Film critic Josh Spiegel analyzes in depth the poignant themes of loss and nostalgia that run beneath the exuberant playfulness of the Toy Story and Cars films. He concludes with a chapter on Disney animation in the 2010s. With photos.
Pixar tickled a yearning in adults who gave up their own Woodys and Buzzes but still cling to the idealized wood and plastic and stuffing of their lost-forever youth. As their own children face forward to the future with Buzz Lightyear's "To infinity...and beyond!" they hear just an echo from their past.
Spiegel adroitly positions the Pixar films as not just animated fodder for the kids but as surprisingly sophisticated—and introspective—fare for the grown-ups.
"Affectionate, vivid, and insightful. ... Even if you've seen these movies a thousand times, you'll discover something new about how yearning for the past defined the future of animation."
—Anthony Breznican, Entertainment Weekly
Chapter 1: Toy Story and Cars
Chapter 2: Toy Story 2 and Up
Chapter 3: Toy Story 3 and Monsters University
Chapter 4: Disney Animation in the 2010s
It’s fitting that Toy Story opens with the same image as the final frame of Toy Story 3: a picture-perfect blue sky dotted with carefully placed, fluffy clouds. These soothing designs are computer-generated facsimiles, but the former is a facsimile of a facsimile; it’s the comforting wallpaper that lines the bedroom of a little boy named Andy Davis, who lives in a small town of indeterminate origin, a true Anytown, USA. The latter image is closer to an actual skyline, greeting the teenaged Andy as he drives off to college from that unknown municipality and out of the lives of the toys with whom he populated his imagination for over a decade.
As the series opens, the six-year-old Andy, a suburban Christopher Robin, proves in the confines of his tiny room—brimming to the rafters with plush animals, board games, action figures, and other toys—that his world of make-believe is limitless. As the third feature in the franchise closes, Andy ventures into the known unknown of the real world, wished an emotional goodbye by the surviving plastic and stuffed figures of his youth. In this moment, they have reached the same conclusion he did as a boy: anything is possible. These fully fleshed-out characters, who display a vast well of human emotions over a trio of films, come to appreciate that life is the very opposite of the mundane and predictable drudgery they assumed it was.
The Toy Story series, spanning fifteen years, is the greatest, most purely American trilogy of the modern age—an encapsulation of the objects and caricatures that filled the imagination of the children of the twentieth century. Its existence is a near-impossible feat, both in its creative triumphs and its three respective production histories. The series is based on a rock-solid foundation of sincere nostalgia, a fondness for the past expressed less to sell toys than to simply marvel at the joy of youth. The nostalgia of modern popular culture is in part inspired by films like Toy Story, but most creators use nostalgia cynically. Pixar’s filmmakers, wisely, treat it as a valuable emotional reaction, as worthwhile as the desire to laugh or cry or otherwise empathize. The image of the blue sky throughout the series, welcoming us and bidding farewell, is inherent to the ever-flourishing success of the Walt Disney Company since the 1930s. Walt Disney Imagineering is built on the concept of “blue-sky” speculation, in which Imagineers conjure up ideas at the outset with no limitations on money or resources. Though Pixar Animation Studios was first an outside company lured in by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner during their time at the Walt Disney Company, the studio’s ideals are inextricably linked to what defined Disney, the company, and Disney, the man, from the 1930s through the 1960s. Pixar’s methodology is built on blue-sky speculation.
It’s no wonder that Pixar’s films and characters have become so influential, not just to Disney’s own animation department but to the rest of Hollywood, in the same way that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi were influential during Disney’s first golden age. You can draw a straight line from films like Toy Story and The Incredibles to Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen; the latter two films were heavily inspired by Pixar’s output. More specifically, the baton with which Walt Disney Animation Studios ran in the late 1980s as the so-called Disney Renaissance kicked off, beginning with The Little Mermaid, was, in effect, unintentionally passed to Pixar in 1995 with the first Toy Story. Since then, Disney and their mainstream competitors have all struggled to catch up to the industry’s new standard-bearer.
