Walt Disney continues its long tradition of cutting-edge animation with the computer-generated “Toy Story.” The very good news is that, in addition to stylistic innovation, the film sports a provocative and appealing story that’s every bit the equal of this technical achievement. It’s a hard-to-beat combination that will translate into bountiful box office returns and provide the company with a whole new stream of animated product with mass-market appeal.
Actually the brainchild of Pixar — the Northern California animation unit that made the Oscar short “Tin Toy”– the film is a modern parable that effortlessly masks its serious side with a funhouse full of colorful characters and thrilling adventures. But the message and nobility of the effort are unmistakable and laudable. The film is a clever mix of simplicity and sophistication that cuts across all age barriers with essential themes.
The core story involves a group of toys owned by a boy named Andy. They spring to life to form a ragtag community when the human element departs the scene. This normalcy is interrupted only by birthdays and holidays, when there’s a likelihood that Andy will receive some new amusement that will have a negative impact on the existing harmony.
Woody, a cowboy marionette, has been the boy’s longtime, sentimental favorite. He takes a leadership role among his peers, which include a Slinky dog , a piggy bank, Rex the dinosaur, Bo Peep and Mr. Potato Head. Woody has weathered many special occasions and passing fancies and remains supremely confident of his station.
However, as the film opens, he’s put to the test with the arrival of Buzz Lightyear, a galactic superhero with an arsenal of flashy gadgets. The new resident is a gung-ho type with an annoyingly good nature and helpful attitude. The other toys like him and Woody is relegated to a secondary position in the boy’s attention.
Try as he may, the cowboy can’t curb his mounting jealousy and idle thoughts of making the spaceman disappear. When the opportunity arises to “accidentally” do Buzz in, Woody’s weak side prevails.
But it is a temporary lapse and not the character’s true nature. The others may be in a state of shock, but it’s his deep-felt sense of remorse that spurs Woody to set things right and propels the film into a series of misadventures.
What’s initially striking about “Toy Story” is its razzle-dazzle technique and unusual look. The camera loops and zooms in a dizzying fashion that fairly takes one’s breath away. But if the film were merely an exercise in style, it soon would become tiresome.
Rather, the filmmakers display and dispense with the most dazzling elements of computer-generated graphics and concentrate on telling an effective story. Edge-of-the-seat chases and action set pieces organically evolve from the story, not from some new piece of machinery back at the studio.
The film’s emotional qualities are almost haunting. Woody’s roller coaster of feelings is every bit as palpable as that of a live-action hero. And Buzz, despite an intrinsic decency, lives with the delusion that he’s flesh and blood. When he comes face to face with his true identity, the moment is extremely poignant.
“Toy Story’s” most stunning combination of visual and story elements involves the two central characters’ encounter with a band of mutant toys — the perverse creations of the mean kid next door. The message is the old chestnut about judging a book by its cover, and it rarely has been conveyed more effectively.
The filmmakers, led by director John Lasseter, have corralled a first-rate voice cast, with wonderful character turns from the likes of Wallace Shawn as a timorous T-Rex and Don Rickles as a gruff spud. Tom Hanks as Woody and Tim Allen as Buzz lend full-bodied performances to visually agile renderings. As with the best animation, the combination of tech elements serves to draw us into the drama rather than enforce the glass wall of fantasy.
To swipe Buzz’s motto –“To infinity and beyond”–“Toy Story” aims high to go where no animator has gone before. Fears at mission control of the whole effort crashing to Earth proved unwarranted; this is one entertainment that soars to new heights.