20 years ago, Disney released Toy Story, the first fully CG-animated feature film. While the quality of animation has improved over time, the 1995 movie holds up well, in part because the early films by Pixar Animation Studios play the limitations of the medium to their advantage by telling stories about characters who are easier to animate: plastic toys looked more realistic than people.
The upscale in quality can be charted over the course of the three films, but takes a particularly large leap between 1999’s Toy Story 2 and 2010’s Toy Story 3. Just as the visuals have developed, so has the storytelling, with Woody the cowboy, Buzz Lightyear and their pals coming up against greater and greater perils to become the best-loved characters of a generation (next to, arguably, Harry Potter and friends).
Over the course of three movies, a number of shorts and two TV specials to date, the characters have truly been put through the wringer. With Toy Story 4 pencilled in for 2017 and the original trilogy arriving on Netflix UK, Amazon Prime and NOW TV this month, here’s a look back at the dangers of being a toy in this franchise.
The most commonly repeated peril in the franchise. Woody has a momentary bout of existential despair when he becomes “a lost toy” in Toy Story, but whether by accident or interference from external forces, stories are started when toys get lost and Andy’s toys seem especially prone to being misplaced.
Gradually, Woody and all of the toys become accustomed to navigating a world in which they are only a sixteenth of the size of the humans around them, but scale presents an issue. It’s a big world to get lost in and if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the series, it’s that kids are a bit rubbish at holding onto their possessions.
Newer, shinier toys
If there’s one thing worse than being lost, it’s being replaced. In Toy Story, Woody has to confront the idea that he might have been replaced as Andy’s favourite toy by Buzz Lightyear, the must-have toy of 1995 (in the movie and indeed, real life). He shoots lasers, he glows in the dark, he talks, his helmet does that “Whoosh!” thing – he’s a cool toy.
This fuels the buddy movie dynamic of the first film, but rears its head again when the antagonist of the sequel, Stinky Pete, rants about being left on a shelf unsold when the space race got kids more excited about sci-fi merchandise than the likes of him.
Sid, the villainous boy who lives next door to Andy in Toy Story, is definitely portrayed as a troubled kid, but he’s significantly more creative. In addition to blowing up Combat Carls and attempting to launch Buzz Lightyears into orbit, he deconstructs toys and re-assembles them as more interesting looking toys like a baby-headed spider or a duck with arms and legs.
He’s demonised because he doesn’t know what we know – that the toys are sentient and what he’s doing is the equivalent of Human Centipede-level mad science – but despite the danger he poses to the characters, he’s nowhere near as odd a kid as Andy is. Look no further than the condition of Andy’s Slinky Dog for evidence of that: what’s the longest you’ve ever had a slinky out of the box without it becoming a knotted mess? There’s taking care of your possessions and then there’s just being weird.
It’s tedious to ask too many questions about how the apparent magic that brings the toys to life really works. We just know that they instinctively freeze in front of humans and keep their places when possible. On a common sense level, there’s a reason why possessed toys are a mainstay of the horror genre and they hardly want to scare the bejesus out of kids. It’s something that Woody uses to devastating effect on poor Sid at the end of Toy Story. Play nice, indeed.
Wear and tear
Even though Andy preserves his toys pretty well, accidents happen. For instance, during the bravura birthday recon sequence in the first film, one of Andy’s green army men gets trodden on and kicked away by his mother. We see him getting treated by a mini medic later, but he’s not the only character who endures a bit of household wear and tear.
Other toy injuries in the series include Woody’s torn arm in Toy Story 2 and virtually everything that happens to the toys in the Caterpillar Room in Toy Story 3, where toddlers run rampant. As with Woody’s fear of being lost in the previous film, damage tends to psychologically affect the toys as much as an injury or disability would affect any other person. This is a kids’ film, but the message is clear: nobody’s indestructible and nothing lasts forever.
In a couple of instances, the series has made antagonists out of adults who see an opportunity to make a profit from toys. In Toy Story 2, obsessive collector Al steals Woody after he’s accidentally put into a yard sale and completes a set of toys based on a 1950s TV series called Woody’s Roundup, along with Jessie the cowgirl, Bullseye the horse and Stinky Pete the prospector. They’ll be sold to a museum in Japan, if Al has his way, and Woody is almost convinced that he’d be worth more that way.
This particular threat got a call-back in the first TV special, Toy Story Of Terror, a Halloween special in which Jessie took the spotlight for a change. A motel manager, Ron, has a sneaky racket of stealing his guests’ toys and selling them on eBay and Jessie has to rescue Woody when his value as a collectable is discovered.
One of the side effects of being a mass-produced character is that the toys occasionally run into duplicates of themselves. Woody and the Roundup gang are comparatively rare, but one of the comic highlights of Toy Story 2 finds Buzz in an entire aisle of Buzz Lightyears, including one upgraded version (he’s got a new belt!) who captures Buzz and infiltrates his group of friends. This happens to Buzz again, to even funnier effect, with a tiny Happy Meal version of himself in the Toy Story Toon, Small Fry.
The other peril of mass production is that characters become easily replaceable. Toys are lost and then they show up again, as in Toy Story, but as we see from Lotso’s harrowing back-story in Toy Story 3, they all look the same from the perspective of a child. His owner simply went and got a new strawberry-smelling bear, leaving Lotso bitter and resentful of just about everyone else. The little green aliens are about the only characters who are cool with this – those little dudes are identical, but they get along just fine.
When Buzz is first taken out of his box in Toy Story, he doesn’t know he’s a toy. He thinks he’s the larger-than-life Space Ranger character on which he was based, and his arc in the first film serves as a rude awakening. The other Buzz that we meet in Toy Story 2 suggests that this might be a defect that affects every toy at some point or another.
The most recent TV special, Toy Story That Time Forgot, explores this even further with the Battlesaurs, who have internalised the Saturday morning cartoon from which they were spun-off as a whole mythology and code of conduct. They’re hilariously violent as a result and their sheer numbers makes them a peril to the other, better-adjusted toys.
Sid cameos in Toy Story 3 as a bin man for a quick sight gag, which strikes us as a sad ending for a character who was probably destined for more creative things before he had the living daylights scared out of him. He almost unwittingly crushes all of Andy’s toys except Woody near the beginning of the movie, but waste disposal is a peril that forms the emotional climax of the trilogy too.
So soon after the poignancy of Up, you could be forgiven for getting properly scared for the toys as they’re shuffled into a furnace like so much garbage, holding hands as they sink deeper into what literally looks like Hell to them. They get out of it, but like nothing else on the list, this is a special kind of terrifying.
The inevitable passage of time
Not to get bleak, but with the threat of abandonment looming over many of the characters, time is the real enemy in the Toy Story franchise.
Whether it’s being replaced by a cool new toy in the first one, or the inevitability of growing old in the sequels, time is against any toy who wants to stay with their owner forever and the series serves as an allegory for parents watching their children grow up and apart from them.
Happily, although the films all confront that fear of becoming redundant in some way or another, they’re all about the joy of the time that you have. Toy Story 3 brings it full circle by showing that toys can be passed onto new kids, whether at Sunnyside or in the hands of their eventual new owner, Bonnie.
The original trilogy would seem to have closed this arc, with subsequent shorts and specials concentrating on self-contained adventures for the characters, but we’ll see if Toy Story 4 will continue in this conceit or advance the storytelling again with new sources of conflict. After all, it’s hard out there for a toy.