Disney/Pixar Rankings: 1

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Toy Story

1995, directed by John Lasseter

Toy Story 3 is a movie about death. Towards the end of that picture, the toys are sliding, it seems inexorably, towards an incinerator. They have badly miscalculated the cost-benefit analyis of staying in the attic at Andy’s house, probably never to be played with again but at least together and alive. Instead of choosing this safe but dull life, they took their chance at a new place, which on the surface seemed to have every amenity and every chance to make each day delightful. It didn’t take long to realize that the daycare was perfidious, and in escaping Sunnyside they find themselves staring down a fiery doom, hand-in-hand, no longer fighting what they know awaits them. The group is saved, of course—I still think burning them up would have been one of the bravest decisions in the history of the movies—but they have had the near-death experience. They know what it would mean to die.

Toy Story 2 is a movie about aging. Woody, who is, ha ha, coming apart at the seams, knows that Andy is growing out the age where playing with action figures and Mr. Potato Head and plastic dinosaurs is engaging. He is kidnapped by a toy collector who intends to sell him as part of a collection to a museum in Japan for a tidy profit, and although he resists this for a while, he ultimately decides that he is satisfied with the idea after a cynical prospector doll named Stinky Pete lays out his choices. “You can go back,” he tells Woody. “Or you can stay with us, and last forever.” For a few moments, Woody tastes immortality as surely as the Norse gods tasted Iðunn’s apples and felt themselves returning to youth and strength. The thought of lasting forever is intoxicating even for mortals, and Woody, who by now recognizes himself as some figure in the popular historical record, knows that even among the everlasting he might be a true immortal.

Toy Story is a movie which is concerned with a much more slippery concept than either of those two motifs. Getting older is the sort of thing that people think about constantly, whether it has to do with a receding hairline or realizing that you vividly remember a historical event that someone else wasn’t alive for. Death is the sort of thing that people push aside for as long as they can, but when someone near to us dies we have an awfully hard time thinking about anything else. But irrelevancy is a much trickier idea to pin down. It happens when you don’t get any texts for a few hours and you wonder if any of your friends remember you’re alive. It happens when someone at work is just way better at doing her job than you are at doing yours. It happens when you wander onto social media and see that other people get more attention than you do, or do something greater, or do something wickeder. It happens when you think about how many people there are in the world or how many hydrogen atoms there are in the universe, and you know mathematically that you don’t mean that much at all. Toy Story is about relevancy, which is to say irrelevancy, and it’s about how someone manages to cope with that feeling. All of us have convinced ourselves of our value in one way or another, and the way we do it dictates a great deal about how we choose to live. Woody is no different.

In the beginning of the picture, Woody has decided that his relevancy is based on his dual position in the world of “Andy’s Room.” He is Andy’s favorite toy, which means, as we learn from that thoroughly charming first scene, that he is the hero of Andy’s games. Mr. Potato Head (“One-Eyed Bart”) holds up a bank and takes some folks hostage. He has not come without some tools to make mayhem. He has a luminous green revolver in one hand, and he has brought his dog with a built-in forcefield to protect him. But Sheriff Woody, as cool as Gary Cooper and with a voice like Gary Cooper on helium, is unimpressed. “You gonna come quietly?” he asks Bart, and when it’s clear that Bart intends to fight it out, Woody sends his dinosaur who eats forcefield dogs into the fray. It’s a short battle, and Woody is the unquestioned hero, the Übermensch of this cardboard town. Other toys don’t even approach this scene, but Woody is the key figure. He is always the key figure. Thus the second position: he is the chieftain of this little hamlet of heterogeneous toys, of dolls and piggy banks and robots. He is the director of the group’s actions, the one who gets to order a policy about moving buddies, who has the power to send a recon team of plastic soldiers to watch birthday presents get unwrapped, the one whose voice cuts through the bickering and backbiting. In short, every second of every day is a reminder to Woody that he matters, and by the time we reach the events of the story, he has internalized this belief that he matters as a sort of divine right. From above he has received his permission to lead and his birthright to be adored. It is the most fragile kind of relevancy: he has built it on his accomplishments, and so it is tenuous and able to be pushed over like a house of Tinkertoys.

