In 2010, Pixar released ‘Toy Story 3’ - what was believed at the time to be the final film in their 'Toy Story' series. By doing so, they had achieved that rare phenomenon of a perfect trilogy: a collection of three films each as brilliant as the other, telling a complete and thoroughly satisfying story. Even classics like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Godfather’ can’t claim such an achievement. In the case of the 'Toy Story' trilogy, it’s all the more remarkable because it was never intended to be a trilogy. After the historic release of the first film in 1995, the two following instalments were arrived at independently without any grand narrative plan, and yet few long-form narratives in film feel more complete. The achievement in animation history is considerable enough, but the 'Toy Story' trilogy is one of the great achievements in storytelling and craft in the medium of film itself.
They also chart three major turning points in the development of what we understand as a Pixar film, mostly for good but sometimes less so. Each instalment represents the studio at a crossroads, and the artistic decisions they made in each film would influence everything that came after them. It’s easy to forget what enormously important films they are due to how overwhelmingly entertaining and deeply moving they are, but even this distinguished them from their contemporaries and established them as legitimate classics.
In the case of ‘Toy Story’ (1995), that status seems inbuilt purely in its position as the first feature-length computer-animated film, in the same way we speak about ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937). Much like that film, ‘Toy Story’ wouldn’t endure if that were its only attribute, and what hits you almost immediately watching it now is what an instantly arresting and entertaining film it is. The animation may look dated, but as with the best visual effects moments in film history, it’s the manner in which the technology is used that becomes far more important than the technology itself. ‘Toy Story’ is a perfect film - every character is expertly pitched, the humour is timeless, the narrative is clear and crisp and without waste, and every element is totally in service of the other. The central relationship of Woody the Cowboy (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) elevates its buddy comedy premise into something more complex, a genuine antagonism built out of hubris and circumstance leading towards a genuinely earned reconciliation and partnership. If the 'Toy Story' trilogy has a protagonist, it would likely be Woody - more than any character, we see him learn and change over the course of the films. In ‘Toy Story’, he reacts with volatility when his position of privilege is threatened, and it’s only through having to face his prejudices and his own anxieties that he learns more important lessons of balance and acceptance.
And here you come to the secret ingredient that really makes ‘Toy Story’ an enduring classic - it’s about something. Disney had already stumbled across this idea in ‘Beauty And The Beast’ (1991), but Pixar found an even more immediate emotional integrity. Through these toys, they find a way to talk about fears of belonging and acceptance, the difficulties and possibilities of change, and trying to learn what your place in the world is. For children, this was an experience they were having at home and at school, something that spoke directly to their personal experiences. For adults, they still had the echo of this search in their memories, waiting to be tapped into. When we talk about how films like ‘Toy Story’ work for children and adults, this is what we’re talking about - a manner in which they speak to a collective experience shared between the two and bring them together, just as they did 20 years later with their last masterpiece ‘Inside Out’ (2015). Of course ‘Toy Story’ is great entertainment and wildly funny, but all of this packs an ever greater punch due to the care and integrity underneath it. For a film that by the very nature of its form has no choice but to age, ‘Toy Story’ is the very definition of timeless.
The leap though from ‘Toy Story’ to ‘Toy Story 2’ (1999) is incredible. Made at breakneck speed when Disney threatened to release a sub-par sequel of their own, the advance in craft and content between the two films is akin to the difference between ‘Snow White’ and ‘Pinocchio’ (1940). The animation is far more sophisticated and controlled, and much more ambitious. In many ways, ‘Toy Story 2’ is where the art of computer animation found itself, and proved just how far it could might go. As we know though, bigger does not always make for a better sequel, but as well as expanding the visual canvas and the narrative scope - a rescue mission to save Woody from being shipped off to a museum - they took the emotional scope of the first and expanded it in ways that many didn’t believe animation was capable of. The 'Toy Story' films look at the choices we make, how they affect us and those around us. In ‘Toy Story 2’, Woody’s actions genuinely affect those closest to him, especially Jessie (Joan Allen) and Bulls-Eye. He can do what he thinks is right for himself - go back to Andy and accept that eventually he might be forgotten as his child grows up - but that will sentence Jessie and Bulls-Eye to a life in storage. How he navigates that conundrum becomes the central question in ‘Toy Story 2’, and while the solution may seem simple, it’s the unexpected fact of life that the film presents that increases the stakes, gives the film its heart, and unexpectedly changes the course of American animation.
