To infinity, and beyond!
Unless you’re cold and emotionless, I’ll bet there’s a movie (or movies) that you hold near and dear to your heart. Maybe it’s one of your favorites from your childhood, or one that you saw on a first date with someone special, or just something that pushes all your buttons and makes you giddy with excitement. For me, respectively, those movies are the Star Wars movies (in grade school, my friends and I would always play “Star Wars,” and invariably I was Han Solo), Say Anything (one of the first videos my wife and I watched while we were dating), and the Toy Story movies. If you have to ask “Why the Toy Story movies?” you obviously have not seen them. These films capture something magical that is almost beyond words. I shall do my best.
Toy Story made cinematic history, so it is only fitting to trace the history of the studio that produced it: Pixar. Pixar was founded in 1986, but its history dates back to the late 1970s. It began as the computer hardware and software development wing of Lucasfilm, George Lucas’ production company. In 1986, that development house was purchased and spun off into its own company by Steve Jobs. You might remember him as the co-founder, and currently the CEO, of Apple Computers. The computer graphics company produced several animated shorts and television commercials (including Clio Award-winning ads for Life Savers and Listerine) before committing to producing full-length feature films.
Computers had been used before for smaller work in animated films, dating back to Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective in 1986. However, their involvement was often relegated to producing tedious background work. It wasn’t until 1989’s live-action The Abyss that computers were proved viable for serious amounts of screen time. Work began on Toy Story shortly thereafter in 1991. In 1995, it became the world’s first full-length animated film produced entirely on a computer.
The worlds of the two Toy Story movies are inhabited by toys. Some of these toys are ones that you might remember from your childhood, while some are creations for the movie. According to these movies, your toys come to life and have adventures of their own while you’re not watching. The main toy characters are a pull-string cowboy doll named Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and a high-tech spaceman named Buzz (voiced by Tim Allen). They both belong to a boy named Andy. In Andy’s room are a whole host of other toys, such as Mr. Potato Head (voiced by Don Rickles), a Slinky Dog (voiced by the late Jim Varney), a porcelain Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts), a piggy bank named Hamm (voiced by John Ratzenberger), and a “ferocious” dinosaur named Rex (voiced by Wallace Shawn).
In the first movie, Andy receives Buzz as a birthday present. Woody is concerned that Buzz will replace him as Andy’s favorite toy. Buzz is under the delusion that he really is Buzz Lightyear, member of Star Command on a mission to fight the evil Emperor Zurg (who you never see in the first movie, but you will later…). Through a series of misadventures, Woody and Buzz become lost, and must work together to return to Andy.
In Toy Story 2, Woody is stolen by a toy collector named Al (voiced by Wayne Knight). Al owns Al’s Toy Barn, and collected vintage toys. You see, Woody was produced as a tie-in to a (fictitious) 1950s TV series called “Woody’s Round-Up.” Woody meets the other members of his “gang”: a cowgirl named Jessie (voiced by Joan Cusack), his faithful horse Bullseye, and a shifty prospector named Stinky Pete (voiced by Kelsey Grammar). They’re excited, because now that Woody is a part of the collection, they are going to be sent to a toy museum in Japan and will no longer be in storage. This causes Woody to question the meaning of his existence — is he a valuable collectible or a child’s plaything? Meanwhile, Buzz leads a mission to rescue Woody from Al. Along the way, he meets his doppelgänger at the toy store, and must battle the evil Emperor Zurg.
I’m hoping that you’re not relying on my synopses, because I really feel I cannot capture the magic of these films. It’s one thing to read about toys coming to life on screen; it’s another to actually see it. Pixar walks a fine line with these characters. We are drawn them as characters, because they seem so lifelike, filled with feeling and sincerity. At the same time, we understand that they are toys that according to “the rules” cannot be seen talking and moving by people. They are fragile and breakable, and live in fear of their owners outgrowing them or abandoning them or — the worst fate — becoming a “lost toy.” In a way, they are more real to us than a human character could be (certainly more so that the perfunctory humans of these movies), because they are “fleshed out” as characters to the point that we genuinely identify with them. I think that’s where the magic happens.
