EMPIRE ESSAY: Toy Story Review

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A cowboy toy is profoundly threatened and jealous when a fancy spaceman toy supplants him as top toy in a boy's room.


About ten years before Junior decides to get a "Hail Satan" forehead tattoo on the day the Vicar is coming round for tea or your little princess opts to neglect GCSE revision for an exciting new career as a mama with the local biker gang, the worst agony of parenthood is the kiddie movie.

Not only does the release of one of these suckers mean the money you saved for Grandpa's kidney machine is about to be earmarked for action figures, tie-in sweets, colouring books and video games, but you've also got to sit through something like Pokemon 2000, The Tigger Movie or My Little Pony in a cinema full of yard-apes who've dosed up on that breakfast cereal which fills the tykes with surplus energy they need to discharge by running around, screaming and kicking and biting. It would be enough to give you a headache, if the film — a colourful riot of eye-abusing animation — hadn't already done that.

The whole point of a craze like Pokemon — and the Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Transformers, The Care Bears and every other kid-craze all the way back to Tiger Tim And His Pals (ask a pensioner) — is to alienate adults, to create a cultural space that only an eight year-old can inhabit; in which you as a grown-up may have a degree in rocket science and be among the three best cello virtuosi of the age but you're clearly a moron if you can't tell the difference between Pikachu and Mewtwo, and beneath contempt should you get Pokemon mixed up with Digimon ("Daaaad, how could you embarrass me like that?"). Then there's Toy Story.

The reason that the United Nations should strike a special medal for John Lasseter of Pixar is that Toy Story is, at last, a real film " for children of all ages ". In an age when children own videos of their favourite films and insist they be played every day for three straight years, even during funerals or the cup final telecast, Toy Story has been so intensely crafted that there are fresh jokes to appreciate every time. Some are amazingly subtle, like a slight camera jiggle to imitate a rough edit; in computer animation, it would be easier to have a perfect match shot but you need the flaw to interpret the visual information — watch it again, and be astonished at the creativity.

It's also — courtesy of the script involvement of Joss Whedon — the Scream of kiddie movies, a pointed reflection on the meaning of its genre. It deploys cutting edge technology in a film affirming the place of hand-stitched stuffed toys beside "Made In Taiwan" plastic high-tech, and unifies parent and child by encouraging a post-film debate about how toys have changed since the old days.

Given that Toy Story was the first all-CGI animated feature, it's a miracle that it didn't turn out to be as plodding as Dinosaur — which spends so much time on the tech that it forgets to include the drama, the humour and the heart. Spinning off from the old idea of the playthings that come to life when the children aren't looking (there's a creepy Victorian music hall song called When The Dolls Dance After Dark that appears in the film The House In Nightmare Park (1973), Toy Story has a genuine story in the rivalry between Sheriff Woody (Hanks), the old-fashioned stuffed cowboy doll, and Buzz Lightyear (Allen), a cartoon space-ranger that parodies the worst of kidblitz teevee. How a 1995 eight year-old has a toy from the 1950s is a question we shouldn't ask. Oddly, there's real bite in the film.

Woody, the ostensible hero, is a paranoid middle-management drone ("Staff meeting, everybody!") so jealous of his pole position in Andy's life that he's willing to murder the naively heroic Buzz (who initially refuses to believe he isn't a real space ranger). With a less supernaturally likeable voice performer than Allen, you probably wouldn't put up with him. And forget Sid the toy-torturer next door, it's Andy who's the monster, turning his toys into emotional wrecks by capriciously bestowing and witholding affection and never conscious of the agonies suffered under his feet.

Stunt voice casting is an art perfected by the corporate Disney cartoons of the 1990s, most successfully with Robin Williams in Aladdin, but see also Eddie Murphy in Mulan. Toy Story hauls in star names but also brilliantly-chosen character - actors, and comes up with animated creations, unimaginable without their voices but not completely reliant on them for humour—you hear John (Cheers) Ratzenberger (Ham the piggy-bank), Wallace ("Inconceivable!") Shawn (Rex the pathetic T-Rex), R. Lee (Full Metal Jacket) Ermey (Sarge of the Bucket O'Soldiers) and Jim ("Ernest") Varney (Slinky) but they aren't making the faces move though you'd swear they were.

This is a film that realises kids can and do love crap toys — the dinosaur whose parts don't quite match, the soldiers with bent guns and plastic mould ridges — because imagination makes them live, and there's a lovely irony in that Toy Story's merchandising means you can now buy lovingly-crafted versions of these creatures, right down to their deliberatley placed flaws.

And, miracle of miracles, Pixar managed to do it all over again with the inevitable but still magical Toy Story 2.

The toon comedy to end them all.