It's not too often that you can watch the birth of a new medium of entertainmentand it's rarer still for its debut to be good, damn good. But here it is: Toy Story, the world's first fully computer-generated movie, is also the best animated feature film since well, you name it. Not only is Toy Story's conception revolutionary, but its story, characters and art direction abruptly yank Disney out of the formulaic rut in which it's been mired for most of this decade. Toy Story is nothing less than a sign of amazing things to come, and not only for kids.
So why the fuss? Well, for about the last 10 years or so, digital effects have been used in films merely to augment real-life action. Ever since that stained glass knight ripped itself from the church window in Young Sherlock Holmes in 1985, filmmakers have been edging toward the digital age. In movies like The Abyss, Terminator 2, Species and Casper, computers brought to life impossible creatures, while Apollo 13 used digital effects to recreate real events. Toy Story, however, is the first movie to be shot entirely in cyberspacethe characters, the sets, the action, the "camera angles" were all composed by people punching keyboards. It's a true groundbreaker.
Naturally, there's a sense of paranoia hovering behind this move toward computer animationa sense that it will not only result in "heartless" movies, but that it will replace actors entirely with lifeless pixel automatons. Toy Story allays both those fears. It brims with more life, humor and personality than most of Hollywood's regular output. Putting aside its technical breakthroughs, it's still one of the most enjoyable movies of the year.
And the key to its creative success is that Toy Story has a highly personal, quirky vision that's attributable to the fact that it was made by a small group of artists and scientists at a company called Pixar. Rather than the usual approved-by-the-marketing-department Disney method, Pixar created Toy Story out of a love for its topic, without fear of using sophisticated humor, characters or themes. Led by director John Lasseter, Pixar (with monetary and marketing help from Disney) has made that Hollywood rarity, a children's film that isn't condescending or treacly.
The story is of the classic "mismatched buddy comedy" genre, but with many twists, big and small. Toy Story begins in young Andy's bedroom as he plays with a variety of toys. His favorite is Woody, a pull-string cowboy on which he lavishes most of his attention. As soon as he leaves the room, these same toys come to life, revealing an entire toy society. Led by Woody (with the voice of America's sweetheart, Tom Hanks), they hold a meeting to discuss troubling news: Andy's birthday party is today, which means that there will be new toys coming ones that may replace them in Andy's heart.
In fact, Woody's worst fear is realized: a new action figure has arrived, and he's got gadgets. Lots of them. Spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) quickly zooms into command not only of Andy's affections, but the respect of the other toys as well. Embittered, Woody plots to get rid of the meddlesome interloperand manages to get them both lost in the outside world. Naturally, they have to work together to get back to Andy, and to avoid being mutilated by the evil toy torturer next door, Sid.
What makes all this work is the relationship between Woody and Buzzthe characters are fully three-dimensional in more ways than visually. With his Kirk Douglas chin and William Shatner swagger, Buzz is so full of himself and his greatness that he's unable to conceive of himself as a mere toy. He thinks he really is Buzz Lightyear, with a mission to save the galaxy. Woody, on the other hand, is savvier and essentially goodhearted, but also jealous of Buzz's popularity. Both characters experience a range of emotion throughout the movie. Likewise, the supporting charactersMr. Potato Head, Slinky Dog, Rex, Hamm and Bo Peepall have their own personality quirks, not to mention great lines.
So how well are these characters animated? So well that you'll soon forget that what you're watching was rendered by computers. In nearly every facial expression, every blink, every gesture, you'll see the work of a bona fide human, not a machine. What's even more impressive is the sheer amount of detail the animators integrated so seamlessly into the filmrain drops adhering to a window, Buzz's reflection inside his space helmet, the gentle glow of a sunrise on Woody's face, even the "light refraction" from a "camera lens" facing the sun.
Is all this good enough to replace traditional hand-drawn cartoons? Yes and no. Wonderful as it is, I don't think digital cartooning will ever completely replace the classic techniques. It is simply a different type of animation, just as stop-motion or Claymation is. But more importantly, what Toy Story presents is its own new hybrid of storytellingwhile its characters are classically "cartoony," the sets and objects are hyper-realistic. This creates an entirely new visual reference for the movies, one that we'll no doubt be seeing more of.
But keep in mind that what makes movies worth seeing is as old as the industry itself: a good script. No matter how much digital technology advances through the decade, none of these new hybrid films will be worth a damn unless they've got good ingredients to begin with. So here's to John Lasseter and his hardy crew at Pixar.