It's tough to imagine a time when computers didn't reign over every and any thing. Though the computer animation-less past seems distant, there was once a time before we bowed down to our benevolent microchipped masters. While now computer images are pretty ubiquitous in animation, just fifteen years ago it was a new and innovative technology seeking to revolutionize animation as we know it. Oh, and to tell us stories about cowboys and astronauts. Mainly the cowboys and astronauts thing.
While now Pixar is a booming enterprise churning out hit after adorable, heartwarming computer animated hit, back in the early 90s they were still in the startup category. Sure, it had been around 10-odd years or so, but it had yet to give us a full length feature film. In a decade that gave us Disney gold like Aladdin and The Lion King, expectations for animated movies were riding particularly high.
Luckily, the good people at Pixar delivered the goods. Pixar garnered some attention through their Oscar-winning short Tin Toy, a computer-animated film featuring a poor little abused tin soldier named Tinny. Tinny hides from his frighteningly abusive baby master and finds a slew of other quivering, humorously traumatized toys. Thus began the initial spark of the idea for Toy Story, which was at first set to star our pal Tinny. In the likely case that you've never seen the 1988 Pixar short film, here's your chance:
Pretty impressive for 1988, no? Sure, everything's a little wobbly and the action's a little choppy, but overall a valiant triumph for our friends at Pixar. Once the deal was signed to develop a feature-length film, producers updated their initial conceptions of the characters and Tinny morphed into the flashier astronaut Buzz Lightyear. All seemed to be going swimmingly for the Pixar folks.
Until, of course, big bad Disney came in and crushed their adorably lifelike computer-animated dreams. The script was going through a too-many-cooks scenario, suffering through innumerable rewrites and changes. In 1993, Pixar presented to Disney series of storyboards backed by a rough soundtrack. The work-in-progress featured seriously hostile and bitterly sarcastic incarnations of Buzz and Woody. Not exactly the kind of characters you'd go home and beg your parents for expensive video games of their further exploits.
Needless to say, Disney hated it. In fact, they really, really hated it. So much so that they put the kibosh on production. After some begging and pleading, the Pixar team was given an ultimatum: turn this film into something that will put butts in the seats or you're out of the game.
Original storyboard panel from Toy Story. We can only assume this frame depicts the original a-hole Woody.
Disney was also clear about its aims as financial guardian angel: the movie better be a serious cash cow. Disney was seeing falling ticket sales and saw computer animation as a potential vehicle to rev up their sales. One of Disney's major requests (and criticisms of the first draft) was that the movie appeal to both children and adults. Back at the drawing board, Pixar developed quirky little personalities for a slew of toys baby boomers (read: the people buying the tickets) would relate to: GI Joes, Slinkys, Mr. Potato Heads, and so on. With a renewed sense of purpose, Pixar set out to get back on track with the project.
Scrapping much of the initial work, Pixar's animators and writers worked diligently to make the movie stop sucking so horribly. Enlisting the virgin voice talents of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, the movie began shaping up. By the time of its 1995 release, the film had been sufficiently desuckified and far surpassed Disney's expectations by becoming a runaway success.
After so many reformulations, rewrites, and re-animations, Pixar somehow managed to pull it off. The movie told the story of Woody, a walking, talking cowboy toy who reigned supreme as favorite toy in Andy's bedroom.
Unfortunately, someone a bit more heroic was lurking in the wrapped birthday gifts. Woody is displaced by Buzz Lightyear, a newer, flashier astronaut toy. Really, much flashier. I mean, the guy had lights. How do you even compete with that when your main claim to fame is a pull-string with a few crappy recorded phrases? As you can imagine Woody becomes incredibly jealous, aiming to eliminate Buzz and once again reclaim his throne as top toy.
Meanwhile, horrifyingly terrifying toy torturer kid next door Sid is blowing up army men and reconstructing doll/robot hybrids. Buzz vows they will give him his comeuppance, but the other toys are justifiably skeptical. I mean, did you see Sid? That kid is scary, man.
Woody and Buzz get lost on the way to a family outing to Pizza Planet, but manage to stow away in a delivery truck. Buzz mistakes the claw machine for his spaceship and the two are stuck inside. They are unluckily captured by the sadistic Sid, and forced to bear their fate with plastered-on painted grins.
As you can imagine, hilarious antics ensue and the pair are forced to buddy up to battle Sid Vicious and his evil dog Scud. Buzz finds out he's just a toy, not the real Buzz Lightyear as he'd originally imagined. Yadda Yadda Yadda, heartwarming bonding and a daring rescue mission later, the toys are again safe and sound in Andy's house. A happy ending, minus a new puppy with untapped toy torturing potential.
The film was an enormous critical and financial success and spawned an extremely popular sequel. So popular, in fact, that its financial input outstripped the original's by over $100 million. Now that's popular. And lucrative! Color me impressed, then computer animate me so I can get in on some of this cash.
Though Pixar has since moved on to new things, our Toy Story pals are far from forgotten. In fact, they will be returning to a theater near you sometime around summer 2010. Here's the trailer to hold you over until then. They're hyping it up a lot, which is hopeful. This extremely long-awaited sequel comes so late in the game that Andy is headed to college. My, how the computer animated years fly by.