Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Toy Story (1995)
Studio Line: Disney - The Toys Are Back In Town.

A landmark in filmmaking with cutting-edge animation and the voice talents of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, Toy Story introduces Woody the cowboy and Buzz Lightyear, a space-age action figure. Along with a supporting cast of funny friends, Toy Story will entertain the entire family with action, adventure and sidesplitting laughs!

Director: John Lasseter
Cast: Tom Hanks-Woody; Tim Allen-Buzz Lightyear; Don Rickles-Mr. Potato Head; Jim Varney-Slinky Dog; Wallace Shawn-Rex; John Ratzenberger-Hamm; Annie Potts-Bo Peep; John Morris-Andy Davis; Erik voi Detten-Sid Phillips.
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Screenplay; Best Song-"You've Got a Friend"; Best Original Score-Randy Newman, 1996.
DVD: Widescreen 1.77:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1; THX; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 30 chapters; rated G; 81 min.; $39.99 (for Toy Story/Toy Story 2 2-DVD Set); street date 10/17/00.
Supplements: "Tin Toy" Short; THX Optimode.
Purchase: DVD 2 Pack | The Ultimate Toy Box DVD | Toy Story: The Art and Making of the Animated Film - John Lasseter

Picture/Sound/Extras: A/B+/D

When Walt Disney started to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, very few Hollywood "experts" thought it was a good idea. In fact, the project commonly became known as "Walt's folly" since so many thought it seemed like such a bad idea. According to the common thought of the era, no one would sit for a feature-length cartoon; such antics could only be tolerated in small doses.

You don't need me to tell you that the nay-sayers were wrong and Snow White inaugurated a new genre that remains an exciting and compelling artform more than 60 years later. A lot has changed within animation since 1937, and the style has become much more accepted than it was during those early years.

However, that doesn't mean that innovators always receive a royal greeting. When Pixar created Toy Story in 1995, they went out on a limb less precarious than the one Walt risked but they nonetheless ventured into unproven territory. This was because TS would be the first feature-length computer animated film, and lots of folks thought it couldn't be done.

Actually, the question wasn't whether it could be completed from a technical standpoint; the concerns hinged on whether computer characters could be made sufficiently "real" and lively. Really, the issues weren't very different from those that plagued Snow White. The audiences of that era were accustomed to animation but not with much depth, and the same went for modern crowds and computer fare; we saw it as something that could work in small doses under certain circumstances, but a fully computer-rendered movie felt unworkable.

You also don't need me to tell you that the nay-sayers were wrong again, but since I need to review the movie, I will. Not only did Toy Story avoid failure, it was an absolute triumph in all possible ways; it earned consistently positive notices and went on to take the box office crown for 1995. With that one film, computer animation became a completely viable feature film format.

I can't help but wonder what the future would have held for the genre if TS had been a lousy movie, but since that wasn't the case, it's a moot point. In fact, not only was TS a good film, but it's easily one of the best to appear under the Disney banner over the last decade. Frankly, since it came out in late 1995, the only other Disney flicks I find comparably strong are 1998's A Bug's Life and 1999's Toy Story 2. Not coincidentally, all of those efforts were produced by Pixar.

(For the record, I've enjoyed all of the Disney animated films since 1995 to some degree; they just aren't as good as the Pixar pictures. Probably the weakest of the 1995 to date releases is 2000's Dinosaur - Disney should leave all of the computer animated work to Pixar.)

Toy Story offers a nearly-perfect combination of witty and clever storytelling, rich and fun characters with emotional depth, and some good old-fashioned Disney heart. The tale focuses on Woody (Tom Hanks), a cowboy doll who is the favorite toy of Andy (John Morris), a roughly ten-year-old boy. Woody rules the roost when it comes to Andy's other toys as well, but his happy little world is disrupted when Andy gets a flashy new action figure. Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) is a state-of-the-art space toy that makes Woody look like a relic from the past (which he is, of course, but that's irrelevant).