In the sequence where we find out Jessie’s story, Pixar had, reached another crossroads without even realising it, and took the more dangerous and ultimately more fulfilling path. For a few minutes, jokes and dialogue fall away, and we see Jessie’s relationship with her owner Emily, falling in love and being forgotten and left behind, only accompanied by the voice of Sarah McLaughlin singing ‘Jessie’s Song’. Even twenty years later, it’s overwhelming how moving, how beautiful and how incredibly sad this sequence is. With simplicity and grace, ‘Toy Story 2’ speaks to the most human fear of all - that of love found and love lost, of being forgotten and alone, of not having a place to belong or a person to belong to. Pixar had done something genuinely brave, betting that the audience would care about these characters as much as they did and buy into such an emotional moment. ‘Toy Story 2’ is a great film, the best of the three, but ‘Jessie’s Song’ elevates the film to a masterpiece. Even just writing about it gives me chills. From that point on, Pixar gave themselves permission to be honest, to allow their films the emotional integrity of great drama. This moment led to “When I’m with you, I’m home” in ‘Finding Nemo’ (2003), the final beat of ‘Monsters Inc.’ (2001), the entire perfect symphony of ‘WALL-E’ (2008) and ultimately to their crowning achievement in the opening montage of 'Up' (2009), all from a cowgirl doll talking about the girl who loved her and the girl who left her behind. For the decade that followed, Pixar would become the great American animation studio for one simple reason - they made you feel something honest and true.
It was perhaps because of this that ‘Toy Story 3’ (2010) felt like a risk. Over a decade after ‘Toy Story 2’, these films felt somewhat sacred, and a lacklustre third film might tarnish the series’ impeccable track record. Was there anything left in the story of Woody and Buzz to explore? The answer turned out to be a resounding yes, and that came in answering the question posed in ‘Toy Story 2’ - what does happen when Andy grows up? While still tremendously entertaining, there’s a palpable melancholy to ‘Toy Story 3’, a film essentially about the question of how you move on when you’ve lost something precious to you. The toys have no say in what happens to them, and their donation to a play centre forces them to drastically reassess their sense of place and worth. The sequence where they’re played with for the first time by the kids in the centre is really funny but also really horrifying, as the toys realise just how expendable they are. Spurred by Woody, they’re left with a choice - accept your fate and give in to this loss, or pull yourself out of it. Much of ‘Toy Story 3’ also centres around the value of the people and objects we love, where we see characters we’ve grown to love so intensely treated with minimal value. Jessie’s story is subverted with that of Lotso Bear (Ned Beatty), who has reacted to his abandonment by finding control in any way he can. There’s a dark undercurrent to this film, a grappling with questions of mortality and personal value, and that comes to a head in perhaps the most uncomfortable sequence in any Pixar film.
The 'Toy Story' trilogy is one of the great works of American cinema.
The furnace sequence is more notorious than iconic because of how upsetting a moment it is, seeing the characters we love so much accepting their fate in the face of certain death. It’s a powerful moment, but it’s one I’ve always found uncomfortable. Unlike everything else in this film - even in this trilogy - it’s a moment of intensity that feels unearned, out of place, unnecessary and manipulative. For me, it represents a major turning point for Pixar, and not a good one. What made the more moving moments of their previous work so affecting was the fact they felt genuine and honest, that they seemed to rise from the very soul of the film itself and completed their emotional tapestry. With ‘Up’, that skill had reached its apex, and the response had been deservedly rapturous, earning them critical acclaim and award recognition from places they often hadn’t achieved it. Beginning with the furnace in ‘Toy Story 3’, such moments suddenly became part of Pixar’s weaponry. They became a feature rather than a gift, and as time has gone on, they become less subtle in their aim to emotionally manipulate their audience. During the furnace sequence, I couldn’t understand why this was necessary, something so confronting and out of place, and all I could come up with was that it was designed to make me emotional. It wasn’t connected with theme or character; it wasn’t tapping into the greater emotional arc of the film, it was simply there to make me cry, and I always resent such narrative tricks. If it hadn’t been in the film, you wouldn’t have lost anything, and that economy of storytelling was always their greatest strength. With the exception of ‘Inside Out’ and ‘Incredibles 2’ (2018), their following films became bloated (‘Finding Dory’), unfocused (‘The Good Dinosaur’) or meandering (‘Coco’), and for me at least, the moment Pixar turned towards the colour-by-numbers studio they’ve become was the moment the toys of 'Toy Story' held hands and looked into the flames.
