When Andy’s two favorite toys are lost they must set aside their rivalry and work together to find him again.
“Toy Story” is the first VHS I ever bought, all by myself. I feel old just writing that. I do feel privileged however because I have come of age even as advancements in 3D modeling and animation have come of age. This first fully computer animated feature is special, precisely because it relies on more than just its cg bells and whistles to carry the day and thematically probe some of the issues which were ushered into the film industry with the arrival of “Toy Story.” It rests on Story, Character, Nostalgia, and Humor to a remarkably effective degree,
“Toy Story” has so much going for it that it is hard to get across how good this movie is. It is an example of a movie which could easily be called flawless. Every joke lands. Every emotional beat moves. Every exciting sequence has you gripping the arms of your seat.
There are many people who would go into the technical aspects of this film and how it broke new ground and set a new standard for animation but I want to focus on something that endures beyond Visual Effects Achievements: Story.
Any one who has studied writing and story structure knows the Mono-Myth. The one myth to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. Maybe a bit dramatic of a description but I think it essentially gets to the point of what the Mono-Myth is.
“Toy Story” is a prime example of that structure and why it works so I am going to elaborate a little on story structure using “Toy Story” as reference.
In its simplest form the mono-myth is a way of telling stories that resonates with humans as they recognize it and themselves within it. It breaks down to a series of acts or sections which accomplish different things. The first act introduces the world and characters, the second challenges the protagonist after putting them on an adventure, and the third allows them to use the skills they learned on their adventure and return home, having become greater than they were before.
In “Toy Story,” Woody (Tom Hanks, “Saving Private Ryan”) is our protagonist. He is Andy’s favorite toy and the de facto ruler of the toys. The first act is all about Woody meeting Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen, “The Santa Clause”) and feeling like he is going to lose the love of Andy. The whole section is devoted to showing the love of home, the joy of being a toy, and the most frightening thing that could happen to a toy, being replaced.
ACT 1: Introduce the World and Characters. Check.
Around the end of the first act there is usually a big event that the protagonist causes or has inflicted on them which thrusts them out of their normal world and into a strange adventure. In “Star Wars” Luke’s Uncle and Aunt are killed leaving him with no one but an old man and some robots to follow. In “Toy Story” this happens when Woody pushes Buzz out the window and they both get stranded at a gas station without Andy. They end up having fights, becoming friends, making friends with little aliens and some strange toy creations of the neighbor boy Sid who captures and intends to destroy Woody and Buzz. This Second Act is where our heroes are stretched in their abilities and learn something about themselves, in this case, that they are not helpless toys that can’t do anything without their owner and when they work together they can get a lot more done than they could by themselves. They end up defeating Sid and head into ACT 3.
In Act 3 the hero invariably takes what they have learned and head home to bring their new knowledge with them. In this case, Woody and Buzz make a daring chase to catch up with Andy and the moving truck and be reunited. Woody and Buzz end up united as friends rather than enemies.
This simple structure is the basis for many films. Star Wars is famously based on this model and some of the oldest myths and legends known to humanity follow this general outline.
Pixar was wise to use this model when it came to telling a simple story. Not every movie should but if you need to be sure that people are going to follow what you are doing and resonate with it even though you are asking them to sit through something they have never seen before or have any idea what to expect (such as an all cg animation movie) then going with tried and true, classic, or simple story telling isn’t a bad choice.
Add on top of that built in nostalgia for the adults who get to see their own old toys come to life, incredibly funny moments, and even a few almost tears and you have yourself a story that a young Michael McDonald couldn’t wait to buy and watch over and over again.
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