Buzz attains the status that Woody previously enjoyed, and the cowboy doesn' t like this one bit. His jealousy gets the best of him and he begins to act in rather inappropriate ways, which ultimately culminates in disaster. An adventure ensues as Woody tries to regain his old stature and also learn to live with change.

That plot synopsis doesn't sound like much, but TS succeeds because of the flair and charm with which it's executed. I think most Disney animated films are entertaining for adults, but the TS movies excel in that department as they offer more clever and incisive bits than the average Disney piece. TS is absolutely chock full of witty and subtle references to other work plus some great wordplay; the surface material will entertain any child, but the movie's depth will delight adults as well.

However, this isn't some Dennis Miller monologue stuffed full of pop references just for the sake of supposed hipness; TS makes its material work within the framework of the film, and the gags never seem forced. Sometimes movies try too hard to be cool or slick; witness the onslaught of Tarantino wannabes we saw after Pulp Fiction became a success. TS integrates the wittiness well and makes the entire package quite seamless.

Really, Toy Story is one of those rare movies that has it all. The film combines old-fashioned Disney charm with wacky situations, engaging and well-developed characters, genuine warmth and sincerity plus some very exciting thrill sequences. The climax puts most so-called action movies to shame, as Woody and Buzz go through a series of threats that would fit nicely into an Indiana Jones story. (If Indy were a foot-tall toy, that is.)

Each member of the voice cast fits in perfectly. Based on his prior work, Allen isn't someone I would have considered for such a semi-heroic role, but he does an excellent job and offers depth and development I wouldn't previously have thought possible. After some serious roles, Hanks returns to his comedic roots and is absolutely stellar as Woody. He also gives the character a dimension others would lack and makes him quite endearing and compelling.

The depth of the supporting actors helps, too; we find terrific veterans like Don Rickles, John Ratzenberger, Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn and R. Lee Ermey in key parts, and all of them are uniformly great. Each is typecast, but gloriously so, as their commonly-known personae imbue their animated counterparts with life.

If you directly compare TS to its sequel, you'll see that the animation has grown a lot over the intervening four years. However, that definitely doesn't mean that TS looks like a crude relic of its time. While I can't say that it won't appear dated 30 years from now, I think Pixar outfitted the movie with sufficient charm and flair to endure over time.

Key to this concept is the fact that while the computer art certainly looks good, the movie doesn't succeed because of flashy visuals. Everything looks fine, from the well-fashioned characters to the rich and elaborate settings. But the animation is simply a tool to tell the story, and it's clear that no one at Pixar favored elaborate art over old-fashioned character development or story-telling.

And that's why Toy Story still is an absolute delight and will likely remain that way for many years to come. At the time, some saw it as a novelty, but the high quality of the film itself proved them wrong. Toy Story is one of the best films ever to appear under the Disney banner and it continues to provide a tremendously entertaining and enjoyable experience.

The DVD:

Toy Story appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.77:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While I can't call the picture totally flawless, I can say it comes pretty close; this is an excellent DVD.

Sharpness looked virtually immaculate. At no time did I discern any signs of softness or fuzziness, as the image seemed very crisp and accurate throughout the film. I detected a few instances of moiré effects from objects like the grille of a truck and the side of a house, and I saw minor artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. No print flaws were present, probably because TS didn't come from a print; it was a direct digital transfer from the original computer data, so there are no defects that can come with it. As such, I saw no problems whatsoever in this film; it looked absolutely clear and fresh.

Colors were a highlight of TS. The movie featured a nicely-varied palette that offered lush, vibrant tones at all times. From the bright primary colors of many of the toys to more subtle hues such as the lovely sunlight featured in the sunset scenes, the DVD presented tones that always looked accurate and clean.