It’s an irksome moment, but in many ways, it’s the only real blight on ‘Toy Story 3’ for me. For a film that probably didn’t need to exist, it offers a resolution so perfect, so moving and so incredibly beautiful that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t planned all the way back in 1995. Their long journey ended - the toys are not only given a new home and a new place in the world, but a chance to say goodbye to what they’re leaving behind, a moment of peace and grace and beauty. The ending of ‘Toy Story 3’ is complete, the final coda of a series that you only realised mattered so much to you as it was coming to an end.
The 'Toy Story' trilogy is one of the great works of American cinema. Regardless of how ‘Toy Story 4’ turns out (and if the trailers are anything to go by, Pixar is about to take their knowing emotional manipulation to a whole new level), these three films will always be there: a three-act narrative about searching for belonging from the most unexpected of perspectives. The gimmick of "what do our toys do when we leave the room" fell away a long time ago, maybe even before the end of the first act of ‘Toy Story’ itself. We watch them and we see ourselves, our hopes and fears, our flaws and our gifts, how there’s no such thing as a hero or a villain but instead the decisions we make for each other and ourselves. It is a perfect trilogy, not just for its unbroken quality, but for the joy and the gift it gives us.
PICTURE & SOUND:
I was a little worried how ‘Toy Story’ would look in such a high resolution, assuming the format would emphasise how aged the animation is, but the film looks surprisingly wonderful in 4K. There’s a hint of grain to the 2160p 1.78:1 transfer, suggesting that the image is sourced from a film negative rather than a direct digital source. The higher resolution brings out a surprising amount of texture in the image, such as the scales on Rex, giving the dated animation a sense of shape and form. HDR also makes the colours really pop. Rather than ruining the illusion, 4k ends up serving ‘Toy Story’ much better than expected. The Dolby Atmos/TrueHD 7.1 track is also a delight, beautifully balanced and with a lot of depth and energy. It makes for a robust audio experience, and it’s clear a lot of care has gone into the track.
Toy Story 2
It turns out my fears for ‘Toy Story’ in 4K were better left for ‘Toy Story 2’, which doesn’t fare nearly as well. The absence of grain suggests that this 2160p 1.78:1 image is taken from a direct digital source, and as Pixar was not created films at 4K resolution in 1999 (and still don’t), the upscaling emphasises flaws in the image that only come from the age of the film, such as digital interlacing on occasion. There’s still a great increase in detail and advantages in terms of colour with HDR, but there’s only so far the 4K resolution can take a computer-animated film of this age. As with ‘Toy Story’ though, the Dolby Atmos/TrueHD 7.1 track is still a great one, perhaps even more so with the increased creative scope of the film. The action sequences in particular make for really dynamic aural moments.
Note: With these first two films, Disney have continued their practice of replacing their old Disney logos with their more recent one. This means that the original Pixar-created Disney logos and Randy Newman fanfare have been removed from these versions of the film. It’s a pity, considering how ingrained those moments were with these films back in 1995 and 1999, that Disney felt the need to do this.
Toy Story 3
It should come as no surprise that, of the three films, the more recent ‘Toy Story 3’ makes the smoothest transition to 4K UHD. The 2160p 1.78:1 transfer, likely sourced from a 2K DI, looks gorgeous with the added resolution and clarity. There are no discernible flaws in the image, with increased levels of detail and striking colour improvement with HDR. This is probably the best this film has looked in a home entertainment format, which is an achievement considering the excellent original Blu-ray transfer. The Dolby Atmos/TrueHD 7.1 track is likewise excellent, full-bodied and dynamic, with great balance and crystal clear sound.
As with the ‘Captain America’ films and ‘The Little Mermaid’, Disney haven’t included any special features on the 4K disc or included the original feature-packed Blu-ray releases. This is especially annoying with the 'Toy Story' films, considering how much great material can be found on those Blu-ray releases.