Toy Story

3 out of 5

Directed by: John Lasseter

There are, without a doubt, timeless movies from all eras: movies that work, regardless of where and when you watch them; that supersede remnants of the decade in which they premiered, or budget or effects limitations .  Not that you can always know a timeless movie until you’ve had a chance to revisit it once it is no longer “of its time,” and similarly, movies that land with a wallop when you first see them can lose their luster, for various reasons, years on.

Toy Story is an enjoyable film.  It takes a wonderfully inspirational setup – inspirational in the sense that it automatically appeals to the kid in any of us, whatever age – and matches it with some pretty perfect voice casting and great character design, and it entertains dutifully.  But it’s also a very generic kids film, and one that doesn’t do the timeless bit: removed from the impact of watching the first, full length CGI movie, now decades on when that is the norm, it’s pretty rough at points, reaching for a level of immersion Pixar wasn’t quite clear on how to achieve yet – humans, animals are far from moving and looking like the real thing at this point, and so the movie dips into a hopeful cartoonishness with their design that just ends up looking stiff and alien – and not really taking any risks with the movie’s direction.  Director John Lasseter even had to relent on allowing for the Disney shtick of pop song inclusions, compromising on Randy Newman, who works for tapping in to a bit of the nostalgic vibe the movie mines, but also seems rather tonally at odds with the flick’s imaginative premise: at the two points when one of his songs plays during the movie, I just heard marketing, and not something that actually enhanced a scene.

So that’s the criticism: the movie about toys which come to life when the kids aren’t around is as predictable as they come, with favored toy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) threatened by the new shiny toy, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), causing the usual cycle of jealousy, acceptance, and bonding, with requisite ‘action’ sequences and a last minute save taking us out to about 80 minutes.  Hanks and Allen are fantastic, but you can hear most the written jokes miles off, and the final escape sequence – when Woody and Buzz have been taken by the next-door neighbor, I-blow-up-my-toys kid – feels like it breaks some unspoken “rules” on how the toys behave, sacrificing plot stability for some dramatics and laughs.

On the plus side, as most of the movie is focused on the toys and not humans, Pixar’s team can go to town with some inventive and humorous designs, whether it’s employed when watching all the recognizable figures – Mr. Potato Head, an Etch-a-Sketch, etc. – interacting with one another, or especially when it comes to the “broken” toys of the neighbor kid, stitched together like horror creations.  These visuals, plus Hanks’ and Allen’s camaraderie – and the smart decision to play off Buzz’s heroics as innocent, and not braggadocio – make for an easy distraction during those 80 minutes, and, at the time, just getting to be ‘down in the trenches’ with all of these creations in a new format would have been pretty thrilling.  Minus that last bit, as mentioned, the film’s weaker elements are much clearer, but the sense of charm and effort employed at forging ahead with exploring the possibilities of CGI remain