Infinity and beyond: How Toy Story altered movie history

It’s 25 years since Toy Story first stunned us with its brilliance. Esther McCarthy looks back on John Lasseter’s masterpiece and why it’s regarded as a milestone of modern cinema

A scene from Toy Story 4, the most recent offering in a franchise of which the original was the first feature ever made with the entire use of computer-generated animation.
A scene from Toy Story 4, the most recent offering in a franchise of which the original was the first feature ever made with the entire use of computer-generated animation.

Twenty-five years ago, a toy cowboy named Woody and a space superhero named Buzz came into our lives — and changed the course of movie history.

Their rivalry for the affections of a little boy named Andy broke the mould for animation. For the genre-busters created by Pixar were aimed not only at the children who put the toys at the top of their Santa lists, but universal audiences too.

Almost instantly, Pixar established itself as one of the world’s most successful and creative studios, with 22 feature films that have enthralled movie lovers and bagged 16 Academy Awards.

As it celebrates the 25th anniversary of Toy Story this year, Pixar’s legacy looks to be in a sound place. 

Woody and his pals enjoyed a critical and commercial hit with Toy Story 4, which streams from this week, and though Onward was one of the movies that suffered box-office losses as a result of coronavirus, it opened to healthy takings and good reviews. 

It’s one of two Pixar movies set for release this year, along with Soul, Pete Docter’s tale of a teacher who dreams of being a jazz star.

Irish movie fans can also revisit their favourite Pixar moments as the studio’s entire back catalogue is streaming on Disney.

Toy Story’s arrival on the big screen a quarter of a century ago marked one of the biggest shake ups in movie history. 

Humble Beginnings: A still from the original Toy Story (1995)
Humble Beginnings: A still from the original Toy Story (1995)

It was, after all, the first feature-length film ever made with the entire use of computer-generated animation.

It was John Lasseter, then an animator with the Walt Disney Company, who first presented the concept of computer-generated imagery (CGI) to his bosses — and was promptly fired for promoting it.

Undaunted, he joined Lucasfilm, the company that created the Star Wars series, to work in the early form of animation that was then considered cutting edge and groundbreaking.

The Graphics Group of the Computer Division of Lucasfilm was bought by Steve Jobs in 1986 and renamed Pixar. 

Lasseter went on to direct Toy Story as the studio’s first feature, and within a decade CGI had overtaken traditional hand-drawn animation as the preferred form. 

In 2006, Disney bought Pixar at a valuation of $7.4 billion.

But it’s not just technologically that Toy Story and Pixar broke new ground. 

The studio was more interested in strong storytelling than the traditional fairy stories or princess tales aimed at children. 

Indeed, while many of us associate our must-loved Pixar films with childhood or family, the studio has never limited its target audience to children.

It favoured a more mature approach, dealing with themes like abandonment (the Toy Story films), bereavement (Up), impending doom (the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3), and mental health (Inside Out). 

It’s widened and opened its audience without ever alienating families — Incredibles 2, for example, drew 60 per cent of its opening weekend in the US from over 17 year olds.

“That’s the kind of audience I’ve been trying to aim for forever,” its director, Brad Bird, told this newspaper last year. 

“It’s fine with me if kids come, and they’re welcome in the same way that I liked going to James Bond films and Dr Zhivago when I was a kid. But those were not films that were aimed at me.

“If something is aimed at you, 99 times out of a hundred it’s going to be patronising. We love the medium of animation and we don’t see it as limited to kids.

"If you’re being very logical about it, the simple way to say it is we’re making films that we’d like to see.”

Bird recalls that when he first started bringing other animators to Pixar to work on the first Incredibles movie, he had to persuade them it wasn’t primarily because of the CGI format they were cautious of.

The Incredibles 2, released in 2018
The Incredibles 2, released in 2018

“I said: ‘Look I’m not going up there because I think CG animation is the answer to everyone’s problems. I’m going up there because Pixar protects storytelling. They nurture stories. They are a bulwark against the blandising that happens when there’s too many voices on a film’. 

As technically orientated and groundbreaking as Pixar was specifically at the time, what makes it special to me was the storytelling, not the technology.

As it marks 25 years since Toy Story’s release, Pixar has plenty of projects in the pipeline. 

Despite enjoying considerable success with The Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4, the focus for now is back on original movies rather than sequels.

We can hardly wait.

25 Years in the making: More of Pixar's greatest films

Up (2009):

Pixar's Up (2009)
Pixar's Up (2009)

Many of us were in floods of tears following the opening scenes of Up. Told in beautifully detailed flashback, they reveal a life lived and a love lost. It’s left feisty, grumpy septuagenarian Carl Fredricksen determined to fulfil a dream he regrets delaying — but he doesn’t know he’s got company.

Wall-E (2008):

Wall-E
Wall-E

It frequently tops critics’ lists as Pixar’s greatest ever, and there’s certainly something bold and singular in this film’s approach. It’s there in the opening 20 minutes, where Andrew Stanton and Peter Docter crack the astonishing feat of building a story without any dialogue. It’s there in its groundbreaking simplicity and the love story at its core.

Monsters, Inc (2001):

Boo, Sully and Mike from Monsters Inc.
Boo, Sully and Mike from Monsters Inc.

Pete Docter brought us the hilarious Mike Wazowski, the thoughtful Sully and the adorable toddler, Boo, in one of its finest films. Beautifully animated, it works as a thriller and a buddy movie but is ultimately all about one creatures love for a little girl who speaks in babbles. The end scene, where Sully and Boo are reunited, rivals Some Like it Hot for the greatest-ever cinematic ending.

The Incredibles (2004):

The superhero genre is subverted in one of Pixar’s most inventive and colourful films. Bob Parr, once a superhero, has been consigned to a humdrum, conventional life — until he’s required for a top-secret assignment.

Finding Nemo (2003):

Nemo, Dory and the turtles in Finding Nemo (2003)
Nemo, Dory and the turtles in Finding Nemo (2003)

The cuteness and colour leap off the screen in this simple tale that’s much beloved by children.

Perhaps it’s because Andrew Staunton’s film is resonant to small people — the separation of Nemo, who loses his protective father Marlin on the Great Barrier Reef, and can’t find his way home.

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