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Toy Story (1995)

by on 2011/05/18

As the name of our site suggests, the founding geek and goth don’t always see eye to eye. Case in point: Joss Whedon. Although Grushenka will forgive her wunderkind’s missteps, I cannot do so as easily. My “exhibit A” for the foreseeable future will likely remain Serenity, in which Kaylee Frye laments, “Goin’ on a year now, I ain’t had nothin’ twixt my nethers weren’t run on batteries.”

But then there’s Toy Story, a landmark in computer animation, a different kind of tale and telling, and nothing short of a godsend for Disney’s fortunes. Whedon was one of the seven writers contributing to its script and, if naught else, he deserves some credit there. In fact, the movie might still be original, smart, and funny, even working at a seventh the power.

Like Snow White, it shows up on many “best” and “greatest” lists. It’s unlikely anyone won’t know the premise; nevertheless, here it is in brief. Woody (Tom Hanks) is a western-themed doll, the de facto leader of many owned by a boy named Andy (John Morris). When Andy is away, his playthings spring to life, living an alternate existence of playground politics.

When the boy receives a newer, “cooler” toy — cosmonaut Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) — the others, particularly Woody, feel anxiety and threat. For his part, Buzz is wrestling with the delusion he is real. He actually believes he’s a space ranger. His over-the-top bravado contains more than a little William Shatner. It’s hardly a surprise Allen was cast in Galaxy Quest.

The assortment of toys allows for a wonderful jumble similar to that in Roger Rabbit. It also allows the filmmakers to play with conventions from various genres, like westerns and sci-fi. Cinematic references are everywhere. A torture scene recalls Star Wars, an escape The Wizard of Oz. Even the most unlikely elements — Alien and The Exorcist — make appearances only adults (hopefully) understand.

The preponderance of “inanimate” objects makes the CGI rendering especially effective. While living things like people and animals are not as fortunate, the art design helps them avoid the Uncanny Valley.

Careful attention is lavished on the details, even imperfections, giving it all a convincing resonance: the finish on Bo Peep is markedly different from that on Woody’s face; green Army Men retain the circular flashing from the virtual mould that formed them; Buzz’s helmet reflects his own face, and his trim has a gentle glow. These and other details need not exist, and serve no narrative function, yet subtly reinforce their reality.

However, it’s not all great ideas, clever references, and eye candy. It’s also damned with a score by Randy Newman. I have never understood the praise I hear about this man. Much is made of his songs’ emotion, humour, and intelligence. Not here. His montage pieces “Strange Things” and “I Will Go Sailing No More” have all the wit and wisdom of an overbaked ham. His performance is like Kryptonite to my ears, a slurring, congested Joe Cocker channeling the Tasmanian Devil, but worse.

Otherwise, Toy Story is a solid, fun success. It makes me wish Pixar would take a shot at the electronic world of Tron. The secret lives of obvious mysteries seem to be their thing, whether bugs, cars, fish, monsters, robots, rodents . . . or toys.

So all right, Whedon, you can get along for now. We’re making do with Newman. Just remember, we may have questions for you later.

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Rated G

81 minutes

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