Back in 1995, John Lasseter (Cars, A Bug's Life) directed the first, full-length computer animated film, Toy Story. Lasseter, one of the first animators hired by Ed Catmull when George Lucas owned Pixar under its previous name, Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Group (it was purchased by Steve Jobs in 1986 and sold to Disney in 2006), spent the better part of two decades refining his skills as an animator while pushing for greater complexity and flexibility in computer animation software. A series of Academy Award-winning shorts led to Toy Story. Significant risk was involved for Lasseter and Pixar, but Lasseter's emphasized developing rounded, three-dimensional characters and a compelling action-adventure storyline to complement cutting-edge computer animation.

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Toy Story

Toy Story introduced us to Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), a fifties era pull string cowboy, and the other toys owned (and loved) by Andy (John Morris), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Slinky Dog (Jim Varney), Rex (Wallace Shawn), a plastic, green dinosaur, the aptly named Hamm (John Ratzenberger), a pink piggybank, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), and Sarge (R. Lee Ermey), the leader of a squad of green Army men. As the alpha toy in Andy's collection, Woody is in toy heaven. He's also a natural leader which the other toys respect and follow, but all that changes when Andy receives the latest and greatest toy on the market, the super-modern Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen).

In a melancholic montage (and a strong candidate for "scenes we love" status"), Woody sees Buzz replace him in Andy's affections. Woody no longer rules Andy's room from Andy's bed. He's no longer the alpha toy; he's the beta toy. Andy replaces his posters and drawings of Woody with Buzz. He even swaps out his bed sheets. Worse, Andy selects Buzz as the toy to accompany him to sleep every night. Woody's attempts to undermine Buzz fail. Buzz, who fervently believes he's a space ranger, not a toy, initially gets the better of Woody. Woody's actions eventually lead to Buzz's removal from Andy's room.

With the other toys against him for his mistreatment of Buzz, Woody becomes a reluctant action hero, paving the way for a redemptive character arc. Lasseter introduces what seem to be throwaway characters, cult-like squeeze toy aliens. For the first, but definitely not the last time, the Claw lifts one of the squeeze toy aliens toward their vision of heaven. It's not. Buzz, Woody, and a squeeze toy alien are whisked away to the lair of Andy's neighbor, Sid, Sid (Erik von Detten), an irredeemable sociopath who takes pleasure in destroying his toys. In what's the easily the creepiest scene in the trilogy, Sid's toys rise up against him (they're far from evil, suggesting that appearances can be deceiving, an idea picked up several years later by Joe Dante in Small Soldiers). With Woody and Buzz as stand-ins for siblings and their relationship initially defined by sibling rivalry, Woody and Buzz eventually become good friends.

Toy Story 2

It took four years before Woody, Buzz, and their friends appeared again on the big screen. It almost didn't happen. Initially intended for a direct-to-DVD sequel at Disney's behest, Toy Story 2 was pulled from production with less than a year to go. Lasseter jumped back in as director, bringing Pete Doctor (Up, Monsters, Inc.), Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo), and Ash Brannon to co-write the story. Stanton co-wrote the screenplay with Rita Hsiao, Doug Chamberlin, and Chris Webb (Toy Story 3's director, Lee Unkrich, co-directed Toy Story 2). What could have been an artistic and commercial disappointment or worse, wasn't. Toy Story 2 built on the strengths of the original, deepening the central character's relationship, giving more screen time to the secondary characters, and once again taking them (and us) on a memorable adventure.

Harmony between Woody, Buzz, and the other toys reigns as we re-enter the Toy Story universe. The cause for disharmony this time is an avid toy collector and toy store owner, Al (Wayne Knight). He spies Woody in a yard sale and tries to get him cheaply. Woody doesn't belong there, though. He was at the yard sale trying to save another toy (new to the franchise), Wheezy the Penguin (Joe Ranft). Rebuffed by Andy's mom, Al steals Woody, adding him to his collection of fifties-era Woody memorabilia. Woody completes a set that includes Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl (Joan Cusack), Stinky Pete the Prospector (Kelsey Grammer), and Bulls-Eye, Woody's horse. In a reversal of Toy Story, it's Buzz who, in the spirit of friendship, decides to save Woody.

After seeing a video of a long-defunct TV show starring Woody, Bulls-Eye, Jessie, and Stinky Pete (my favorite Toy Story 2 scene), Woody decides to stay, joining Jessie and Stinky Pete as part of a collection headed for a Japanese museum. He might not be loved, the highest aspiration for any toy, by a single owner, but countless museum goers will admire him. Friendship ultimately wins out, of course, with Lasseter and Pixar's animators giving us an anxiety-causing journey across a crowded highway (my second favorite scene), a side trip through Al's toy story, the introduction of a second Buzz Lightyear, still deluded about his true nature as a toy, Buzz's nemesis, Emperor Zurg (Andrew Stanton), a ride on (not up) an elevator, equal parts thrilling and exciting, and the epic showdown inside an airport baggage area (echoes of Die Hard 2) and another last-minute rescue.

Just as impressive as where Lasseter took Woody, Buzz, and the others (and us), was how much computer animation had developed over the intervening four years. Textures, backgrounds, and character expressiveness had noticeably improved from Toy Story. That's not a knock on what was a significant accomplishment and milestone in computer animation, just an acknowledgment of how far Lasseter pushed the technology to serve story needs.

Toy Story 3

After eleven years, returning to the foundational franchise in a company's portfolio seemed, at best, foolish, and at worst, a recipe for disappointment, but Lasseter, handing off the directing reins to two-time co-director Lee Unkrich. Unkrich spent 2 and ½ years working on the screenplay with Academy Award winner Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) and storyboarding Toy Story 3. Not rushing into production, as DreamWorks Animation has done multiple times, partially explains Pixar's success (talent explains the rest). Spending time on story, character designs, and set pieces, along with developing additional software to meet new story demands, has made Pixar the envy of every movie studio, in and out of Hollywood. And with Toy Story 3, they're 11 for 11 (box-office and critical hits).

Cleverly echoing Toy Story's play-centered POV, and the second, a video game featuring Buzz in his science-fiction element, Toy Story 3 opens with an exhilarating mash-up of ideas, mixing Woody, Jessie, and Bulls-Eye, a train speeding toward certain doom, Hamm, an evil dictator, who pilots a Hamm-shaped spaceship, barrels full of monkeys, Buzz, and much more. It's Andy's imagination at play again, one that will be sorely missing until the final, heartbreaking scene, a fitting closure (we hope) to a franchise that has meant so much to so many, young and old, over the last fifteen years.

With Andy off to college, Woody, Buzz, and the others, however, face an uncertain future, stuffed in a trash bag and stored in an attic, thrown away, or donated to a local daycare center. The toys end up at the daycare center where the promise of an inexhaustible supply of children turns out to be everything they don't want. They're treated roughly by the younger children and when they object, the de facto leader of the daycare's toys, Lotso (Ned Beatty), imprisons them. Woody makes good his escape, heading back to Andy (who'll take him to college), but returns to help his friends.

In Toy Story 3, we're treated to an impressively choreographed and animated escape attempt straight out of The Great Escape, a close call with something out of Disney's The Black Hole, and ultimately, closure to Andy's relationship with Woody, Buzz, and the rest of his toys, and, not to push the religious themes too far, an afterlife for the toys. Each scene builds on the emotional connection we feel for each character and their relationships to each other. Toy Story 3 is full of scenes that could easily fit the "scenes we love" description, but sometimes it's impossible to choose, so instead, let's go with "all of the above."

So what are your favorite scenes from the Toy Story franchise? Or is it too hard to just pick one?
categories Cinematical