Toy Story: Through The Projector Lens

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Get ready to feel old: Toy Story turns 20 years old this month. The worlds of 3D animation, Disney, and family movies were turned upside down by this simple and heartwarming story about a cowboy and a spaceman. Boot up your massive 1990s render farm, strap on your rose-tinted goggles of childhood, and make sure Andy’s not coming as we take a glimpse at the story behind Toy Story.

Seeing this picture makes me wonder if John Lasseter made a dark bargain to look 40 forever.

Pixar’s roots actually begin with the computer animation department at Industrial Light and Magic. The computer animation department got its start during the production of Return of the Jedi in 1983, made major headway into the art of computer graphics, but was sold off in 1986 when George Lucas experienced cash flow problems following a divorce. The buyer was none other than Steve Jobs, who had recently been fired from Apple, and his direction for Pixar was originally to develop computer graphics hardware. Despite its messy origins, Pixar quickly found success as a producer of animated shorts and commercials, which attracted attention from Walt Disney Feature Animation. Meetings in 1991 eventually led to a deal where Disney would fund and distribute a computer-animated feature film by Pixar.

The initial script outline was focused on the idea of two toys and how keenly their relationship with their young owner affected them. Jeffery Katzenberg, Disney’s chairman, was enthusiastic about the project but insisted on micromanaging it. One of his best suggestions was to make it a buddy picture in the vein of the The Odd Couple, but he also pushed Pixar to make the story darker and incorporate a clear villain. Though Pixar’s story team took writing lessons, and even invited Joss Whedon to write a draft, their approach failed to impress Katzenberg and other Disney execs. In fact, after a disastrous test screening in 1993, Toy Story‘s production was shut down.

To be fair, though, if Woody looked like this monstrosity, you’d probably toss the film into a fire.

John Lasseter, the film’s director, begged Disney for two weeks to propose a new take on the movie under their own creative control. After seeing the new approach, Katzenberg and his colleagues agreed to one more rewrite. This version, which changed Woody from a sneaky ventriloquist dummy to a well-meaning cowboy doll and introduced the idea that Buzz didn’t know he was a toy, was loved by all. By February 1994, production was back in action. Animation of the caliber and length necessary for a feature film was unheard of, so with all the tweaks to both story and appearance, Toy Story was worked on right into the summer of 1995.

When it hit theaters that November, almost 5 years after production began, Toy Story was a gigantic financial and critical success. Virtually overnight, animation shifted to a 3D rather than 2D paradigm, and to this day, traditionally animated features are pretty rare. There are both positive and negative aspects to this, but what is undeniable is that animation came to mean something completely different than it had only 10 years ago.

Over 20 years, Don Rickles has come to look a lot like a real life Mr. Potato Head.

Pixar quickly became incredibly important to Disney’s success in theaters. When they began to have contract and money disputes with Disney in 2004, Pixar announced they were looking to release their features through other companies. Rather than even risk this happening, Disney bought Pixar outright. As part of the deal, John Lasseter and other important creatives at Pixar took over important creative positions at Disney and got to retain Pixar’s unique corporate culture. It was a hell of a far cry from Pixar begging Disney not to shut them down.

All that is fascinating as a film geek and pop culture junkie, but Toy Story is much more than just a chapter in film history textbooks. It’s one of the most beloved family films of all time, sitting at #99 on AFI’s list of the greatest American movies. It’s a host of wonderful childhood memories and a springboard to two sequels that are probably even better than the original.

Almost everyone understands Toy Story on a deep and poignant level; we all have a toy or two that symbolizes our entire childhood in a little chunk of plastic or cloth. To watch their struggles is to watch our childhoods struggle to stay alive, in a way that is both harrowing and magical. For people of a certain age, in fact (say, those born from 1989 to 1995), the Toy Story series is almost too close to home. The first appeared when we were very young, the second as we began to approach the age of 10 and become less innocent, and the third as we left home for college and the big scary world of real life. I know I wasn’t the only teenager choking back tears in the final 20 minutes of Toy Story 3, so don’t even pretend, alright?!

Pictured: instant tears.

Whatever Toy Story means to you or me personally, it surely has touched millions of hearts in its first 20 years. I would be very shocked if it wasn’t still doing so in 20, or heck, 40 more.

“Through The Projector Lens” is a feature celebrating classic, unforgettable movies that have stood the test of time. If you would like to see a film featured, let us know in the comments! We would also love to hear any Toy Story memories you want to share!

All images credit of: Disney/Pixar

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