Pixar’s dominance started with the blue-sky notion that its employees could make anything happen on a computer—more so than could ever be accomplished with pencil and paper. The Toy Story trilogy should be held up as an exemplar of how the creative process doesn’t have to be driven by a single person’s journey to be satisfying, and that revision in the process can sometimes lead to a more positive outcome. These films prove the collective auteurism at play within Pixar and the flexibility of the blue sky. Each Toy Story film was created under immense stress and tension, as well as under incredible time constraints. The first film’s script was completely rewritten in a two-week period at the end of 1993, lest the filmmakers’ ties with Disney be severed wholly; the second was initially designed for a direct-to-video release, and was then reconceived and wholly overhauled throughout 1999, giving the filmmakers just nine months to redo the project; the third was nearly crafted by an outside group, during the grim period in the mid-2000s when Pixar almost became a cinematic free agent, and Disney grasped even more desperately for future computer-animation supremacy. That these three films exist in their current form is a minor miracle; that they are among the most emotional, insightful, clever, and humane films of the past twenty years, live action or animated, is a major one.
However, most of Pixar’s films rely on a fascinating dichotomy worth exploring in depth. From the first, each of the studio’s films has been defined by both groundbreaking technology and a generally innovative visual spirit. Audiences have come to expect—occasionally to their detriment or to the studio’s—that a Pixar film will boast stunningly photorealistic animation as much as it may boast memorable characters, thrilling set pieces, or outrageous humor. Since 1995, Pixar Animation Studios has represented and championed the future of the medium, but in doing so, their filmmakers have also consistently reached back into their pasts.
Pixar’s nostalgia for an unjustly forgotten time—or, sometimes, one that’s just an idyllic fantasy—permeates many of their films. The messages in each entry of the Toy Story trilogy are thus mirrored in other Pixar films; Toy Story and Cars share a kinship beyond their director, Toy Story 2 and Up relate similarly to the destructive force of nostalgia, and Toy Story 3 and Monsters University reflect their newer directors’ struggle to follow in their idols’ footsteps while being distinctive in the middle of a franchise. Even some of Pixar’s newer films, like Pete Docter’s Inside Out, are obsessed with tracking a child’s shift from adolescence to the onset of adult maturity, and the inherent tragedy of leaving pure joy behind. These disparate worlds are united by the notion that to forget the good old days, even if those days exist entirely in the mind’s eye, would be a greater offense than abandonment or heartbreak.
And just as Pixar set the standard for other animation studios visually, so too have they creatively pushed Walt Disney Animation Studios to look fondly upon their own collective youth—to the worlds of princesses, video-game characters, and long-forgotten stuffed animals—for purportedly new stories. Tangled, Winnie the Pooh, Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen may appear wildly different from each other at first glance, but their respective charms and flaws are borne from their makers’ attempts to ape Pixar and look back to the past, as well as the desire to reap untold billions from myriad merchandising opportunities.
The key quote that encapsulates the balance between Pixar’s pioneering technological spirit and its backwards-looking creative aims, appropriately, refers to Walt Disney’s crown jewel: Disneyland. It took Walt Disney Imagineering until the last few years to truly embrace Pixar’s worlds for its theme parks; now, you can’t go to either Disneyland or Walt Disney World without seeing characters like Buzz Lightyear, Mike Wazowski, and Lightning McQueen in person or in attractions, unless you actively avoid them. But these words were spoken before such characters were even a wisp of an idea, back in the days when John Lasseter was just a skipper on the Jungle Cruise ride in Anaheim. Spoken by the original “Voice of Disneyland,” announcer Jack Wagner, the quote is as follows:
Disneyland is a first, an original. Since the day it opened in 1955, more than a hundred million people have come here from the four corners of the Earth to participate in adventures unique in all the world. Here, tomorrow is today and yesterday is forever.
At Pixar, as in the rest of popular culture now, the future is here and the past is infinite.