Black levels seemed deep and dark, with no signs of murkiness or muddiness, and contrast appeared strong. Shadow detail also looked clear and smooth, with appropriate opacity but no excessive darkness. The best examples of this occurred when Buzz and Woody were beneath the truck at the gas station; these presented just the right level of shade without any heaviness or thickness. Ultimately, the image of Toy Story seemed nearly ideal; it was a joy to watch.

Also terrific was the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Although it started slowly, the soundfield gradually swelled to the point where it became quite involving and engaging. During the early parts of the movie, the forward spectrum was active and displayed a nicely broad experience; audio was placed specifically and precisely located.

The surrounds seemed less engulfing during the film's first act; I heard sporadically activity from the rear but nothing terribly compelling. However, that changed once we reached the scene in which Buzz's "accident" occurred; that scene showed terrific use of all five channels and this trend continued through most of the remainder of the movie. The audio provided a nicely active and convincing environment that complemented the action onscreen and added a lot to the experience.

Sound quality also seemed very good. For the most part, dialogue appeared warm and natural and always was easily intelligible. During some of the first scenes that included Buzz, I detected some edginess and brittle qualities to the speech, but these essentially went away after a few minutes and the remainder of the dialogue sounded accurate and clear.

Randy Newman's score and songs came across as clean and smooth. It often lacked substantial low end but the music always seemed crisp and detailed, with strong clarity. Effects sounded similarly rich and detailed, with no signs of distortion. They also didn't present a lot of bass during the early parts of the movie, but as with the soundfield, this area changed roughly around the part of the film where Buzz's "accident" happened. Prior to that, the best example of low end occurred when Sid blew up Combat Carl; the explosion offered a nice thump. However, that was a fairly isolated incident until Buzz had his problems. During the scene in question and much of the remainder of the film, bass response seemed quite strong and the audio became much more dynamic. Despite some slightly limited fidelity during the early parts of the movie, Toy Story ultimately presented a very fine audio experience.

For the version of Toy Story we find on the 2-DVD set, there are just a couple of supplemental features. We get a Pixar short called "Tin Toy". From 1988, this piece lasts five minutes and 10 seconds and provides a cute and moderately witty experience. It's also interesting from a historical point of view, as a) we can see the roots of Toy Story in this cartoon, and b) we can also view just how far computer animation has come in the intervening years.

As first seen on the Fight Club DVD - and also available with Supergirl and a number of Anchor Bay DVDs - Toy Story includes the "THX Optimode" program to set up your TV. This provides you with information to correctly configure various audio and video aspects of your home theater. I don't think it fully replaces something like Video Essentials, but then again, "Optimode" comes as a free addition to a DVD, so it's clearly a bargain. If you haven't already used VE or some similar product, you should find "Optimode" very helpful.

Foes of Disney's "forced" trailers rejoice: they don't appear on this DVD. This should provide a pleasant surprise to all the folks who've moaned about this advertising technique since it started in the winter of 2000.

Fans of supplemental materials may want to consider a purchase of the Ultimate Toy Box three-DVD set. This includes both TS and TS2, all of the extras we find on these discs and a slew of additional pieces. A review of all these materials will appear soon; at that time you can examine all of the details and decide if the extras merit your attention.

For folks who don't care about supplements, the two-DVD Toy Story/Toy Story 2 set is a must-buy. TS was an innovative landmark achievement in animation and it's also a ton of fun; after five years, the movie remains delightful, witty and exceedingly entertaining. The DVD itself provides terrific picture, very good sound plus a couple of small extras. The only question you need to ponder is which version of Toy Story to buy; whether you should own a copy is an absolute no-brainer, since TS needs to belong in every DVD collection.

Note: when I originally wrote this review in October 2000, Toy Story > was available only as part of the mentioned two-DVD set or the three-disc "Ultimate Toy Box". However, you can now buy Toy Story on it own. The solo DVD duplicates the one found in the two-pack. With a list price of $29.99, I think it'd be silly to get one of the movies and not the other since the extra flick would add only $10 to the equation, but I wanted to mention the product nonetheless.

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