My Thoughts on the Toy Story Franchise

It’s no secret that Pixar’s Toy Story films are key players in achieving the studio’s immense success. The first film was not only their introduction to the world, it was the first ever film to be completely computer animated. If you’re interested in the history of Pixar, Disney+ has an absolutely fascinating documentary called The Pixar Story

The progression of the films (released 1995, 1999, 2010, and 2019 respectively) highlight just how far computer-generated imagery (CGI) has come throughout the years. If you look back at the first film, while it was such a revelation at the time, in comparison with the level of realism reached in Toy Story 4 it looks almost silly now! I think the progression is most obvious in the animation of people (who looked a little terrifying in the first film) and the amount of detail/texture achieved by Toy Story 4. The final film manages not just to make the toys look realistic, but actually like toys, if that makes sense. As in they don’t look like people, they look as though you could reach out and feel plastic, it’s amazing. 

© Pixar/Disney

Toy Story 3 is an interesting example of how a film can have a completely different meaning to adults as it would to kids, which is unusual in a film aimed at children at its face value. It’s not just a story of some toys escaping a psychotic teddy bear (Lotso is easily the most evil villain of the series!), it’s a memory of that universal experience of growing up. Not everyone can relate to  having a tiny rat chef helping them expertly prepare French cuisine, or being part of a family of superheroes, but most adults have some form of nostalgia when it comes to their childhood. 

I think one of the advantages that I and other people of my generation have (‘90’s kids!), is that we were able to literally grow up alongside Andy. So when it came to Toy Story 3 where Andy was growing up and leaving his toys behind, we were doing the same thing. I myself have a Jessie doll sitting on a shelf at home, who I’ve had almost 20 years. The Toy Story toys, therefore, aren’t just representative of growing up and leaving your childhood behind, they’re part of it. 

That nostalgia and memory of a shared experience is a huge part of why the film’s ending can be so emotional.  Andy spends time with Bonnie and the toys, introducing them to her and playing with them one final time, even giving up Woody, who he was going to take to college with him. When he leaves, Bonnie makes Woody wave goodbye to him and you can see the sadness in Andy’s face, he doesn’t want to leave the cowboy who’s been his friend for so long. He says to Bonnie that Woody will “never give up you, ever. He’ll be there for you no matter what.” 

© Pixar/Disney

More broadly speaking, there’s a lot in these films that would hit differently to an adult over a child audience. There are a lot of jokes and references that might go over a kid’s head, and they quite often deal with darker themes than you may think an animated film about kid’s toys would. I think the jokes are what make films such as Toy Story, Shrek (DreamWorks, I know, shhh), and The Incredibles, so successful for such a long time. They’re films that the whole family could sit down and laugh at together. Some of the more grown up Toy Story jokes/references include:

  •  “Hey Hamm, look! I’m Picasso!”
  • Laser envy
  • The headless dolls that Buzz names Marie Antoinette and her little sister
  • “It’s not suicide, it’s a rescue!”
  • “I’m a married spud, I’m a married spud”- Mr Potato Head’s reaction to meeting Barbie
  • The toy mafia gambling inside the vending machine in Toy Story 3
© Pixar/Disney

There are also quite a lot of jokes that are repeated throughout the films, rewarding returning viewers with inside jokes and “Easter Eggs” from other Disney/Pixar films. One of my personal favourite repeating jokes is the literal use of the phrases “give me a hand” and “use your head”, in the first and second Toy Story films.  Also, when Buzz gets tackled at various points in the film series, his button gets hit repeatedly and says “Buzz, Buzz, Buzz, Buzz Lightyear to the rescue!”. There are a few Star Wars references with Buzz as well, the main one being the scene in Toy Story 2 where the “Other Buzz” is fighting with Zurg in the elevator and they re-enact the famous “I am your father” scene. In Toy Story 4 when Ducky and Bunny are trying to kick him, they also come out with, “In a galaxy far, far away, you got kicked in the head!”.

The Easter Eggs are a fun challenge across Pixar movies in general. They plant references to other Disney/Pixar films and it has become a fun way for fans to engage with them. A few Toy Story examples are Andy’s Mickey Mouse clock, Andy and his family listening to Hakuna Matata from The Lion King, the Luxo ball (which starts in Toy Story and is now seen in most Pixar films), the A Bug’s Life clip in the credits of Toy Story 2 (Mrs Potato Head is also reading A Bug’s Life in the film) and the Pizza Planet truck also appears in most Pixar films. 

The repeated motif of the fluffy clouds on a blue sky have become synonymous with Toy Story, and I really liked the way this was used at the beginning of the first film and the end of the third, as a way of visually bookending the trilogy. While they have since added a fourth film to the series I think there is a strong argument for being able to view it separately to the first three, and I’m going to examine this in an upcoming post (Toy Story 4 deserves its own rant!). 

For now however, so long, partner. I’M NOT CRYING, YOU’RE CRYING.

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