Get local news delivered straight to your phone

For post-school, pre-breeding moviegoers, Toy Story would seem to be the film to miss. Reviews of the computer-animated feature typically address “parents” and discuss what’s appropriate for ages 3 through 6. Before the feature, audiences can expect to sit through numerous promos aimed at squirming youngsters, which cast an unavoidable spotlight on long-term commitment—terrible date-movie material. Furthermore, this movie has the Mouse’s paws all over it. Get past the hype, though, and Toy Story strikes a high-tech balance between smartass and sentimental that might get under a grown-up cybernaut’s cynical shell. It’s a vast leap graphically from that Simpsons episode where Homer stepped into the third dimension, but it fits the same cool category of children’s entertainment for adults.

We can't make City Paper without you

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Elementally, Toy Story is a buddy flick, but with visuals and wit jazzy enough to overcome any stock complications. Lanky cowboy Woody presides over his human owner Andy’s toy collection until Andy receives action figure Buzz Lightyear as a birthday present. Bickering between old-fangled Woody and space-age Buzz—attributed to “taser envy” on Woody’s part—leads to a veiled power play in which Buzz falls out the bedroom window. Buzz’s absence has the desired Freudian effect: Woody regains his place in Andy’s affections, and is chosen to ride along on a car trip to a Chuck E. Cheese-y pizza joint. But Buzz manages to sneak along too, and at a gas-station stop the toys take matters outside. During the squabble, the family car drives away, leaving Woody and Buzz in a lonely pool of fluorescent light. As Woody sinks to his knees wailing, “I’m a lost toy!,” he earns his rival’s disdain but his audience’s understanding; Woody and Buzz still gleam like new, but they’re as forsaken as any beat-up Matchbox dropped in a grocery-store parking lot.

This effective tug at the heartstrings is the first of many as homesick Woody tries to rejoin Andy, and the gallant Buzz imagines himself on an intergalactic mission. Woody emerges as a pragmatist content with the love of one child, while Buzz—with his strong jaw, teeny cranium, and heroic mind-set—has greater goals, and unflappable optimism to match. Because of his inevitable disappointment, Buzz becomes the more sympathetic of the two. His chronic delusion calls to mind Blade Runner’s doomed replicants; there’s a genuinely philosophical moment when he sees a TV commercial for the Buzz Lightyear doll and realizes that he’s probably not unique. His last-ditch attempt to fly (as only the real Buzz can) is overdone, particularly when soundtrack auteur Randy Newman breaks into wistful song, but that’s the Disney formula. As the “camera” pulls ceilingward, away from Buzz’s prone body on the floor, the script’s essential humanity comes into focus.

By giving plastic objects rich inner lives, director John Lasseter indirectly condemns throwaway culture. Human carelessness is apparent when Andy treats Woody roughly, tossing the toy aside to land in an awkward heap; a different sort of destructiveness is personified by a diabolical boy named Sid who rigs toy soldiers with explosives, beheads his sister’s dolls, and reconstitutes freakish toys from metal and torn plastic parts. This is typical kid behavior, though Sid is more sadistic than most. Yet the toys suffer overtly from the messes humans get them into, and so challenge cavalier attitudes toward replaceable consumer goods. Even cheap toy soldiers—always more where they came from—warrant concern; the audience winces as a 2-inch-tall infantryman, accidentally stepped on by Andy’s mother, hobbles with a medic to the junglelike safety of a potted plant. Other classic toys, like the Etch-A-Sketch, Mr. Potato Head, and Slinky Dog, testify to the potential endurance of well-loved toys. In spite of the slick ’90s presentation, Toy Story nostalgically acknowledges objects’ spiritual dimension.

Much has of course been made of the computer-rendered toys’ visual appeal, which miraculously complements the sweet-natured plot rather than stealing the show. Lasseter slyly alludes to his 1986 cartoon short, Luxo Jr., amid Toy Story’s dynamic whirl; the presence of Luxo’s desk lamp and rubber ball magnifies the technical advances of the past nine years. But the historical asides are hardly necessary to impress viewers. Toy Story’s settings are almost as convincing as photographs—from the sunlight on a house’s vinyl siding to the crisscrossing shadows on a milk crate to the wood grain on a windowsill—and the animators give careful attention to textures like Bo Peep’s glossy ceramic exterior, Slinky Dog’s leather ears, and the seams on the molded, olive-drab soldiers.

The only room for improvement is in the representation of organic surfaces. Original creations Buzz and Woody, and familiar characters like Mr. Potato Head, have synthetic, uniform surfaces that respond well to digitization. Human features, however, prove problematic. Andy, for instance, looks fine from a distance or from the neck down, but close-up his skull is misshapen. Computer animation doesn’t account for skin and muscle layered over bone, or for wrinkles and pores more obvious than, say, Barbie’s. These are difficulties to be tackled by a future film, some blend of Max Headroom and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Just be glad that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer-style animatronics aren’t involved.

Upon leaving the theater, the viewer gets a weird sense of elation mixed with annoyance. After all, the title is only one letter away from “Toy Store.” And the amiable Woody and Buzz, for all their deeper feelings, remain commercial products. But the technology and hip references (a toy dinosaur bends and roars exactly like Spielberg’s rex; Buzz flashes a comical Spock salute) are all but irresistible to former fans of Pee-wee’s Playhouse.CP