The two movies are very similar in theme and characters, yet very different in scope and impact. Toy Story has a freshness that can’t be matched by its sequel. It’s first, after all, both in story and in technology. It was the first full-length animated film (and I do believe first film, period, animated or otherwise) created entirely in a computer. That gives it the gee-whiz factor that can never be equaled. We get to discover the characters’ foibles as we meet them for the first time. On the other hand, Toy Story 2 needs to spend little time introducing us to the denizens of Andy’s room, because we already know them. There is still room for growth, because they are thrust into new situations that test their mettle. While the technology is not new, the four years between their release dates brought rapid advances. Everything is much more detailed and lifelike, and the movie can grow in scale to include environments that would not have been possible in 1994. We get to see Al’s Toy Barn, a toy store that is gargantuan when you’re six inches tall, the baggage processing area of an airport, and the bottom of a transcontinental airliner (both of which are huge no matter what size you are).
It’s easy and very tempting to dog on Disney for their at times unimpressive DVD releases, but when they want to kick out the jams, they really kick out the jams. Nowhere is truer than with their release of Toy Story and Toy Story 2. On DVD, the movies are being sold in two sets, both of which include both movies. There’s a two-pack, which includes a separate disc for each movie, and there’s “The Ultimate Toy Box” that includes the same content as the two-disc set plus more stuff on each movie disc plus a third disc stuffed to the gills with goodies. There’s a $30US price difference between the sets, so not everyone will necessarily be wanting the Ultimate Toy Box, so I’ll try to make clear the differences between the sets.
One of the reasons it has taken so long for Pixar and Disney to release the original Toy Story to DVD is that the original digital archives had to be restored so a digital-to-digital transfer could be done. It’s the same process they used for their fantastic transfers of A Bug’s Life and Tarzan, but the files for Toy Story had been stashed away and needed to be restored (like a backup would be restored, not like how an older film would be). The resulting transfer is impressive. It is presented in its theatrical 1.77:1 ratio in an anamorphic transfer. While the graphics themselves are not as detailed as Toy Story 2, the picture detail captures this movie at its finest. The digital-to-digital transfer results in a flawless image. Period. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. It strikingly brings you to the level of a toy. Things that would sound somewhat average to us — cars, semis — are brought to a grand scale by Gary Rydstrom’s sound design. It is captured perfectly by the DVD. The soundstage is wide and enveloping, making active use of surrounds for split and directional effects. The subwoofer adds support to Randy Newman’s score as well as serious thumps when the action calls for it.
The Toy Story disc as part of the two-disc set includes Pixar’s Tin Toy short film. It was produced in 1988, and won an Academy Award. It can be viewed as — and indeed was — a precursor to Toy Story itself. It tells the story of a wind-up toy trying to cope with a baby who wants to play with him and drool all over him. The CG animation is crude, but you can still see the attention to detail and characterization that Pixar prides itself in. (A piece of trivia: the earliest script treatment for Toy Story featured the Tin Toy as the lead character, not Woody.) The Ultimate Toy Box disc also includes the short, as well as a slew of other extras. There is a commentary track, featuring John Lasseter (director), Ralph Guggenheim (producer), Bonnie Arnold (producer), Andrew Stanton (writer), Pete Doctor (writer), Bill Reeves (modeler and software developer), and Ralph Eggleston (art director). Lasseter functions as the ringleader, but all have interesting comments to contribute. Little more than a minute or two goes by without a chuckle or laugh from the group. It is quite obvious that they had (and still have) much affection for the characters and the project. An additional audio track provides just the sound effects. It’s a nice novelty for a few minutes, but no longer than that. I would have preferred an isolated score to highlight Randy Newman’s music. A 30-minute documentary details the entire process of making Toy Story. The genesis of the project with Tin Toy is explained, and how it evolved into the film that made it to the screen. Plus, we get to see storyboards, animatics, dialogue recording sessions, Randy Newman writing the music, et cetera. There are fifty “Toy Story Treats” — small animated bumpers ranging in length from 10 to 30 seconds used at commercial breaks during ABC’s Saturday morning cartoons. I laughed my butt off during them. It just goes to show what kind of people are at Pixar, that they put that much thought and detail into something that is essentially disposable. You also get “on-set interviews” with Woody and Buzz, the TV commercial used in the movie used to sell the Buzz Lightyear action figure (“Available at all Al’s Toy Barn outlets in the Tri-County area!”), and a reel demonstrating what you would’ve heard if you had seen the movie in German, French, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, Swedish, Korean, et cetera. The funniest (not surprisingly) is Buzz’s voice when heard in French. Très amusant.
