The latest from Disney is one of the best movies I've seen, and as a result, they have regained some of the faith that I had lost in them due to recent events. Toy Story is a completely computer animated motion picture, and while the animation is excellent and highly realistic at times, it wasn't the thing that impressed me the most. What impressed me was how they took a plot that is essentially standard fare in Hollywood and managed to revitalise it in a most unexpected manner. How? By using toys instead of humans as lead characters.
The plot, which has many twists and turns, is a human story, one that deals with rejection, alienation, and trust. Woody, a cowboy sheriff doll, is the toy of choice in a boy named Andy's life. But that changes when a space ranger toy, Buzz Lightyear, arrives as a birthday present. Unlike the other toys, however, Buzz really believes he's a space ranger from another planet and not just a child's toy. The movie deals with how Woody and Buzz work through their differences and join together to fight against various adversaries, including the demonic toy killer who lives next door: Sid (Erik Von Detten).
The idea that toys somehow possess a soul isn't anything new, but the characters, although "only" toys, have incredible depth. The writers of this story didn't just animate the toys in the movie and state that they had souls, but created individual personalities and distinct consciousnesses for each of them. To their credit, the voices behind the animations (Tom Hanks as a dethroned Woody, Tim Allen as self-righteous Buzz Lightyear, Don Rickles as a dour Mr. Potato Head, Wallace Shawn as a fretful dinosaur, and an Annie Potts as an underutilised Bo Peep) played a huge part in getting the individual personas across to the audience.
The movie is extremely amusing and rich in symbolism: the toy soldiers' militant attitudes and selfless devotion to the toy cause, Sid's tortured creations, hideous yet compassionate, and the little innocent green martians waiting to be "chosen" [they were really cute and they had the best voice]. The humans in this movie aren't very authentic, but I don't think such an effort was made, nor is it necessary. I think the movie is more effective this way, making the humans look more like toys and making the toys appear human. This mirroring is what makes Toy Story a powerful and a poignant story.
One of the rare films where the sequel is better, Toy Story 2 offers a complex plot, brilliant animation, and fast-paced action sequences that put non-animated movies to shame.
Once again, Woody (Tom Hanks), the cowboy sheriff doll, faces a identity crises. This time, his arm comes loose and his owner Andy (John Morris) leaves him behind instead of taking him to summer camp with him. Through an unfortunate turn of events, he attracts the attention of a doll collector, Big Al (Wayne Knight), at a garage sale held by Andy's mother. Andy's mother refuses to sell Woody to an obsessive Big Al, much to his chagrin. Undaunted however, Big Al steals Woody and takes him to his private collection, where he is put together with other dolls which were part of a Western TV show, Woody's Roundup, that was the origin of the Woody doll. As Woody interacts with other toys in the collection, he learns of his glorious past where his name was a household word and there were all kinds of consumer merchandise in his honour. Ergo, the reason for his doll-napped by Big Al, who plans to sell Woody to a toy museum in Japan for a huge profit.
Meanwhile, Buzz Lightyear and the other toys belonging to Andy mount a rescue mission to bring back Woody. The mission involves traversing dangerous territory, over several blocks, to get into Big Al's Toy Barn. Ultimately, when they do find Woody, they have to convince him to come down from his heady pedestal and resist peer pressure from Jessie the Cowgirl (Joan Cusack) and Stinky Pete the Prospector (Kelsey Grammer) to find the right path.
There are a lot of inventive, witty, and amusing scenes as Buzz Lightyear and the other toys go on their quest to find Woody, including one where the latest model of Buzz Lightyear (who now thinks he's really a space ranger) has to be convinced by our Buzz that he is just a toy and is not real. This occurs in a huge Toys 'R' Us type store where Buzz runs into his arch foe Emperor Zurg (Andrew Stanton) who is also good for a few laughs. There are parodies involving Barbie dolls, Jurassic Park, and Star Wars.
The plot and pacing are excellent, and serve to entertain and challenge people of all ages. The animation is definitely superior to the predecessor, but not that much different from films like A Bug's Life. It's amazing to me how the voices of the actors can convey so much emotion so as to make us completely oblivious to the fact that the characters are animated (except of course, when you stop and pause to think about how awesome the animation is). I personally missed the presence of the green martians, as well as the toy soldiers, but this film was really a study about the relationship between Andy and Woody from the perspective of the latter.
To me, perhaps because of the frame of mind I was in, both the Toy Story films explore the nature of relationships in life. Not the camaraderie or boy-girl type of relationships epitomised by the interacting toys, but the co-dependent type that exists between Andy and Woody (or Jessie and Emily). Woody feels validated through Andy's acceptance and love, and in return is able to nourish and sustain that love---both mutually see each other as the life and universe of each other's existences. Platonic love at its philosophical best.