Monday, August 31, 2009

Famous Firsts - Toy Story, Part Three


Last week, we saw Woody and Buzz get separated from Andy, try to reunite with him at Pizza Planet, and take an unexpected and unwanted detour to Sid's house. Buzz has been forced to confront the fact that he is a toy. Woody still wants nothing more than to get home before Andy moves away and leaves him behind forever.

(You may notice that the images in this article are a little larger than normal. I'm experimenting with a bigger image size, so bear with me while I figure out what works best. I do have larger size version of most of the images from my past articles, so if I decide that I like this format better, I could theoretically go back and put larger images in them as well.)

Sometime later, Woody emerges from his hiding place in the storage closet. Why a storage closet? So that Woody can get tangled up in a string of Christmas lights. Why does Woody have to get tangled up in a string of Christmas lights? So that he can use it in his attempt to get back over to Andy’s room. It’s a minor point and the movie doesn’t make too much of setting up the idea, but it gets highlighted enough that the audience doesn’t end up wondering “Now where on earth did he get those Christmas lights?” Setting up a prop or a concept like this, especially when the payoff doesn’t come until later, is a delicate balancing act. If it is pointed out too blatantly, the audience will feel like it’s just a convenient device or realize too soon that it will be important later. Introduce it too subtly and the audience will miss it. When it’s done right, the item or idea just feels like a natural part of the story and you never stop to think about the care that went into making it fit.

After Buzz’s fall from the railing, he was discovered by Hannah, who has now included him as a guest at her tea party. Since Sid “plays with” and decapitates most of her dolls, she figures it’s fair for her to take one of his toys for use in her games. So with the addition of a pink apron and a flowered hat, Buzz is transformed into “Mrs. Nesbitt.” This could potentially be a very humiliating experience, but Buzz isn’t in any state to care.

While the toys in Toy Story hold up pretty well when compared with the character in modern CG films, the more organic characters and objects look dated. Pixar made the smart choice of keeping the focus of the story off the human characters and going for a more stylized look for them than a purely realistic one. But you can still tell that the technology wasn’t quite there yet. Hannah’s hair never seems to move quite as much as it should and both her clothes and the blanket on her bed look starched stiff. It’s a good first try with the technology available at the time, but compare one of the human characters in this film with one from

Woody immediately asks Buzz if he is okay, showing that Woody is starting to feel some degree of genuine concern for the other toy. At this stage, Buzz’s reaction to learning that he isn’t a space ranger is played for laughs. The normally poised and in-control Buzz is now slurring his speech and insisting that he is Mrs. Nesbitt. Buzz is essentially “drunk” on imaginary tea and doesn’t really know who he is anymore, so he might as well be Mrs. Nesbitt. Given that Woody probably has little more than an inkling of what Buzz has been through and Buzz is throwing himself on the floor and wailing about how he is a sham, it is perfectly understandable that Woody is less concerned about Buzz’s problem and more concerned about getting them home.

Back in Andy’s room, Hamm and Mr. Potato Head are by the window playing the toy equivalent of strip Battleship. In a nice detail, Battleship was the game that Andy got for his birthday. Frankly, I’m not sure what Hamm would have to give up if he lost, but it seems to be a moot point as Potato Head is already down by a hat and a nose. From Sid’s open bedroom window, which conveniently faces Andy’s house, Woody manages to get the toys’ attention. He has the Christmas lights from before and tosses them over to Slinky in Andy’s window. This could well be the end of the story, except that the movie isn’t really about two toys finding their way back home. It’s about two toys learning to get along with each other and deal with their problems. Woody still hasn’t faced his fears about being replaced. Buzz is still extremely depressed about being a toy. And, importantly for this scene, Andy’s other toys don’t yet realize that Buzz is all right and that Woody is actually trying to bring him home.


Not surprisingly, it’s bad tempered Mr. Potato Head who still considers Woody plaything non grata and reminds the other toys why this is. Woody insists that Buzz is with him and alive and well, but Buzz is still far too depressed to come to the window and prove this. He responds to Woody’s request to come up and give him a hand by tossing his detached arm up onto the table. In a moment of desperation, Woody tries use to convince Andy’s toys that Buzz is just behind the window. (This scene was apparently developed partly by giving Tom Hanks a prop arm to play with and letting him ad lib.) The act quickly falls apart when Woody accidentally reveals that all he has of Buzz is an arm, to the shock and horror of the other toys. Potato Head calls Woody a “murderer” and drops the other end of the Christmas lights, cutting off what may be Woody’s last hope for escape.

It is a case of “right conclusion, wrong time.” As we know, Buzz is still alive and Woody really does want to get both of them back to Andy’s house. But neither Woody nor Buzz would be in this mess if Woody hadn’t pushed Buzz out of the window in the first place, which is something Woody still hasn’t accepted responsibility for. The other toys are not entirely incorrect in believing that Woody wanted Buzz out of the way and seeing Buzz’s arm with no sign of the rest of him only serves to convince them of their worst fears. Though Potato Head is the one to drop the Christmas lights, Slinky is the last of the toys to leave the window. He looks at Woody with his head hung low and a miserable expression on his face. Though he is Woody’s best pal, even Slinky can’t deny the apparent evidence that Woody has sent Buzz the way of Combat Carl. Sadly, he closes the blinds as Woody pleads for him to come back. Storm clouds roll in overhead, reflecting Woody’s despair at the seemingly hopeless predicament he is in.

A strange noise catches Woody’s attention and he turns around just in time to see the mutant toys closing in on Buzz. This is the real turning point for Woody’s relationship with Buzz. As far as Woody knows, he may never see Andy’s room again, which would negate his initial reason for even continuing to hang around Buzz. In spite of that, Woody runs over to try and rescue Buzz from the mutant toys. He isn’t very effective initially, only succeeding in losing Buzz’s arm to the mutants. But when he does eventually pull the mutants off of Buzz, he is surprised to find that all they have done is pop Buzz’s arm back into place. The doll and pterodactyl that Sid performed his “operation” on earlier are shown to be alive and whole again. Creepy looking though they may be, the mutants are actually friendly and helpful.

