Toy Turns Twenty: Reflections on the Anniversary of ‘Toy Story’

Time flies.  And sometimes it falls… with style.

Yes, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the year 1995.  John Lasseter, who virtually started Pixar studios, took some time off from playing foosball and skating around the office to look at his first success in retrospect.  “It was nearly a trainwreck,” he told the San Fransisco Chronicle on the 10th Anniversary 10 years ago.  “Disney hated the movie and the idea-and shut it down.”

In the past 20 years, Lasseter and his studio have produced 14 feature length films, and all of them have been “Incredibles” to at least most of the audience.  Why not commemorate this momentous occasion with the release of Toy Story, the 20th Anniversary Edition?

Hard to believe it’s been 20 years since the Ol’ West was shaken by the landing of a space ranger.  20 years since Tim Allen and Tom Hanks first exchanged dialogue.  20 years since you opened that package on Christmas morning to find that VHS tape you waited so patiently for.  20 years since Randy Newman stopped singing about what he saw and wrote, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”

20 years, and the cinema has come a long way.  If it wasn’t for Toy Story, we would not be enjoying great family hits like Finding Nemo, Shrek, Monsters Inc., It’s A Bug’s Life, and…Cars 2? (ok, so they’re not all great hits).

Pixar wanted children children of all ages to see the film the way it was meant to be seen.  On DVD.  So they pulled a common marketing stunt by releasing the 3-disc “Ultimate Toy Box” set twelve years ago, only to re-release the first movie two years later on 2 DVDs, under the excitement of nostalgia, as well as more extras.  You have to admit, despite the fact that it’s the same movie every time, people can’t help but re-purchase.

I remember when I first saw the film, a nine-year-old with some friends in my parents’ basement, laughing too hysterically at the squeaky-waving teddy bear, the tape player’s feedback, and the shark that tried on Woody’s hat. Plus, the story was neat. We had never seen anything like it, and we were mesmerized by the CGI.

And in the words of Dimitri Martin and bathroom stalls everywhere, “Toy Story 2 was okay.”

And whattya know if they didn’t pull another clever marketing stunt and wait another several years until the original audience was all grown up, only to release the third installment. I didn’t even wait ’til I had kids. I went and saw it a full year before I would even have a kid. And I am unashamed to say that I wept tears at the end.

Now I watch them with my son, over and over again. I watch him learn from Andy’s creativity and mix his toys together in silly adventures with his own imagination. And he’s only two.

I’m stricken by the importance of the toys in the film. Andy’s father isn’t there. Maybe he died. Maybe there was a divorce. Maybe he works too much. But Andy’s toys, especially Woody, act as a surrogate father. The toys raise Andy. In each film Woody is willing to go to great lengths to reunite with his owner, like a son-father relationship needing mending.

All three films are about abandonment and change. Woody is first afraid that he’ll be replaced by the newer model, then forgetful of his purpose, and finally challenged by the reality that one day this boy will move on, and he must let go.

Our villains have their own father issues. Sid’s mother let’s him push her around, and his dad is depicted as a snoozing (possible) drunk. Al dresses up like a chicken and sees toys only for the monetary value they bring him. He must have grown up in a museum house. Lotso bear felt abandoned by his “mother,” and thus plays the good father role to Sunnyside, only to rule as a tyrant.

Toys exist as a metaphor for the importance of strong, caring, respectful relationships between children, adults, and the imagination. After all, these toys are aware that they’re toys, manufactured in the adult world for children. Woody is only able to accept Andy’s moving on because the transaction of ownership is a meaningful exchange between a considerate young man and a sweet little girl.

That’s why “The Claw” is a perfect device for these films: The Deus Ex Machine, the “god from a machine,” the reaching hand of the external world into the world of toys and playthings that connects the inanimate to the animate. When toys are helpless, the god-like humans can rescue them, or in the ironic case of Sid, pluck them and torment them. The toys are like helpless children, needing something strong to pick them up and rescue them. And toys are for playing with: Not torturing, not putting in a museum, and not throwing away (or playing too rowdy with—the third one kind of had two morals to it).

20 years, and the mythos of Toy Story has impacted our culture deeply. In some ways, the uber-enfranchising of Disney and Pixar has gone too far, but for the most part, this trilogy (soon to be a quadriology, I’ve been told) uses the magic of cinema to enchant the magic of imagination.

So kick back and relax, Mr. Lasseter.  Blow out the candles, Buzz and Woody.  Take a vacation, Randy Newman.  Sue some more people for copyright-violation, Disney.  You’ve all earned it.  The movie magic of Toy Story will reach beyond our generation to the next, reaching out “to infinity…and beyond!”

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