The revolution began here. In the mid-1980s, John Lasseter, a Disney alumnus, joined the Marin County, California, computer lab Pixar and, to demonstrate the narrative and plastic potential of computer-generated animation, made three terrific shorts (Luxo Jr., Red’s Dream and Tin Toy) that invested metal objects such as lamps, unicycles and drummer-boy toys with life and heart. They showed that things have wills and wits of their own and exist in intimate relation to their human masters — and are funnier too. Whence sprang Toy Story, the first full-length film created wholly on computers and one of the most inventive comedies of its decade. For when a genius like Lasseter sits at his computer, the machine becomes more than just a supple paintbrush. Like the creatures he dreamed up, it’s alive!
In Andy’s bedroom, the toys are alive. They and their leader, the cloth cowboy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), are working stiffs with the fear, every time a birthday approaches, that they will be replaced by more sophisticated gewgaws. One arrives in the form of an action figure called Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Buzz’s power is that he seduces the old toys, and presumably Andy, with his space-age gadgetry. His problem is that he thinks he’s human. So here, recognizably and delightfully, are two weird dudes: a political boss stripped of his moral authority and taking it with a lack of good grace, and a hero who is deeply delusional.
Like a Bosch painting or a Mad comic book, Toy Story created a world bustling with strange creatures and furtive, furry humor. What even Lasseter couldn’t predict was that audiences would instantly fall in love with the shiny surfaces and supple movements of the CGI technique — or that within a few years, it would consign the hand-drawn format, which had prevailed for nearly a century, to history’s dump truck. The traditional Disney style was suddenly like old-cloth Woody, and Pixar became the Buzz Lightyear of 21st-century animation.
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