There’s another important moment in this scene, one that is easy to miss between the excitement of the mutants seemingly attacking Buzz and Sid’s return moments later. While he’s awkwardly apologizing to the mutants, Woody explains that he had thought that they were going to “eat my friend.” Woody referring to Buzz as his friend would have been completely unthinkable even just a few hours ago. But much has changed. As Woody will say himself later, Buzz is pretty much all he has right now.

Woody may be on the way to learning to get along with Buzz, but Buzz is still so depressed that he can’t even bring himself to hide from Sid. As a result, Sid duct tapes Buzz to his just-arrived rocket and plans to blow him up the next morning once the weather clears. This introduces one of the two ticking clocks that our heroes will be racing against for the remainder of the movie and in this case, there is a literal alarm clock counting down the time until Sid wakes up. The other deadline is one that has been there all along, but in case we’ve forgotten about it with everything else that has happened, the film takes us back over to Andy’s room, where all of Andy’s toys have been packed away in boxes. As Andy’s mom reminds us, they will be moving tomorrow and if Woody and Buzz don’t get back to Andy’s house before then, they will be left behind. The scene also reveals that Andy is worried about both Buzz and Woody. Where he previously had to choose which of his two favorite toys to take to bed with him and which to leave in the toy box, Andy is now left with nothing but his cowboy hat to keep him company through the night.


Back at Sid’s house, Buzz is still taped to the rocket, while Woody is trapped in a plastic crate that Sid set his toolbox on top of. Though it’s still not easy for him to do, Woody is forced to admit that he can’t free himself without Buzz’s help. As opposed to his earlier mournful theatrics, Buzz’s reaction to Woody is played very straight and very quiet as he answers that he can’t help Woody or anyone else for that matter. For the first time, he talks directly about what he has been through. He describes himself as “a stupid, little, insignificant toy,” “insignificant being the key word here. Buzz believed he was someone important, someone with the power to rescue entire galaxies. To him, being a toy means he is powerless and unimportant. Buzz can’t even see what Andy would want with him now that Buzz realizes he is just another toy and not a space ranger. As far as Buzz is concerned, Sid might as well blow him up.

All of this puts Woody in a position he probably never thought he would be in nor wanted to be in: he has to make Buzz understand what is great about being a toy, Andy’s toy in particular. The toy who just a short time ago would have been the last toy on earth to do so is now telling Buzz that Andy thinks Buzz is amazing because he is a toy. Woody, who towards the beginning of the movie was demeaning every one of Buzz’s special features, now lists them all as the very reasons why Andy would want Buzz. It is being in this position that finally gets Woody to admit to his own problem. It isn’t that Buzz was annoying or that Buss really believed he was a space ranger or even that Buzz was stealing Andy away from Woody. Woody’s problem is that he knows Buzz is the cooler toy and a clear sign that Woody is outdated. After listing Buzz’s various state-of-the-art toy features, Woody pulls his pullstring as an example of his only feature, pathetically dated when compared with Buzz’s high quality voice box. The question for Woody is not why Andy would want to play with Buzz, but why Andy would want to play with Woody when he has a toy like Buzz. If Buzz hadn’t come along, it would have been another toy. Deep down, Woody has come to believe that he is inevitably going to be replaced, not just played with less, but totally forgotten. He even tells Buzz that it should be him rather than Buzz strapped to the rocket, because if Woody doesn’t mean anything to Andy anymore, what’s the point? Woody is, in fact, at the exact same point that Buzz is emotionally. Buzz doesn’t care about his life if he can’t be a space ranger and Woody doesn’t want to live if Andy isn’t going to love him anymore.

As the storm begins to clear and let more light in through the window, Buzz looks down at the name “Andy” written on his foot and finally gets it. Not just that he can be a toy and still be important to someone, but also what Andy means to Woody and that Woody’s hostility towards Buzz has all really been about Woody’s fear that he was losing the person who matters to him more than anyone else. So even as Woody is telling Buzz to just go on without him and get back to Andy, Buzz isn’t listening. Now that he understands that, as Woody himself said back at the beginning of the movie, being a toy is about being there for a kid when he needs you, Buzz is going to do everything in his power to ensure that both he and Woody are able to do just that.


Pixar took great care to make their movie feel as timeless as possible, using toys and toy types that have been popular with kids for generations as their cast and generally avoiding pop culture references. The result is that only a very few jokes in the movie have become dated in the years since its release. One of these few is the “Binford” label on Sid’s toolbox. Binford Tools was the fictional tool company in the TV series Home Improvement, which starred Tim Allen, the voice of Buzz. I don’t know how many viewers watching the film today are aware of this, but since it’s only a visual joke and there are any number of made-up brands, companies, and retailers in Toy Story - Pizza Planet, Dinoco gas stations, Virtual Realty, Eggman Movers – anyone who wasn’t aware of the Home Improvement connection could simple assume that “Binford” is also a fictional brand created for the film.

So that’s it, right? Buzz has learned that being a toy can be a fulfilling life and Woody has learned to get along with Buzz and confronted his fear of being replaced. Both toys have worked out their problems. So now they get to go home?

Not yet. There are still a few problems left to deal with and chief among them right now is Sid. Yes, Woody and Buzz could escape right now, get back to Andy and live happily ever after, but if we know that the friendly mutants and any other toy with that bad luck to cross paths with Sid is still in danger, then this isn’t going to be a very satisfying movie. It isn’t so much about getting “revenge” on Sid as ensuring that he will never harm another toy ever again. But there’s another issue. Remember the other ticking clock? While he’s working to get the toolbox off of the plastic crate and free Woody, Buzz spots a moving van arriving at Andy’s house. It’s a bit too late in the film to introduce a new big moral dilemma: do we leave now and made certain we reach Andy before he moves away or stay and help the mutant toys even though we might get left behind? So the decision is taken out of the characters’ hands. Sid’s alarm clock goes off mere seconds after Woody is freed from the plastic crate. Sid wakes up and takes off with Buzz to get his rocket launch underway, leaving Woody with no choice but to stay and rescue Buzz, with the help of the mutant toys.

While Woody is trying to convince the mutants to help him save Buzz, he not only refers to Buzz as his friend again, but also finally admits that this entire situation is his fault for pushing Buzz out of the window in the first place. If we didn’t before, now we know for certain that Woody is not the same jealous toy who wanted nothing more than for Buzz to disappear.