Josh Spiegel is a freelance writer and critic whose work has appeared in publications such as Slashfilm, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Verge. He also cohosts the Disney movie podcast Mousterpiece Cinema with Scott Renshaw. Josh was previously the editor-in-chief of Movie Mezzanine, as well as the chief film critic and film editor of Sound on Sight. He lives in Arizona with his wife, son, and far too many cats.
Even though Toy Story is rich ground for analysis and introspection, it can also be taken for what it is: a "buddy" movie between two characters, Woody and Buzz, who start off as anything but friends.
The core conflict of Toy Story is deliberately similar to so many buddy comedies: whether two opposing figures can become friends, or at least learn not to sabotage each other whenever the opportunity presents itself. On a surface level, however, the struggle isn’t about Buzz and Woody’s rivalry-turned-friendship. It’s about whether a little boy will choose to play with a cowboy or an astronaut, which wasn’t a key debate among most children of the nineties. “Two words: Sput-nik!” is the acrid explanation offered to Woody in Toy Story 2 when he wonders why his popular Howdy Doody-style TV show, Woody’s Roundup, was canceled in the mid-1950s. That sentiment applies equally to the clash here. The good-hearted sheriff battling an intergalactic party-crasher has its roots in the pop culture of John Lasseter’s childhood, not that of generation X or generation Y. The same is true of the other toys in Andy’s bedroom, culture clash aside: Mr. Potato Head, a Barrel of Monkeys, an Etch-a-Sketch, a nondescript dinosaur, and so on. For a modern kid, Andy Davis thankfully appears to be unaware of the existence of video games, and blissfully content to play with whatever hand-me-downs he can find.
Sheriff Woody is on top of the world, or at least at the top of the food chain in Andy’s bedroom, as Toy Story begins, yet he remains secretly fearful about the prospects of the boy’s sixth birthday party. He dreads that it’ll be accompanied by something, anything, that could up-end his prior state of subtly power-driven nirvana. His barely contained neuroses aren’t unfounded, as he’s soon replaced as the leader of Andy’s room after that party by Buzz Lightyear, a spaceman toy with bells, whistles, and all sorts of gadgets that impress the child’s less easily worried, less cutting-edge playthings. This isn’t to suggest that Andy’s other toys don’t display a range of emotions; however, their personalities, whether it’s Rex’s perpetually frayed nerves or Mr. Potato Head’s blustery swagger, aren’t informed by being atop a power structure. Much as Christopher Robin’s playthings in the Hundred-Acre Wood represent different facets of a child’s personality, so, too, do the toys in Andy’s bedroom—all the way down to the mischievous squeaking shark in his toy chest.
Buzz is certainly flashier and cooler than Woody—a TV commercial shown at a key moment communicates both the intense, rapidly paced, and pushy tone of modern toy ads as well as the notion that a Buzz Lightyear toy is a ticket for a little boy or girl to become instantly accepted by their peer group. But Lasseter’s inspiration for Buzz, even in the early phases of production and development, were space toys like Major Matt Mason, a relic of the sixties. Although Andy’s transition from handmade, pull-string dolls to those with computer-designed gadgets was common for anyone growing up at the end of the twentieth century, the dilemma of whether to favor one straight out of the Old West or one from the outer reaches of the galaxy has its roots in the retro-futuristic style of 1950s and ’60s popular culture.
Andy’s bedroom (and thus, his childhood) is out of time. It’s a holdover from the era before computers had a vice grip on children, a time when they played instead with toys and games they could hold in their hands, touch and squeeze and throw, and bounce off walls. Toy Story opens with Andy’s latest fantasy, where the stoic sheriff in the middle of a dusty western town faces off against a fearsome outlaw and his posse. Once the toys are shaken out of the boy’s goofy reverie, we find that Woody is not quite as pure of spirit as Gary Cooper in High Noon. More so, what could easily be a straightforward western pastiche becomes absurdist instantaneously via childish constructs. Andy lets his mind spin away from the basics of the genre and turns his playtime into something grander and more outlandish, much as the filmmakers themselves do with the buddy comedy subgenre.
