LET'S NOT TALK about computer animation. When it comes to ray-traced, rasterized polygonal solids affected by motion blur, let's just say that yes, indeed, Toy Story makes some big magic and is in fact historic, being the first feature film generated entirely from circuit boards. Technically and visually speaking, it's a real piece of work.
But Toy Story also has a story to tell, and thus offers the layperson more than just synthesized surfaces. What we start with are some toys in a boy's room that come alive when the humans aren't there: familiar territory, older than Disney for sure. This is a little less magical than it might be because Toy Story's creators (director John Lasseter and the creative techies at Pixar studios) serve a mixed hash--real-looking rooms and toys that surreally come alive, and "humans" that visually don't fit. They look fakey, to borrow a word from my youth. They look like they're made of rapidly hardening Plastic Wood, and their clothes hang like real heavy canvas.
On the other hand, there's a great and intentional disparity between Toy Story's two heroes, who echo some current social topics. Soft, organic, floppy-doll cowboy Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) is a genial (liberal?) leader by consensus, and enjoys the love of his owner, young Andy. But then comes hard, stiff, aggressive spaceman Buzz (voice of Tim Allen), who barely acknowledges reality beyond his own (neo-conservative?) helmet, and he quickly becomes Andy's favorite.
What's the metaphor here? Middle-management downsizing? The whims of fickle voters? Whatever the framework, the futures of Woody and Buzz are affected, and they've got to deal with it. Such speculations about what Toy Story could mean come easy because--at least in the first third--the movie is full of post-secondary-school wit, as in Wallace Shawn's timid dinosaur explaining that he comes from "not Mattel, actually a smaller company purchased by Mattel in a leveraged buyout."
Pixar and Disney are evidently looking for something beyond the gee-whiz kid audience with this movie, and if only the middle part of the story weren't such a weak detour from the opening mood, they might find it. Still, the metaphors keep things popping. The bruised psyches of Buzz and Woody face further crisis because Andy is moving, and there's the chance of getting lost or misplaced (how can anyone take over my job?); cruel Sid from next door--a toy-torturer extraordinaire--gets hold of the guys, and as with every other toy he's had in the past, Sid plans to blow our heroes up. (Oh, no! Corporate raiders! Third-world terrorists! Government meddling!)
Pick your allusion. Buzz and Woody are in trouble, but it's boring trouble--Sid will clearly not be a problem because, classwise, he's not Andy's equal. Sid's house is more run-down, his taste in music is meaner, and his dog is real damn ugly (especially by the standards of computer animation). Still, Sid's something of a budding surrealist, because he's patched together the shreds of former toys into bizarre hybrids that scuttle around. So--he's an artist? And therefore another kind of threat?
I doubt the people at Pixar and Disney set out to do this stuff with the macho and class mystiques. But with two of the most visible average-guy actors today hired for voice roles, the movie works as a roleplay of middle American masculine fears. Hanks is so cozy as a heterosexual he once proudly played a guy who wasn't, and in both his standup work and his TV role Allen has made a career out of being the latest version of henpecked--the upstaged, reluctant, worried guy.
Revealingly, the family in Toy Story has no father. This has been happening a lot in American movies lately; apparently filmmakers don't know whether to deal with absentee dads, or to idealize the dads that remain. But since Toy Story is about a boy who snuggles with his toys (including a Bo Peep doll), the potential is there for a study of what a boy, toy, or (invisible) dad is really supposed to do.
But the potential is abandoned. The joint identity crisis that Buzz and Woody end up solving together becomes less and less visible because the stunt action (beautifully visualized in an action-packed finale) takes over from the verbal and (admittedly meager) psychological wit. The toys stop cracking jokes and simply get where a toy's gotta get. At least Simba got to be the Lion King; Woody and Buzz merely set up a job-sharing deal.
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