Woody has a plan, which he admits will involve “breaking a few rules.” The audience needs to understand that what is about to happen is the result of a desperate situation. The toys will be breaking the rules that they normally live by and while we still may not understand why these rules exist in the first place, we do get that this is a one-time thing and that the toys will not be coming to life around humans on a regular basis. Woody’s plan involves getting Scud – the most direct threat to their operation – out of the house, sneaking out the back door quickly but without being seen, and rescuing Buzz while insuring that Sid will never mistreat his toys again. Watching him formulate his plan and put it into action, we get to see that Woody has qualities that will make him a good leader whether or not he remains Andy’s favorite toy. He is capable of analyzing the situation, coming up with a plan to overcome the obstacles in his path, and using the strengths of the team he has to make that plan work.

As Woody is handing out assignments to the mutant toys, we get one last reminder of what is ultimately at stake here. Andy stands alone in his room as the last box of toys is being taken out by the movers. He has his cowboy hat in one hand and Buzz’s empty spaceship-shaped box in the other. We already knew that Andy wasn’t going to find Woody and Buzz in his room or anywhere in his house, but his downcast expression tells us just how sad he is that his two favorite toys haven’t turned up.

I doubt the words “Wind the frog” have ever been spoken in any other film with such drama and authority as Woody gives them. I would be very surprised if they have ever been spoken in any other film at all.

Woody’s plan goes off without a hitch and all of the toys make it outside to where Sid has constructed the launch pad for Buzz’s impending flight. There is another key point here that sets up for a later scene. The filmmakers need to make sure that we notice Sid putting a match into Woody’s holster as he tosses Woody onto the grill and makes plans for them to have a “cookout” later on. Because it seems like such a natural thing for Sid to do, especially since he already has the matches on hand to light the fuse on the rocket, it doesn’t feel like an obvious plot point that will become important later.

Though for some reason he waits until the last possible second to do it, Woody initiates the last part of his plan, first getting Sid’s attention by spouting recorded phrases from his scratch pull-string voice box, then using that same voice to address Sid directly. As Woody makes it clear that the toys don’t appreciate the way Sid “plays” with them, the mutants and various toys that Sid has discarded in the yard emerge from their hiding places and surround Sid like zombies in a horror movie. Woody himself doesn’t move at all until he rotates his head around 360 degrees in a nod to The Exorcist and finally comes fully to life as he gives Sid a final warning to “play nice.” Sid runs away screaming and is probably in for years of therapy, but the audience can now rest assured that the toys he encounters will be safe from now on.

There is an unintended additional benefit to the success of Woody’s plan. Poor, picked on Hannah can now turn the tables on her big brother and scare the wits out of him just by chasing him around the house with one of her dolls. It’s a fun ending to their story arc and a moment that has likely elicited a chuckle from more than one younger sibling watching the film over the years.


Woody, good leader that he is, takes a moment to praise the other toys for their performances and the little extra touches that they improvised. Buzz is certainly grateful to Woody for saving his life, but neither of them are characters who really wear their hearts on their sleeves. So they aren’t about to have a big conversation about how they’re now friends, much less sing about it. All that Buzz says to Woody is a single, sincere “Thanks,” accompanied by a handshake, which is all that’s needed.

The sound of Andy and his mom saying goodbye to their old house as the car starts to pull out of the driveway signals that the movie will be running in high gear from this point on. Woody’s farewell to Sid’s toys is a hasty “Wegottarun!Thanksguys!” as he and Buzz race to catch up with the car. Woody does have another quick moment of truth when Buzz, who is still taped to the rocket, gets stuck going through the fence separating the two yards while Woody easily slips through. By this point, we know that Woody isn’t going to leave Buzz behind even though Buzz is telling him to go on ahead and that he will catch up. So Woody’s indecision is brief and his actions just confirm that he is now committed to making sure his friend gets home safely too.

Much of the movie’s action-packed conclusion deals with Buzz realizing that he can not only have a fulfilling life as a toy, but that he can also still be a hero, a real hero. But again, the movie is now racing along at top speed, so there is no time for Buzz to sit around and reflect on how being a toy doesn’t stop him from helping people. Instead, we seem him come to this realization through actions and split-second decisions, like when he leaps off the back of the moving van to save Woody from a rampaging Scud, even though it means Buzz himself may be left behind.

Aside from getting both toys safely to Andy’s new house, the remaining problem in the movie is that Andy’s other toys still don’t realize that Buzz is alive and Woody is not a murderer. So when Woody shows up on the moving van, rifles through the boxes of toys, and pushes RC off the truck, the other toys assume that Woody is just trying to eliminate more of his perceived competition. Of course they don’t believe Woody’s protests that he is only trying to rescue Buzz. They think that they’ve already seen the grisly aftermath of what Woody did to Buzz. So when they toss Woody down to the street, they believe they are simply saving themselves from a similar fate.


There is a nice moment just before the toys see both Woody and Buzz riding towards the truck on RC where Bo Peep tries to comfort a downcast Slinky with a pat on the head. Though both toys were present when Woody was thrown overboard, neither of them really seemed that into the idea. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit, but it is a nice reminder that these two toys are Woody’s most loyal friends, even if they still can’t bring themselves to believe that Woody is telling the truth about Buzz.

Slinky tries to make up for not trusting Woody by stretching out to him and Buzz after the ramp on the back of the truck flips over. But Woody and Buzz are the heroes of this film, which means they will have to be solely responsible for getting themselves back to Andy. RC’s batteries start to die and poor Slinky just can’t hold on as the toy car falls farther and farther behind the moving truck.

Here’s where the items and ideas set up earlier in the film start to pay off. Buzz realizes that he’s still taped to the rocket and that Woody still has the match Sid gave him in his holster. There is even a close-up shot of Woody taking the match from his holster and Woody says “Thank you, Sid!” as he lights it, just to make sure we don’t forget where the match came from.

