What would you guess, critically speaking (insofar as these things can be quantified), is considered the best-received film trilogy of all time? Indiana Jones? Diminishing returns and the fact that the best-forgotten fourth entry renders it more of a “quadrilogy” largely discounts it. Star Wars (the originals, obviously)? Probably let down by its divisive third entry. The Godfather? Same again, but replace “divisive” with “loathed”. The Lord of the Rings? Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy? Kieslowski’s Three Colours? The list of great cinematic trilogies goes on, but as you may have guessed upon reading the above title, the answer is in fact the humble tale of a boy growing up and his anthropomorphic toys desperate to be there for him: Pixar’s Toy Story, which celebrates its 20th (twentieth!) birthday this month.
It is difficult to overstate what a seminal and influential film Toy Story – the world’s first feature film made entirely through digital animation – has had upon not just the world of animation, but cinema itself – and even everything “kids’ films” can aspire to be. The charm, heart, wit and sophistication found in the original Toy Story is a rich vein that runs through Pixar’s oeuvre, and their skill in eliciting powerful emotional responses in adults and children alike is something they have honed and near-enough weaponised in recent years (see: Wall-e, Up, Toy Story 3, Inside Out etc, etc). Their level of heart and intelligence, as demonstrated superbly by the first Toy Story way back in 1995 is something that rival companies have never (until very recently, in particular in some of Dreamworks’ better efforts) entirely been able to emulate.
So what exactly is it beyond its obvious technological breaking of ground that makes the original Toy Story so special? The Randy Newman-penned soundtrack, for one – any 20-30 year old who doesn’t have a warm, fuzzy feeling course through their entire body at the first few bars of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” is unfortunately missing their soul. The script’s humour and wit, also, comes thick and fast, with memorable lines (“I. AM. MRS. NESBIT!”), inspired sight gags (Mr. Potato Head’s Picasso impression) and some jokes for the parents (Woody’s “laser envy”) setting Pixar’s hilarious standard for the fruitful years to come. These things are what make Toy Story a great film – however it transcends itself to become the resonant and emotionally powerful film it is thanks to the combination of its characters’ genuine, heartfelt relationships and the universality of its themes and allegories.
In these relationships, a full spectrum of human connections is on display throughout the Toy Story trilogy. Fraternal friendship is perfectly encapsulated by Woody and Buzz, and if there’s a better portrayal of a dysfunctional but loving married couple in cinema than family Potato Head then we’d love to know who it is. However the film’s ace up its sleeve in this area is the parent/child relationship between the toys and Andy – though in the film Andy owns them, the dynamic of their relationship clearly places the toys as his parents. This makes the final “letting go” scene at the end of Toy Story 3 all the more heartbreaking/uplifting (not as mutually exclusive as you’d think) for its real-life applications.
Thematically, as well, the Toy Story series is mature far beyond its primary colour palette – is there another ostensible “kids’” franchise that deals with the bitterness of rejection, the inevitability of change and the acceptance of death all within the space of twenty minutes’ screentime? With these “big” themes Toy Story has the ability to resonate with every age group – sometimes even for different reasons within the same scene. Again, in that final scene of the trilogy, it’s easy to picture three generations weeping themselves dry, because the scene will have struck a chord with them for a reason specific to their age – the children on the simple account of it being a sad scene, the teens/young adults because of the parallels with their departure from childhood, and the adults as the scene is about accepting the inevitability that you “can’t hold onto them forever”.
As a trilogy, much of Toy Story’s power derives from the fact that for a certain generation (the young adults mentioned above), it is linked inextricably with their childhood and subsequent growing up. For some (many here at ORWAV included) it seemed eerily poignant that these films we’d grown up with would come to their emotionally draining conclusion (in which Andy leaves for college) the very summer we did the same – as Andy leaves home and lets go of his childhood, so did we. With the announcement of the seemingly unnecessary Toy Story 4 (being written by Rashida Jones amongst others, and slated for a 2018 release) being met broadly with scepticism, the generation of filmgoers for whom Toy Story represents an integral part of their filmic experience will be hoping and praying it adds to the near-perfect legacy started in 1995 rather than detract from it. Here’s hoping for another brilliant outing for the rootinest-tootinest cowboy in the wild wild west.