Not long before midnight on Christmas Eve, as all our childhood dreams sped through the night sky in the tow of eight tiny reindeer, I was settling into my soft chair in a Manhattan movie theater, waiting for the evening's last showing of Toy Story. Pleasantly enough, the theater was filled with couples and small clusters of friends, none of them much younger than 20. It was partly my anticipation of this experience that led me to wait more than a month to see the season's surprise blockbuster — the desire to sit with a crowd of grown-ups gathered together in the dark for a kids' movie with no pretenses of "bringing the children." As the lights went down, we moviegoers were the children, believing in miracles and hoping for something marvelous.
What we got, I'm pleased to report to the handful of you out there who haven't seen it yet, was a sheer delight, exhilarating and breathtaking. Under the guidance of director John Lasseter, the animators at Pixar studios have fashioned a wholly independent, free-thinking ode to the power of imagination. The whole film could take place in the head of Andy, the boy who owns all these toys, but we're spared the condescension of an it-was-all-a-dream ending. For one thing, the vast majority of the action takes place outside the purview of human spectators. Without much of a stretch, Toy Story creates a world full of conflict, terror, and self-realization in the confines of Andy's home, the house next door, and a weird little bistro called Pizza Planet.
As far as it goes, there's nothing surprising about the story. Andy's toys come to life as soon as the kid leaves the bedroom, sending little green soldiers out into the house to spy as he opens his birthday presents. Back in Andy's room, there's trepidation all around as the aging toys--including Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Rex the dinosaur (Wallace Shawn, no kidding), and Slinky Dog (Jim Varney)--worry that they might be replaced by more modern playthings. Andy's longtime favorite plaything, Woody the talking sheriff (Tom Hanks), finds his worst fears realized when the child returns to deposit the biggest of the presents--a Buzz Lightyear space ranger (Tim Allen) with pop-up wings and flashing L.E.D. laser light--on Woody's cherished spot atop the bed. The armored and helmeted Buzz takes the position of favor Woody had enjoyed, dazzling the gathered toys with a dashing self-confidence borne from the mistaken belief that he's the real Buzz Lightyear and not just a toy.
It's not long before Woody's jealousy gets the best of him and he inadvertantly knocks Buzz out the window and apparently into the neighbor's yard, where a demented little kid enjoys doing terrible things to toys. In order to redeem himself in the eyes of his outraged comrades, Woody sets out to rescue his rival, and the movie rolls along from there. As things progress, Buzz has a terrible identity crisis, Woody begins to learn from his own attempts to cheer the big guy up, and we spend some creepy time with the most hideous of toys.
Those toys, a grotesque menagerie of doll parts, erector set pieces, and unidentifiable machinery that have been torn apart and reassembled by neighbor kid Sid (filling the Frankenstein role), are the centerpiece of the film. In scenes that recall such horror movie touchstones as Freaks and Island of Lost Souls, it's their startling ugliness--and ultimate rightness--that balances all the talk of heroism, dedication and self-worth. And in another resonant set piece, Buzz and Woody find themselves trapped in a big prize machine filled with troll-like alien toys who believe that the claw that drops down from the sky is carrying the Chosen Ones to the next world. Heady stuff for the kids, maybe, but it's bold touches like this that ensure Toy Story's near-classic status. (Besides, if they made it through Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, those kids are ready for anything.)
Oh -- do I have to mention the human actors who give voice to the images? They're terrific. We forget that Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks in a way that we never could while watching him on the screen, and his expressiveness helps Woody live and breathe. It's a demanding task, and a bill that Hanks fills with low-key aplomb. Buzz is another demanding role, and Tim Allen's wry but sure grasp of his existential crisis is surely a big part of what makes the character more than just a cartoon. The sad, knowing voice of Randy Newman cuts across the proceedings on occasion, with songs that may be throwaways but, for my money, exceed the humanity in evidence in any given Disney showpiece (one of Elton John's songs for The Lion King does show up here, on a radio).
When Disney's marketing blitz first hit, I felt at best skeptical of and at worst downright hostile to the concept of a completely computer-animated Disney film, especially since the TV and print ads made Toy Story look like pretty low-level fare, concentrating on hip one-liners and the film's most kinetic moments. What you can't possibly understand until you see the movie itself is that the computer animation angle is so much more than a gimmick. There's a story about Orson Welles, on his arrival in Hollywood, telling a writer that a movie studio was like the biggest electric train set a boy ever had. And you have to imagine that Lasseter and his crew of writers, animators, and technicians feel the same way, surrounded by machines that crunch images out of numbers and seem to reinvent light itself for the movie screen. There's something beautiful and transformational going on here, and I can only imagine that after this brave, nearly perfect first step, computer animated films will get a lot worse before they get any better.
OK, I'll admit it. I can be a sourpuss, and I spare little of my patience for the syrupy song and dance of a Disney spectacle like Pocahontas or Aladdin. Beauty and the Beast had moments of glory, but not enough for me to shake the depressing feeling that the movie was a candy-colored fantasia too rosy to really believe in. But I believe in Toy Story. Often, we jaded moviegoers steel ourselves so we're prepared for a film like Strange Days or Se7en to knock the crap out of us, and I believe that's a good thing. But it's something wondrous to still have films to which we can open ourselves absolutely, and trust that we won't be invaded, betrayed or insulted.