At times, films made with a kid or family audience in mind – animated or otherwise – can get pretty predictable. You are all but guaranteed a happy ending and some audiences watching certain films can call everything from plot twists to actual lines of dialogue before they happen. That is probably part of the reason the car that drives by and blows out the match before Woody can light the rocket is in Toy Story. It isn’t that hard to figure out that Woody and Buzz will catch up to Andy by lighting the rocket. Had Woody simply been able to light the rocket with the match, the film would have fallen into the trap of predictability. With the addition of the car, as the Pixar team has pointed out in numerous commentary tracks, you can stop the film right there, ask first-time viewers what will happen next, and be met almost exclusively with blank stares. The scene works especially well because the audience now in the same place emotionally as Woody. They have understood from the beginning how much Woody cares about Andy. They wanted see both Woody and Buzz reunited with Andy. And now that the last chance for this to happen has seemingly been lost, they will hopefully feel just as devastated as Woody, who reacts with every possible tonal variation on the word “no.”


The solution is the result of another previous setup, as Woody sees the reflected sunlight from Buzz’s helmet starting to burn his hand. So why bother with Sid and the magnifying glass? To make sure that the story plays fair. The solution to the problem cannot seem to come out of nowhere. The audience’s reaction to the reveal should be “Oh, of course! That makes so much sense!” not “Huh, I would have never thought of that” or worse “Isn’t that convenient.” Like in a good mystery, the clues need to be available to the audience so that they feel like they could have solved the puzzle if they had just been thinking about it in the right way. Plus, part of the audience for this film is made up of young kids, who may or may not know that light focused through a clear, curved surface can burn flammable materials. So the films hands us the information we need in a way that feels like it’s just part of the story, gives us just enough time to potentially forget the idea, then reminds Woody and us of it so that there is no doubt in our minds how Woody figured out another way to light the rocket.

The rocket is lit and Woody, Buzz, and RC go airborne. RC is thrown back into the moving truck, ensuring that every last toy is accounted for. And would you believe that the movie throws in an additional problem that Woody and Buzz must conquer before getting back to Andy? Seconds after lighting it, Woody realizes that the rocket is going to explode. But since we’re barely three minutes away from the end of the film, the solution to this problem comes right on the heels of it’s introduction. Buzz’s wings may not be a terillium carbonic alloy, but they are capable of cutting through the duct tape around the rocket just before it explodes and carrying both Woody and Buzz into the sky. Is it necessary to throw one last wrench into the works so late into the movie? Yes. Because this is proof positive that Buzz can realize that he is a toy and still perform amazing feats of heroism. When Buzz believed he was a space ranger, all he could do was fall around Andy’s room in a way that resembled flying. Now that he knows who he truly is, he really can soar through the sky.

We get a reminder of just how far these two characters have come as they finally make their way back to Andy. It is Woody, who was previously so dismissive of Buzz’s space ranger backstory, who now cries out his catchphrase: “To infinity and beyond!” Buzz has not only come to accept being a toy, but has even gained a sense of humor about his experiences, brushing off his ability to fly as what Woody called his earlier attempts at flight: “falling with style.” Buzz also understands exactly where he and Woody belong now. He bypasses the moving truck and deposits himself and Woody in the van (which fortunately has an open sunroof) in a box right next to Andy. In case we have any doubts about Woody’s future, Andy happily hugs both toys close to his chest. His mom is convinced that the two toys were right where Andy left them the whole time. Woody and Buzz share a secret wink in acknowledgement of the fact that they’ve been anywhere but.

Judging by the change of scenery from lush greenery and open sunroofs to falling snow and Christmas decorations, some time has passed between this scene and the previous one. The camera zooms past Andy opening presents and into the Christmas tree, where the green army men have taken up positions to monitor the situation. Panic in the playroom? Actually, no. The toys in Andy’s new room are anticipating the arrival of new toys not with fear, but with excitement. The clearest example of this is Rex, formerly the toy who was most worried about being replaced, talking happily about the possibility of Andy getting an herbivorous dinosaur so that Rex could be cast as the dominant predator. Andy’s baby sister Molly opens up a whole other world of potential new friends for the toys and her first present is the Mrs. Potato Head that Mr. Potato Head has always hoped for.

Andy’s new room reflects both Andy’s affection for his two favorite toys and the newfound friendship between Woody and Buzz. The space ranger décor is still present, but cowboy drawings and posters have returned as well. Andy’s initial excitement about his new toy has given way to equal love of both Woody and Buzz which seems set to last.

Andy might love Woody and Buzz equally, but there is one toy who clearly prefers Woody. Bo Peep ambushes Woody with mistletoe and the next time we see him, his face is covered with lipstick kiss-marks. Bo may have shared the other toys initial excitement over Buzz, but Woody is clearly the only toy for her. If Buzz is even a blip on her radar now, we never hear about it.


From start to finish, Toy Story is a buddy picture. So the ending isn’t some heartfelt affirmation of the toys’ friendship or a duet reprise of “You’ve Got A Friend In Me.” Instead, Buzz gives Woody a knowing, approving look in response to the kiss marks all over Woody’s face and Woody pokes gentle fun at Buzz for seeming nervous as the reports of what Andy got for Christmas start to come in. As the camera starts to pull out through the window, Woody jokingly asks what Andy could possibly get that would be worse than Buzz while giving Buzz’s elbow a friendly shake. Toys or not, these characters are two guys and not the type to talk about their now positive feelings towards one another directly. We know that they’re friends, even if the don’t spell it out for us.

The camera stops its progress and quickly zooms back in on Woody and Buzz when Andy’s first present is revealed to be a real live puppy. The two toys stare at each other in mild shock, then smile awkwardly. Well, Woody did ask. This last second joke could be seen as “here we go again,” but the truth is that both toys are now aware that even if something new comes into Andy’s life, they will still be his toys and will still be important to him. On top of that, Woody and Buzz can now depend on each other.

Toy Story is a remarkably tight narrative. Not a single shot feels wasted, and yet the story never feels rushed either. Like all aspects of the film, the story and pacing are the result of countless hours of work which make the end product feel natural and effortless. Like Woody himself, the once novel visuals of Toy Story have since been topped by newer and flashier productions, including other films from Pixar. But since the success of the film rests on the story and characters, Toy Story not only proved that computer animated films could be hugely successful, but also stands on its own as a film that remains a pleasure to watch to this day.

Bonus: Remember way back in Part One when I said that computer animation has its strengths and weaknesses just like any other medium? Well here’s a look at one of the weaknesses. The following images are render bugs, essentially weird, random mistakes made by the computer in the process of making the film. Even the most high-end computers can screw up at times, occasionally producing funny or bizarre results. These shots are all taken from what may be my favorite special edition DVD set ever: The Ultimate Toy Box.