By the end of the film, the good guy wins the day and the girl, and Woody and Buzz turn out to be the best of friends, but the ways in which these conclusions occur are wholly different from the safe choices of years past. Though he’s a more complex character than Cooper’s taciturn Will Kane, Woody does wind up on his own within about a half hour of the opening scene, as the rest of his old friends forsake him for the fancy new toy who can “fly” and shoot a red blinking light from his forearm. Buzz Lightyear heralds a new beginning for Woody and the other toys, just as Toy Story represented a sea change in the world of feature animation, and in all of cinema, twenty years ago. Woody is the sole holdout, unwilling to accept the forces of change even as his counterparts give themselves over to the unlimited possibilities of whatever mysteries exist in the future.
Continued in "Pixar and the Infinite Past"!
One of the things you never see in an animated Disney or Pixar film is blood. The characters are assumed to have pixie dust in their veins. So when blood is shown, in Up it's a shock to the system, and a reminder that dark things do dwell in nostalgic places.
When villains in Disney films die, they do so out of eyeshot as frequently as possible. The only time Pixar has depicted a villain’s demise onscreen is at the end of its most violent film, The Incredibles, when the bitter Syndrome is sucked up by a jet engine, which subsequently explodes. But even Up falls back on one of the most familiar Disney death tropes, when Charles Muntz falls off his zeppelin, thousands of feet to the ground, much as Gaston falls from a castle spire in Beauty and the Beast or the poacher McLeach tumbles from a waterfall in The Rescuers Down Under. As soon as he falls through the clouds below the zeppelin, it’s as if Muntz never existed at all.
But it’s Carl’s attack on a well-meaning person, an innocent bystander who accidentally knocks a mailbox off its axis, that grounds Up. Carl only draws a slight amount of blood, nothing more than a bop on the head, but the consequence of his action is so startling that it balances out the fantastical elements to follow. Even as he embarks on an adventure with flying houses, never-before-seen birds, and talking dogs, Carl’s tragic loss and his moment of primal fury hover above him throughout. Few moments in Pixar films remain more shocking than this bit of violence, coupled with the subsequent gasps and pointing from passersby and the reaction shot of a sweaty and desperate Carl.
The event is all the more impressive because of how successful Pete Docter, co-writer Bob Peterson, and the rest of the filmmaking team are at imbuing inanimate objects like a mailbox with a backstory. Carl’s attack, and subsequent court case, occur within the first fifteen minutes, by which time we’ve already met and lost Ellie, who leaves behind scrapbooks, pictures, and, here, a handprint on an old mailbox. To anyone else, Carl’s attack is irrational—a sign of senility and possibly dementia. To us, after a few brief moments, it’s a serious and painful violation of a man’s life.
Carl’s response to potentially being forced out of his home and into an assisted-living facility is, of course, inherently ridiculous. Anyone able to lift up a house with balloons (and only balloons) defies logic, especially when the anyone in question is an elderly man who requires automated help traversing a flight of stairs. What constantly tethers this outlandish setup to the ground is Carl’s struggle with the past. The montage in the first act, scored to Michael Giacchino’s sweet and intentionally repetitive track “Married Life,” has been praised by countless critics as one of the very best, if not the best, sequences in Pixar’s history. Lisa Schwarzbaum noted that it’s “as deeply textured as any great novel”; Sheila O’Malley accurately pointed out that the montage “is a masterpiece of how little you have to do to hook your audience in for the long haul”; and Roger Ebert said the sequence “deals with the life experience in a way that is almost never found in family animation.” The placement of this sequence in the first act is necessary, because Carl no longer has the luxury of his comfortable life with Ellie. All he has are fractions of memories, mental montages he cannot stop playing in his mind.
Continued in "Pixar and the Infinite Past"!