Why Toy Story Matters

In the first Toy Story movie, we meet Woody, the Tom Hanks-voiced cowboy who’s concerned about being replaced by a shiny new space toy. Then we are introduced to said shiny new space toy Buzz Lightyear, and he slowly realizes that he’s not a real space ranger, but just a toy.

Self-esteem issues and jealousy? Coming to grips with the limitations of reality? Is this any way to launch a kids-movie franchise? I guess so, judging by its success.

Toy Story (and its subsequent sequels) did what most movies aspire to do: inspire children, keep the attention of adults, and somehow really entertain both groups simultaneously (and make loads of money at the box office and with product tie-ins). While bringing toys to life (in often creative and hilarious fashion), it also did something else: it examined not just what we play with, but how we play.

By focusing on how we play, we learn about how we think and the limitless possibilities of imagination. Pretty lofty stuff for a cartoon.

I’ll try not to get too “back in the old days” about it or turn this into a “hey kids get off my lawn” rant, but it seems like a million years ago and just yesterday that we actually had to play with our toys and use our imagination. Video games and other electronic advances have all but wiped that out. I remember I once gave my nephew a box of toy dinosaurs with a little map/board to set them up on, and he asked “where do the batteries go?”

By taking us into the world of Andy’s room, Toy Story didn’t just remind us of old-school toys like Mr. Potato Head and the little green soldiers, it transported us back to childhood when it was okay to just play for the sake of playing. The incalculable value of simple toys (and family-friendly message of being yourself) is emphasized when Woody reassures Buzz that Andy “thinks you’re the greatest because you’re a toy!”

That first film plays out in classic good vs. evil movie fun, with Andy’s neighbor/bad guy Sid being told toward the end: “We toys can see everything…. So PLAY NICE!” In Toy Story 2, we get to ponder what a toy is worth, as an eBay collector (voiced by Seinfeld’s “Newman”) scrambles to package Woody with his related dude-ranch toys (some still trapped in their original boxes) so he can sell them for top dollar.

But it’s the third and most recent installment that made me pause and realize that Toy Story matters. It became larger than life, not just by making toys come alive and talk and figuring out creative ways for new and old toys to interact. It also flipped the movie industry upside down in a way: this kids cartoon was universally hailed by critics and fans as one of the best movies of the year. Not just best animated feature, but best movie. And “real” movies have become the childish cartoons: Hollywood keeps cranking out the predictable over-the-top action flicks with superhero tie-ins, and/or remakes and formulaic romantic comedies and buddy pictures.

Meanwhile, Toy Story 3 was simply great movie making to the point that we actually felt invested in the characters; characters that were not only animated drawings, but were mostly non-human toys. That’s quite a feat. I’ve seen the movie a few times, and yet I still actually get choked up during the scene when they are sliding down the trash heap toward the incinerator, giving each other knowing looks as they join hands accepting what they assume will be their imminent death.

Just how and why are they able to make me feel that way? OK, I’m a dad and perhaps a sucker… at the very least I’m an honest sap to admit to getting choked up. But again, quality filmmaking can provoke a profoundly emotional response. From the point-of-view shots from behind Woody’s boots and the runaway train race/save in the opening scene, through the flashback when Chuckles the Clown tells the story of Lotso and Daisy as things turn dark (“She don’t love you no more!”), to the elaborate escape sequence later. It’s not just clever (though it is that), it has depth.

By the time they get to that scene when it looks like they will meet a fiery death, cowgirl Jessie asks “Buzz! What do we DO?” And suddenly the formerly confident Buzz Lightyear, who could always jump or “fall with style” out of any predicament, had no answer. Just a blank stare as the music of doom intensifies the situation, emphasizing certain finality (good use of music: another trait of great movie making).

It’s not just a matter of following these fictional characters over the course of three movies (and 15 years). Subconsciously, we’ve all been through a lot of stuff with Tom Hanks. He transported us all back to a permanent childhood in BIG. We spent years stranded on a desert island with him in Castaway, watched him face death and disease in Philadelphia, and laughed at and with him in early-career classics like Bachelor Party and Bosom Buddies. He was Forest Gump and he saved Private Ryan. We’ve run the gamut with him, and great films are fewer and further between. So even if it’s “just” an animated movie allegedly for kids, a great movie will move us. And hopefully serve as a reminder to Hollywood that they used to do this on a regular basis with real living humans.

Toy Story 3 pulls all this off (and still inspires 1000+ words from me a year later) without even delving into the heartstring-pulling reality that, oh by the way, the Mom has to say goodbye and send her son off to college. And another subtle aside has the film crossing the finish line with Andy literally driving off to college with his car all packed and stopping for one last play session with the toys he’s loved since he was a kid. Who ever had the opportunity to do that? Who among us would admit that we wish we did?

I’m not naïve. The very first line of dialogue in the movie is “Ha ha ha! Money, money, money!” And one of the lines toward the end is “This is not goodbye.” So, while most movie franchises run out of steam and appeal after 2-3 films, and Toy Story 3 was announced and marketed as the “last” film in a trilogy, there’s a chance they’ll come back for a fourth installment. I hope so.


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