In this scene, Woody’s legs are at a 90 degree angle from where they should be and his toes point down towards the ground. This is an early render that would have been done to test the staging and animation, hence the lack of detail and background, weird colors, and simplified lighting.


This is pretty disturbing. Buzz’s eyeballs have somehow migrated down to the bottom of his helmet, leaving his eye sockets empty. Despite being detached from his head, Buzz’s eyes continue to blink and look around in time with his dialogue.


Oh dear. Someone has taken Rex’s head and replaced it with Andy’s hand. This is another early render, with the character models looking relatively crude. Rex’s teeth and eyes are still visible in locations that would be correct had Rex’s head not been swapped for a giant hand. This and the previous example should give you an idea of how the character models are made up of various separate parts. All three should give you an idea of how hard it can be to animate with computers when the computer throws glitches like this your way.

All images in this article are copyright Disney/Pixar.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Famous Firsts - Toy Story, Part Two

Woody was living every toy's dream until Buzz Lightyear showed up and became Andy's new favorite toy. Now Woody's scheme to briefly remove Buzz from the picture has backfired. Buzz is missing and Andy's other toys assume that Woody intentionally got rid of his competition. Woody's situation has just gone from bad to worse and his only hope for redemption is to find Buzz and bring him home.

Since he can’t find Buzz, Andy grabs Woody to take with him to Pizza Planet. Except for the fact that there’s a lynch mob of toys waiting for him back home, it’s exactly what Woody wanted: time alone with Andy. But Woody is far too worried about his predicament to enjoy the moment. Buzz, who may be delusional but is not oblivious to what Woody has done to him, had hitched a ride on the back of Andy’s mom’s car and pounces on Woody while Andy and his mom are busy at the gas station. Their fight causes both toys to fall out of the car and to be left behind when Andy and his mom return and the car leaves for Pizza Planet. Woody reacts with genuine confusion – “Doesn’t he realize that I’m not there?” As far as Woody is concerned, Buzz was the problem and he can’t believe that Andy would fail to notice that Woody is missing without that annoying space ranger around to distract him. This is Woody’s deepest fear, not just that Buzz has totally eclipsed him Andy’s affections, but that Woody is such an outdated toy that the end of his days as Andy’s favorite is inevitable.

Once again, we see that Woody and Buzz have virtually no chance of seeing eye to eye due to their completely different priorities. Woody is only concerned with getting back to Andy and blames Buzz for everything that has happened to him. While Buzz correctly points out that neither of them would be in this situation if Woody hadn’t pushed Buzz out of the window, his real concerns are of a much grander scale. Buzz believes that he possesses vital information about the one weakness of his archnemesis Emperor Zurg’s Death Star equivalent and that Woody’s actions have endangered not only Buzz, but the whole galaxy. Woody can only stare at Buzz in disbelief and is finally reduced to flailing his floppy cloth arms and screaming “You are a TOY!” But no amount of screaming or logic from Woody is going to convince Buzz of this fact. And even though he is angry and believes that Woody has caused him some galactic level problems, Buzz never completely loses his cool the way Woody does, a fact which makes him all the more infuriating to Woody. Buzz will never believe or understand that he is a toy so long as the news is coming from Woody. From Buzz’s perspective, Woody is at best exactly what Buzz called them when they first met: local law enforcement, someone who is too wrapped up in the problems of his little corner of the galaxy to see the big picture. At worst, he’s dangerous enough to attempt to terminate Buzz. Similarly, Woody’s animosity towards Buzz and Buzz’s unshakeable belief in his whole space ranger back story means that Woody won’t listen to a word he says, not matter how right Buzz may be when he’s not talking about Star Command and Emperor Zurg.

Woody is so fed up with Buzz that when he spots a Pizza Planet delivery truck pulling into the gas station, he’s all set to hop in and leave Buzz behind. He only stops when he remembers that the toys back home will tear him apart if he comes back without Buzz, reminding us of his largely selfish motivations at this point. Fortunately for Woody, the Pizza Planet delivery truck – a beat up old Toyota judging from the two remaining letters on the back – features a spaceship mounted on top of it, which is just enough to convince Buzz that the truck is a spaceship en route to its home spaceport.

Pizza Planet was originally “Pizza Putter” a combination restaurant and miniature golf course. The change was made so that the destination would be more appealing to Buzz. This could have easily felt far too convenient and I’m still amazed that in all the times I’ve watched Toy Story, Pizza Planet has never felt like an overly convenient plot device. This is largely due to Pizza Planet being designed as a restaurant any kid would love to go to, but never seeming so over the top that it becomes unbelievable. Of course there is a lot of space theming, but there are also a few unrelated video games thrown in for good measure. The only aspect that seems unrealistic is the working claw machine. You buy that Pizza Planet could exist in the real world and give Chuck E. Cheese’s some serious competition and your inner ten year old really wishes there was one near you.

Woody spots Andy and his family and tells Buzz that he has located a “special spaceship.” So Woody and Buzz hop on little Molly’s stroller and go home with Andy and everything’s hunky dory, right? Well, no. Woody and Buzz can’t go home yet because neither one of them has worked out his problems. Woody has only been able to get Buzz to follow him this far by lying to him and using his belief that he is a real space ranger to get him to do what Woody wants. Even if Woody could get Buzz back home without Buzz realizing that they aren’t actually taking a spaceship to his meeting with Star Command, Woody would still have to deal with Buzz hogging Andy’s attention. Buzz is not even aware at this point that he has a problem and is still convinced that he is a spaceman with a mission. He may have been willing to follow Woody up to this point, but he still sees himself as the real expert when it comes to space travel. So while Woody is focused on timing their jump into Molly’s stroller, Buzz runs off to board a spaceship-shaped crane game with a blinking “Ready to launch” sign.

