate sincerity would anchor both the character and the film.
All seemed set until Pixar showed an early cut of Toy Story to Disney in November of 1993. Disney’s head of picture development, Jeffrey Katzenberg, hated it. Perhaps partly as a result of Katzenberg’s meddling, the balance of the story was badly off, and Woody came across as sarcastic, whingy and not very likeable at all. Disney promptly shut the production down until Pixar could come up with a better script.
A stand-off ensued, with Pixar surviving by banging out TV commercials. Then, fate intervened and Katzenberg was fired from Disney following a power struggle with CEO Michael Eisner, instantly easing the passage of Toy Story. Woody was transformed into the loyal and loveable character we know today, and the resulting film was a triumph.
In fairness to Katzenberg, it was he who had insisted on the addition of coded adult humour, and Toy Story was perhaps the first animated feature that entertained grown-ups as much as the kids it was notionally aimed at.
There had been compromises, however. Lasseter had had his heart set on introducing Barbie as a love interest for whose favour Buzz and Woody would vie, but Barbie’s manufacturers Mattel didn’t like the idea, and ultimately refused to give permission, clearing the way for Bo Peep. However, a host of Barbies did make a hilarious appearance in Toy Story 2. Hasbro also decided against allowing Pixar to directly feature GI Joe, but did give the go-ahead for the inclusion of Mr Potato Head.
Just before Toy Story’s November 1995 release, Steve Jobs had seriously considered pulling the plug on the company because it was costing him too much money. The distribution deal with Disney dissuaded him, and just as well: Toy Story made over $360m at the box office, and sparked a revolution in animated film. It’s also a treasure, and a classic children’s film to match any of Disney’s greats.
After Toy Story, Pixar would spread its wings, and it has gone on to produce some stunning films. But despite the brilliance of Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc, WALL-E, Up, Inside Out and Coco, no one at Pixar has ever forgotten that they owe it all to a deluded space toy and a stuffed cowboy.
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