Why 'Toy Story' Is Still the Best Pixar Movie 25 Years Later

Toy Story was first introduced to audiences on November 19, 1995, when the Pixar movie had its premiere at Hollywood's El Capitan theater. And while "audiences had never seen anything quite like it" has become a cliché of film criticism, in this movie's case it was true.

Just as Disney's 1937 Snow White was the first ever full-length hand-drawn animated feature film, Disney's release of Toy Story made it the first ever entirely computer-animated film. Without the success of Toy Story and its simple tale of toys coming to life, movies in 2020 would look entirely different, with no big studio computer animated movies. No future Pixar classics like Up, Wall-E and Inside Out, and no major CGI franchises like Shrek, Ice Age and the (oft divisive) Minions.

These films, and hundreds like it from studios like Dreamworks, Illumination and Disney-Pixar itself have all tried to build on the success of Toy Story, with bigger name voice casts, higher budgets and ever increasing spectacle. None of them, however, have arguably managed to match the simple and effective brilliance of that original 1995 movie in all its 80-minute glory.

Part of this is a simple fact of bloat. Bigger budgets just led to longer and longer films, going well past the point where any child can sit still without needing a toilet break. With ever-increasing spectacle came ever more nonsensical plots that are arguably just loose threads hanging together loud and obnoxious visual firework display.

Those ever increasingly starry voice casts just led to whoever was popular at the time being cast in a role no matter how incongruous it was, with the trend probably reaching its lowest point when Nicki Minaj found herself playing a "sassy teenage mammoth" in Ice Age: Continental Drift.

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'Toy Story' turns 25 in November 2020. Disney

Of course, great CGI animations have been made since Toy Story, but they nearly all lacked the simplicity of that 1995 movie. The plot of that movie is so simple, and yet it was the stuff that childhood dreams were made of: what if your toys came to life when you were out of the room?

Pixar had tried out the idea of inanimate objects coming to life in early shorts like Luxo Jr. (which gave the company its signature hopping lamp), Tin Toy, and Knick Knack, the story of a snowglobe who wants to join a summer party held by other holiday ornaments.

The fact that Toy Story grew out of these shorts can be seen in how perfectly compact it is. While Toy Story sequels would see Woody, Buzz et al. across state lines, nearly get sent to Japan and battling fiery furnaces, the first Toy Story has three main locations, probably within about a five-mile radius: Andy's house, Sid's house next door and Pizza Planet, plus the roads around these locations.

At 80 minutes, it is the shortest Pixar moxie, nearly half an hour shorter than the longest, (and arguably one of the worst) Cars. And yet what it manages to pack into that less than 90 minutes is staggering. It introduces us to a range of characters enduring enough to make it across four movies, and enough to buoy toy sales for 25 years. It includes some of the all-time funniest sequences in Pixar history (like "the claw" and tea with "Mrs. Nesbit"), iconic catchphrases like "to infinity and beyond" and underrated one-liners like "hey look, I'm Picasso."

Watching it 25 years later, though, what impresses most about the movie is not just how great the animation looks despite it reaching its silver anniversary, but how grown-up the film is. It is, after all, a film about professional jealousy, and feelings of inadequacy, as Woody starts to resent the new and shiny Buzz once Andy gets him as a birthday present.

True, Pixar would become known for its blending of child and adult, but none of their films have done it as seamlessly as Toy Story. Up, for example, might have the devastating montage of Carl and Ellie, but people forget that half of the movie is a fairly silly adventure story about talking dogs. Toy Story's more mature themes, meanwhile, are threaded throughout. No Pixar character has ever felt the very adult emotion of existential ennui quite like Buzz Lightyear does after he discovers that he really cannot fly.

The first Toy Story is also unique in the Pixar canon in playing with genuine horror elements. The first reveal of Sid's army of disfigured toys is an Island of Dr. Moreau-style array of twisted plastic that has something in common with horror films like Freaks or even somewhat, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, especially as we consider that if these toys have sentience, then these toys have been tortured and mutilated, having to keep their toy faces impassive as they are torn apart.

While future Toy Stories gave us huggable bears and adorable horses as side characters, Toy Story has a broken baby's head with spider legs for a body. This foray into the grotesque is a risky move that future market-driven animations would never dream of doing.

A debate still rages, however, over which of the Toy Stories is the finest between the first three (Toy Story 4 is out of the running, as if we are honest with ourselves it does not really get interesting until way into its third act.) To be clear, those first three are all great and deserve to be in the pantheon of great trilogies alongside the Apu, Before and Three Colors movies.

However, Toy Story is the greatest of the three. First of all, it had to do all the heavy lifting of establishing the world, and does it with remarkable economy. And secondly, the second two films, while being great make fairly obvious attempts to pull at viewers' heart-strings via the "When Somebody Loved Me" section of 2 and the ending of 3, while the original does a better job at balancing its emotional themes.

It also speaks more universally to both children and adults, while 3, in particular, seems laser-tooled to appeal to those about to leave home after growing up with the original. The other movies have better sections than the first film (the Tour Guide Barbie and the opening section of 2, Spanish Buzz in 3), but do not hang together as a perfect capsule in the way that the first one does.

Ten Pixar films may have won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, and Up and Toy Story 3 may have got Best Picture noms, but it was Toy Story that got a special Oscar for outstanding achievement—matching the one (and seven mini ones) that Walt Disney himself got for Snow White, and that feels correct.

Toy Story is still the outstanding achievement of the CGI animation era.

Toy Story is streaming now on Disney+.