Can you believe that this scene was once little more than a way to get Buzz and Woody from point A to point B? Buzz climbs into claw machine, Woody follows him, Sid spots Buzz, Sid wins both Buzz and Woody as prizes. Then someone – even the guys at Pixar can’t seem to recall exactly who – suggested that the alien toys who were the regular prizes in the crane game could be little cargo cultists and the ideas just started flowing. The squeaky toy aliens and their worshipful reverence for “The Claw” turned the scene into one of the funniest of the film. Plus, poor Woody now has to deal with not only deluded Buzz but also a bunch of loony aliens who see The Claw as their gateway to a better world. It’s annoying enough just having to listen to the lot of them, but it gets even worse when who else but Sid shows up and tries to claim Buzz as a prize and the aliens fight Woody’s attempts to save Buzz.

Okay, living toys and a space-themed pizza restaurant I can buy. But a claw machine that is capable of not only securely grabbing a large chunky spaceman toy by the helmet but also holding on while Woody is trying to pull Buzz back down? Now that’s just silly.

An interesting small detail is that Andy is at Pizza Planet with his whole family while Sid, who doesn’t appear that much older than Andy, is there by himself. Though it isn’t a major focus of the film, the contrast between Andy’s family and Sid’s family does pop up occasionally. Andy lives with his baby sister and his mom, who is single for reasons unknown and very loving and active in her children’s lives. She isn’t so perfectly sweet and understanding that she seems too good to be true, but she does come across as a good mother. Sid comes from a two parent home that he shares with his younger sister Hannah and Scud the dog. Sid’s mom is never seen, only heard offscreen. His dad is glimpsed once snoozing in front of the television. I seriously doubt that Pixar is trying to make some kind of blanket statement about single-parent families versus two-parent ones. The film just shows two different families, one of which produced a nice kid, the other which produced Sid.

We haven’t seen Sid in a while, so the film takes a few minutes to remind us that Woody and Buzz are not safe in his hands. Prior to winning Buzz and Woody from the claw machine, Sid won one of the squeaky toy aliens, which he gives to Scud to maul. Sid then grabs a doll out of his sister Hannah’s arms and rushes it into his room for an “operation” where he switches the doll’s head for a toy pterodactyl’s. Sid’s room is a nightmare of blacklight posters and mangled toy parts. The only living toys here are the frightening mutants that Sid has cobbled together from pieces of different toys. After watching them grab the pieces the doll and pterodactyl, Buzz concludes that the locals are cannibals, as if he and Woody didn’t have enough to worry about.

Back at Andy’s house, the toys watch from the window above as the car pulls into the driveway and Andy realizes that Woody is missing. Andy seems genuinely upset about not being able to find Woody, showing that he hasn’t lost interest in his old favorite toy. While most of the toys assume that Woody’s disappearance proves his guilt, Bo Peep and Slinky are still worried for Woody’s safety. Woody still has a few friends in Andy’s room, for now anyways.

The next morning finds Sid “interrogating” Woody and using a magnifying glass to burn a small spot onto his forehead. This moment sets us up with information that will be vital in a later scene, but it never feels like that, mainly because burning Woody’s forehead with a magnifying glass seems like a very natural thing for Sid to do based on what we know about him.

When Sid takes off for breakfast, Woody spots the open door and makes a break for it. His escape is blocked by the mutant toys and he ends up using Buzz and his karate chop action to keep the mutants at bay and get out the door. This is a good reminder of just how deep Buzz’s delusions run. He is confused when his “laser” fails to have any effect on the mutants and can’t understand how Woody is able to make his arm move by pushing a button on his back. But by the next shot, he seems unconcerned by these strange occurrences. Another toy in his situation might have taken more notice of these incidents and maybe even put two and two together, but Buzz is completely convinced that he is Buzz Lightyear, space ranger, to the point where he can just shake off anything that would seem to contradict that idea. Or maybe the escape mission just has him too busy to put two and two together. Either way, it’s going to take something big to force Buzz to realize what he truly is.

Scud is alerted to the presence of the toys, forcing Buzz and Woody to split up and hide. The ostensible reason for this is so Scud will have less chance of finding both of the toys. But the real narrative reason is that Buzz must be alone for what is about to happen to him.

Buzz narrowly escapes from Scud, hiding in the darkened room where Sid’s dad has fallen asleep watching championship bowling. As Scud gives up and walks away, Buzz hears a voice calling him. The voice identifies itself as “Star Command” as the Star Command symbol appears on the television screen that provides the only light in the room. Elated, Buzz flips open his wrist communicator. But before he can respond, a young boy’s voice replies “Buzz Lightyear responding.” Confused, Buzz looks up and discover that the television isn’t broadcast a communiqué from Star Command, but a commercial for the Buzz Lightyear action figure. And suddenly, everything starts to make sense. Why was Woody able to use a button to make Buzz’s arm move? Because the Buzz Lightyear action figure has a karate chop action. Why didn’t Buzz’s laser have any effect on the mutants? Because the Buzz Lightyear action figure only has a pulsating red light bulb on its arm. Why do the buttons on Buzz’s chest activate phrases like “There’s a secret mission in uncharted space”? Because the Buzz Lightyear action figure has multi-phrase voice simulator. Despite the featured high-pressure space wings, the advertisement notes – in text and speech much larger and slower than in any real commercial – that the Buzz Lightyear action figure is “not a flying toy.” The commercial comes to a close with first a shot of three Buzz action figures, and then hundreds of them sitting on the shelves, all toys, all exactly like Buzz. Buzz lifts up the cover to his wrist communicator to reveal three words he had never noticed before: “Made in Taiwan.”

Buzz never would have believed this from Woody. He had already written Woody off as someone who just couldn’t grasp the big intergalactic picture. But the television commercial is impartial, with no grudge against Buzz like Woody has, and the ability to explain every strange thing that has happened to Buzz point by point. Buzz finally realizes that Woody was right: he is a toy.

Story-wise, no good could have come of Woody being present when Buzz realizes the truth. His reaction could have either been sympathy, disinterest, or “See? I told you so.” The first comes later; Woody isn’t quite to the point where he’s ready to view Buzz as a friend. The latter two would make Woody seem like a jerk, causing him to lose the audience’s sympathy. So Woody doesn’t meet back up with Buzz until later, at a point where Buzz has already gone through a few stages of grieving and it’s more understandable that Woody would be more focused on getting both of them home than on Buzz’s feelings.