All the good things I said about the audio and video quality of Toy Story also apply to Toy Story 2. The digital-to-digital transfer could not be more perfect (that’s probably grammatically incorrect, and also flies in the face of the definition of “perfect,” but I’m going for superlative effect so just play along). Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX. Again, all the things I said about the audio of Toy Story apply here, except Toy Story 2 takes it up a notch. It’s very safe to say that this is one of the top two or three audio mixes in my collection (along with Terminator 2 and U-571, which I’ll be reviewing this week). You need to listing no further than the opening scenes of the film to be completely bowled over. Wow is an understatement.
The Toy Story 2 disc included in the two-disc set includes Pixar’s first short, “Luxo Jr.” and a sneak peek of their next theatrical film, Monsters Inc., due to be released November 2001 (groan, I have to wait that long?), and a five-minute reel of “outtakes.” The outtakes are a trend that Pixar started with A Bug’s Life. They are a parody of the on-set flubs and gaffes you see from live-action films, and are absolutely hilarious (one of them even gives a hint for a little in-joke in the film that you’d probably never catch if you didn’t know where to look). The Ultimate Toy Box disc adds a commentary track with John Lasseter (director), Lee Unkrich (co-director), Ash Brannon (co-director and writer), and Andrew Stanton (writer). Again, it’s enjoyable to listen to and gives many behind-the-scenes details.
And now, the fabled third disc. Cue majestic chorus singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah…
If you’re a fan of the Toy Story — and how in the name of all that is good and holy could you not be? — you will want to spring for the Ultimate Toy Box so that you can bask in the radiant glow of the five hours…yes, FIVE HOURS…of supplements on the third disc. (Or at least, that’s how long Disney says it is. I spent a couple afternoons going through all of it, so I’m not going to quibble with their math.) There’s so much stuff that they provide you with a map to find your way through it all. There’s so much stuff that I don’t know if I want to tell you about it all for fear that your eyes will glaze over, or my fingers will bleed from typing so much.
After an introduction from John Lasseter, you’re greeted with the first menu that asks you to choose which movie to learn about. For each film, you have a similar list of choices: History, Story, Design, Computer Animation, Music And Sound, Deleted Animation, Publicity. For Toy Story 2 the list also includes The Toy Box. The History sections give you details about the development of each film. For Toy Story, that means tracking the history of Pixar and the use of computers in animation, early tests of the technology, and the first story treatments. Make sure you read the story treatments, because they are a fascinating look at the path the movie’s story took and how they recycled some rejected ideas into the story of Toy Story 2. For Toy Story 2, it tracks what they wanted to do for a sequel. For both films, you also get production notes and cast biographies. In the Story sections, you get to see storyboard pitches, storyboard to film comparisons, and sequences abandoned early in production. In the Design sections, you get design sketches for each new character, art design, and sketches of the film’s environments (for example, the gas station in Toy Story or Al’s Toy Barn in Toy Story 2). In the Computer Animation section, you get to see in detail how they progress from storyboards, to layout, to animation, to rendering. You also get to see the “special effects” work, which is the stuff that goes beyond the environment and characters to things like smoke and explosions and water effects. The Music And Sound section details the sound design and the writing of the songs and score. In the Deleted Animation section, you get to see deleted scenes, or alternate versions of sequences that were included in the movies. For example, the “crossing the road” sequence in Toy Story 2 was originally set in a different location. Most of the character animation had already been done, so the backgrounds and some of the action were changed. The Publicity section includes images of posters and advertisements, theatrical trailers, and television spots. The Toy Box contains cool stuff about Toy Story 2, such as cast comments on who is the coolest toy and a guide to the hidden jokes.
Do you honestly think I’d have anything bad to say about these movies? Hmm, if I wrack my brain maybe I can come up with something…hmm…well, the silver box of the Ultimate Toy Box smudges too easily. I’m going to have to buff off the fingerprints soon. Oh, and the music video for “Woody’s Roundup,” featuring Riders In The Sky, is too long.
You’d have to be nuts to not pick up one of these sets, either the two-disc set or the Ultimate Toy Box. Only if you’re budget-conscious should you go for the two-disc, because the three-disc set has too much cool stuff to pass up.
A few notes before I go. When you select the French version of Toy Story, it’s not just the audio that is in French — the opening titles and Buzz’s box are in French as well. I don’t know if they stored two separate versions of the film, or used seamless branching. Whatever sort of technology they used, it’s a nice touch.
My copy Toy Story 2 in the Ultimate Toy Box came in an Alpha keep case rather than an Amaray like the other two discs. I’m going to assume that that’s a goof rather than the standard.