With Toy Story 3 set for a June 18 release this year, I thought it would be fun to reflect on that vaunted series (if a series can be vaunted with only two entries to date).
First, although I feel there is no target age for most Pixar movies, I must point out that the target audience for the original has finished high school. I can’t recall whether I first saw the movie in a theater or on VHS rental, but the fact that I had no children of my own was absolutely irrelevant. I made no sacrifice; I wanted to see it.
I knew who the primary players were, and both Tim Allen and Tom Hanks were all over the media airwaves in other films and on television. Allen, fresh off his first feature film The Santa Clause, was in the middle of his 1991-1999 run on his hit show “Home Improvement.” Hanks had recently become a “real” movie star in Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia and Forrest Gump.
Hearing the superstars’ voices was nothing special, but when Wallace Shawn’s voice came out of the dinosaur, I immediately thought, “Hey, that’s Vizzini from The Princess Bride!” The other voice I recognized — Jon Ratzenberger (Cliff from “Cheers”) — was a treat, too. Don Rickles I can take or leave, but he did a good job voicing Mr. Potatohead.
By the time Toy Story 2 came out in 1999, computer animation technology had advanced far beyond the simple toy-like appearance of the first film. Its own studio released A Bug’s Life in 1998, while Dreamworks released Antz. Despite strong finishes at the box office, neither came close to topping the annual chart like Toy Story did in its day. Perhaps that helped motivate Pixar to stick closely to the original’s appearance, proving that the story matters more than the medium.
Also in 1998, Dreamworks released Toy Soldiers, a movie in which the toys not only reveal to humans that they are indeed “alive,” but take sides in a good vs. evil battle with a family’s fate in the balance. The toys looked like miniature people, much more advanced than Buzz Lightyear, Woody, or Little Bo Peep, but failed to generate near the level of interest.
Unhindered by its seemingly old-fashioned look, Toy Story 2 easily defeated special effects groundbreaker (and R-rated) The Matrix, and the 2D animated feature Tarzan in total gross for 1999. It was beaten only by Star Wars: Episode I — The Phanton Menace and The Sixth Sense.
Another significant factor is that viewers expect the toys depicted to have limited expressions and movements. This has allowed the Toy Story films, like those simple toys, to remain timeless. Modern animated works featuring animals or people could not get away with such simple physical characterizations.
An exception is the Shrek line of films, whose first sequel has been the only animated film since Toy Story to win its year. For the sake of continuity it also has had to maintain a consistent look amidst competition like The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007). Shrek 2 and Shrek the Third had no trouble beating both, respectively, in sales. (Because opinion has firm roots here, I’ll say that the sales were the only category in which they topped them).
Toy Story 3, which is 3D from the ground up, still must adhere to the look of the original in the face of yet another full decade of animation advancements. With such a long hiatus, will existing fans help it as much as they did the Shrek line? It has little competition on its opening weekend, but I make no predictions on how well it will do against Shrek Forever After for 2010’s animated film crown.
That is, if either of them can beat the amazing How to Train Your Dragon.
Whatever the case, I look forward to hearing Wallace Shawn’s distinctive whine as the dinosaur, and going along for another adventure with Andy’s beloved toys.