Buzz’s realization leads into the last song of the movie, “I Will Go Sailing No More.” While the first two songs focused on Woody’s perspective, this one is from Buzz’s point of view. It may not be the most famous song from the movie, but it is probably the most important. Up to now, we have been seeing Buzz largely through Woody’s eyes. We may have felt sympathetic towards him from time to time, but we have known from the beginning that Buzz is a toy and that all his talk about Star Command and Emperor Zurg and threats to the galaxy are nothing more than fantasy. In order for Buzz realizing that he is a toy to really register as a sad moment, we need to understand what Buzz is going through and how he feels about all of this Star Command stuff. Which is where the song comes in. The music tells us that this is a low point in Buzz’s story in a very general way while the lyrics fill in the details of Buzz being forced to come down to earth and accept what he is. Buzz loved being a space ranger, or at least believing that he was one. He was somebody important with amazing abilities. He could fly, he could zap enemies with his laser, he could defend the whole galaxy from evil. Being a space ranger was Buzz’s whole identity, much as being Andy’s favorite toy was Woody’s life. And now, just like Woody, he is having all of that taken away from him.

Also unlike the other two songs, “I Will Go Sailing No More” takes Buzz through a change of mindset and mood. Woody loves Andy all the way through “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” and hates Buzz all the way through “Strange Things.” But halfway through his song, Buzz has a moment of denial. He shuts his wrist communicator and even though it isn’t it close-up, we just saw him discover the “Made In Taiwan” on the lid so we know that’s what he doesn’t want to see as me makes his last attempt to prove that he isn’t a toy. He climbs to the top of the stairway railing, echoing the start of his “flight” back in Andy’s room. But this time, there is no series of racecar tracks and balls and toy airplanes to stop his fall. Buzz watches the window he was attempting to fly though grow smaller and smaller as he falls and finally hits the floor below, popping one of his arms out of its socket. The song follows his arc, giving voice to his initial sadness at his loss, then his determination to prove that that he has learned is not true, and finally the inescapable conclusion that his days as a space ranger were little more than a dream.

To be concluded.....

All images in this article are copyright Disney/Pixar.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Thoughts on "Ponyo"

On Sunday, Tim, Liz, my husband, and I went to see Ponyo. We all enjoyed the film and it definitely gets my recommendation. I probably won't do a full-flown review until I have a DVD copy I can watch and rewatch at my leisure. In the meantime, here are some of my impressions of the film:

- As I suspected it would be, Ponyo is less like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke and more along the lines of My Neighbor Totoro. This may seem like an odd thing to say about of film with its fair share of magic and a storyline which include the moon threatening to pull the tides high enough to drown the world, but the scale of the film remains small and the central focus is always the two young children at the heart of the story.

- Though it may not be the constant parade of new wonders that Spirited Away is, Ponyo is still a very beautiful film with a lot to love in the visual department. The kind of attention to detail that fans of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have come to expect from Miyazaki films are on full display here. The scene where Ponyo is running along on the backs of her sisters, who have been transformed into creatures that seem to be half hish and half water, is unlike anything I have ever seen before and a truly wonderful interpretation of a storm at sea.

- Reportedly playing at roughly 800 theaters in the US and Canada, Ponyo boasts the widest North American release of any Miyazaki film to date. My guess is that this is partly because Ponyo is a very family-friendly film and Disney is hoping that this fact will help it to attract a wider audience. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be any theaters near us with subtitled prints of the film, though they were available for past Miyazaki films in theatrical release. I wonder if this is an unfortunate side effect of the movie being marketed more to the general public. Perhaps Disney was concerned about kids ad parents accidentally ending up at a showing of the subtitled print.

- While I have believed for years that the reports of 2D theatrical animation's death have been greatly exaggerated, it is nice to see a film as agressively hand-drawn as Ponyo at a time when computer animated movies seem so dominant. Sometimes I like being able to see evidence of the artist's hand on the screen, like the visible colored pencil lines on the backgrounds in Ponyo. I never felt like it made the environments in the film feel unrealistic; it was more just a different look at the world. As Miyazaki's films so often do, Ponyo showed me wonderfully inviting places and describes them in such visual detail that I feel like I'm there.

- After the movie, Tim was talking about how the film "earned its cuteness." Ponyo is certainly a very cute film, but the cuteness comes out of the characters' invidual personalities and how they react to the situations they're in rather than generic visual and audio cues focus tested to ensure that the largest possible percentage of the audience goes "Awwww!" I'm currently writing a piece on a movie that does not earn its cuteness and the differnce is striking.

- It's pretty clear from the story that Sosuke's family is going through a rough patch. He and his mother Lisa (which does appear to be her original name and not an Anglicanized version of it used only in the dub) divide their time between their cliffside home and the senior center where Lisa works, which is next door to Sosuke's school. Sosuke's father works on a ship which keeps him away from his family for long periods of time. In the course of the film, he calls to say that he won't be coming home when he said he would, which leaves Lisa understandbly upset with him. What I enjoy is that his family issues do not bcome the defining problem in Sosuke's life. Despite being only five, he pretty much rolls with the punches and is even up to the task of comforting his mom when necessary.

- The movie's theme song is exceedinly catchy and the tune will probably end up stuck in your head. The translation of the lyrics into English - like most of the film - seems fairly faithful. However, unless you have your heart set on seeing all of the credits, you may want to exit the theater before the "Radio Disney remix" starts up.

- In general, I'm pleasantly surprised by how mainstream Japanese culture has become in the US over a relatively short period of time. Just a few years back, if an anime was being dubbed and was aimed at children, "Sosuke" would be changed to "Steve," rice balls would be indetified as doughnuts, kanji or any other Japanese writing would be replaced with English, and so on and so forth. Now importers of anime can reasonably expect audeinces of all ages to accept of Japanese names, Japanses writing, Japanese food, and Japanese culture in general without immadiately becoming confuse. Some writing still requires translation and certain cultural norms may require explanation, but there isn't the same need to localize absolutely everything anymore.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Famous Firsts - Toy Story

I’ve been giving a lot of attention to the “ink” portion of the site’s name and now it’s time to give the pixels their due. So let’s being at the beginning, with Pixar and the film that got computer animated feature films off to a hugely successful start: Toy Story.