I suppose the reason Buzz has such trouble realizing he’s a toy is because he has batteries. Confident and the possessor of “more gadgets than a Swiss army knife,” Buzz’s crash landing on Andy’s bed sets off a wave of recriminations. Woody slides off the bed and appears from underneath it. Everyone knows that his spot is on the bed, and he is quickly given some guff from the likes of Potato Head about how he’s already being replaced by whatever this new toy is. One of the things that stands out about watching this movie for the zillionth time is how quickly everyone else comes to like Buzz. Maybe they’re impressed by his technological wizardry or his “ability” to “fly”—not everything about the old computer animation works, but the look of that sequence where Buzz falls with style for the benefit of the crowd holds up just fine, thanks—but it’s not lost on them that he is a challenger to Woody. During the “Strange Things” montage, it’s also clear that he’s a lot nicer to the other toys than Woody is. Woody sees himself knocked to the next step down in Andy’s heart, bedsheets and all, but the other toys find Buzz a more than welcome addition to the room. He’s less bossy than Woody. He doesn’t deign to talk to them or shy away from helping them out. When Rex tries to scare Woody with his roar, Woody patronizes the attempt. Buzz helps Rex let out a deep-voiced roar that blows the features off of Potato Head’s face. Woody treats Slinky like a flunky or gofer, even though the two appear to be something like best friends; Buzz gives Slinky one heck of a chin-scratch. (Good dog.) Buzz implements an exercise program; he combs a troll doll’s hair, for heaven’s sake. Buzz is certain that he has a mission to complete for Star Command, but he finds relevance among Andy’s toys by being there for them and by being “accepted into their culture,” when he shows them that Andy “has inscribed his name” on his foot. Things come to blows and open windows, and underneath a truck Buzz puts his finger on what Woody’s real problem is: “You are a sad, strange little man.”

The trouble with Buzz is that he’s made that relevance as secondary as Woody is in Andy’s toy tiers. He believes unquestioningly, despite Woody’s frequent contradictions and the total indifference of the other toys, that he is a Space Ranger. When he sees that commercial in Sid’s house of all the other Buzz Lightyears, sees the falseness of the laser and the flight, sees how his features are identical to those of the smirking character onscreen, it shudders him. If he is not Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, then he must be a nobody, a “child’s plaything” with all of the negative connotations that he can stir up for that phrase. Woody’s quest to remain relevance pushes him to do some bad things to other people; Buzz’s last-ditch test of his relevance turns out to be quite literally self-destructive. I rarely like slow-motion in movies, but when Buzz pushes off the railing at the top of the stairs, believes that he is flying, and then realizes that he’s doing nothing of the sort, it’s so appropriate. Time slows down for us when we’re facing a tragedy, and it’s no different for Buzz, who has an awfully long time to look at the bottom of the stairs as he approaches the floor. Without the image he came out of the box believing in, he lapses into a brief crisis. Either he is the one-armed Mrs. Nesbit, identified by the hat and the way we can find her “suckin’ down Darjeeling,” or he is a despondent hunk of plastic too sorry to save himself when Sid enters the room.

Relevance, it turns out, is a question of how your kid responds when you land perfectly through the sunroof of the minivan. Andy scoops up Woody and Buzz joyfully and holds them tight to his chest. Earlier that morning, Buzz had a rocket duct taped to his torso and Woody was trapped in a crate with a toolbox on top. Both are plaintive, self-pitying, hopeless. “You were right all along,” Buzz tells Woody. “I’m not a Space Ranger. I’m just a toy. A stupid, little, insignificant toy.” There’s nothing splendid about being a toy in Buzz’s eyes in this moment. Nothing about being a toy compares with having a role in the intergalactic drama of fighting Zurg or completing a mission or, well, flying, and if you can’t do those things, how much can you really believe that you matter? Woody, whose brush with irrelevance has given him some hard-earned wisdom, responds. “Over in that house is a kid who thinks you are the greatest…it’s because you’re a toy. You are his toy.” He understands all too well that how “cool” Buzz is has made the battery-powered dynamo relevant in a way that fears he can never hope to be again. “Why would Andy ever want to play with me when he’s got you?” Woody says. It’s as close as he can come to saying that he has based his world on a fantasy as bald as Buzz’s, that nothing mattered besides being the one on top of the bed while everyone else went in the toy chest or the shelves or some other place with far less honor. By the time they land in that blue minivan where “Hakuna Matata” plays loud and proud, both of them have realized how wrong they were and how right the other one was. You find relevance in putting yourself out there for others, whether it’s organizing a plan which will scar a pre-teen and presumably put him through years of therapy or it’s flying your new best friend through the clearest blue sky there ever was. Or, maybe, it’s coming back to the kid who loves you and feeling his embrace. That hug is a promise that both of them feel: no matter what, they’ll never be irrelevant again. It’s a promise that Woody in particular is guilty of forgetting about in future movies, but the idea stands firm. I’ve never really liked the song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” but it’s the most succinct way to express what Toy Story believes relevancy is, and on the whole it’s not such a bad way to judge.

There’s a Sub Titles podcast episode that focuses on the importance of play in Toy Story. If you’re interested in listening to that episode, click here.

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