Before I get started, there is something I would like to make clear to anyone who doesn’t really follow the behind the scenes aspects of animation. “Computer animation” does not mean that the computer does all the work. It is not a matter of some random person sitting down and a computer and typing “Woody falls down the stairs” and the computer spitting out a fully rendered scene of Woody falling down the stairs. There is still an animator who decides exactly when Woody is going to blink and another animator who determines when Buzz’s arm is going to move and how it will move, and still another animator who works out the exact expression on Mr. Potato Head’s face in a particular scene. There are artists who design the characters, artists who build the characters in the computer, artists who design and build the world the characters will live in down to the last detail, artists who set the lighting for a scene, and any number of other talented people who work to get every element of the final film just right. A computer is a tool, just like a pencil, a lightbox, or a piece of clay. It has its various strengths and weaknesses, but it cannot substitute for a creative human being who knows how to use that tool to bring characters and their world to life.

Toy Story was the first fully computer animated feature film and therefore had a lot riding on it. Had it failed to perform at the box office, it could have been years before any studio was willing to take the risk and give computer animation another try. But from the beginning, Pixar was making smart choices. They recognized what their medium was and wasn’t capable of at that time. Pixar could have easily decided to simply mimic concepts and formulas that had proven successful for 2D animation. Instead, they played to the strengths of computer animation and made the protagonists of their first film toys with a variety of textures the computer could replicate well, rather than living beings with organic skin and fur that technology of the time had trouble accurately capturing. Pixar paired these new, state-of-the-art visuals with elements present in the classic animated films of the past: great characters and a great story. For while graphics that are cutting edge one year may look dated and cheesy the next, an engaging story with relatable characters will stand the test of time.

One of the movie’s first tasks is to establish the world in which the story takes place. The film’s setting is not a land of magic and the protagonists are not magic toys. These are real toys that you can find in any child’s toybox and the story is about what they do when the humans aren’t looking. In order for this concept to work, the film needs to draw a clear distinction between the familiar role of the toys as lifeless children’s playthings and the secret lives the toys lead when left to their own devices. So Toy Story starts off with a very real world scene of Andy playing with his toys. But this is also our first introduction to many of the film’s major characters and our first look at the relationship between Andy and his toys, particularly Woody the cowboy. So the movie balances this very mundane, real world activity with glimpses of the excitement that Andy’s imagination infuses it with. We never see the drama exactly as Andy imagines it; we still need to understand that these are real toys that cannot move or talk on their own. So it’s up to the score by Randy Newman and camera work that features Woody from a low angle as Andy takes him down from his spot on the bed or cuts in close on his face as his pull-string voice box commands “Reach for the sky!” to tell us that this is a Western. It is, however, a kid’s interpretation of a Western, which means that Woody defeats the nefarious One-Eyed Bart (as played by Mr. Potato Head) by attacking Bart’s force-field attack dog with his dinosaur that eats force-field dogs. The rule of the movie’s world may be very close to those of our own, but the rules of the games Andy plays are whatever he imagines them to be,

Toy Story is not a musical. It’s a surprising choice, given the success Disney was having with the musical format at the time and that Disney was helping to shepherd the fledgling filmmakers at Pixar through the many common obstacles to making a successful animated film. Instead, the movie goes for a kind of “compromise musical” aesthetic. There are still original songs that express the character’s emotions at certain points in the story and help to carry the scenes they accompany. But there are only three songs, and because director John Lasseter, along with a number of other people working on the film, didn’t feel like these were the kind of characters who would burst into songs about what they wanted and how they felt, the vocals are sung by Randy Newman over the scenes rather than being provided by that characters themselves.

The first song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” is from Woody’s point of view. Andy continues to play with Woody in various ways, making it clear that Woody is not merely the star of this one game, but Andy’s absolute favorite toy. As we watch this, the lyrics of the song tell us that Andy means just as much to Woody, if not more.

One of the most important moments in this sequence is when Andy sets Woody down in front of the living room recliner, pulls the lever, launches Woody across the room onto the couch, and yells “Score!” as Woody lands. Why? Because it establishes that Andy loves Woody as a toy. He can send Woody flying or crash him into cardboard boxes without ever worrying that Woody might be physically hurt. This will become very important later on, when Andy starts doing things that would seem quite cruel if we ever thought that Andy believed that Woody could be hurt, physically or emotionally.

Andy’s birthday party is today and his guests will be arriving any minute, so Andy leaves Woody in his usual spot on Andy’s bed and goes back downstairs to get ready for the festivities. As Woody cautiously looks to make sure Andy is gone, lifts his head to double-check, and finally sits up, we have our first look at what the toys do when no one is around. This is the first true introduction of the toys and their real personalities. Mr. Potato Head is a surly spud, currently upset about having to gather up the pieces of his face after Andy’s baby sister Molly knocked them off him. Hamm the piggybank collects the change that was dumped on the floor during “One-Eyed Bart’s” bank heist. His normal spot is up on Andy’s bookshelf by the window and his view of the wider world gives him an air of superiority. Slinky, who played the role of force-field dog in Andy game, is Woody’s laid-back best buddy, perfectly willing to switch his choice of color in checkers if Woody wants to be red. The dinosaur who helped Woody battle the force-field dog before jumps out and roars at Woody, but the cowboy barely bats an eyelid. It’s only Rex, a cheap plastic tyrannosaurus who is more insecure than ferocious. And Woody? Well, Woody’s status as Andy’s favorite toy gives him a lot of clout among his fellow toys. He is the one who tells the other toys when the coast is clear. He announces and leads the “staff meeting.” The sergeant of the green army men calls him “Sir.” Bo Peep, the porcelain doll from a bedside lamp who reduces Woody to goofy awkward chuckling is clearly crazy about him. And if we didn’t already know how much Andy loves Woody, most of the room – from the bedsheets to the toy box to the drawings tacked up on the walls – is decorated in a cowboy theme.

Part of what makes the film work so well is how it describes life as a toy in a way that feels believable. It isn’t just the physical aspects, such as the soft fabric of Woody’s body or the plastic texture on Mr. Potato Head or the seams and mold flashes on the green army men. It’s how their strengths and limitations are determined by what they are. It makes sense that Etch-a-Sketch is able to draw very fast and very well while most people playing with the toy can barely manage a good looking rectangle. The green army men, professionals though they may be, have their feet permanently attached to their plastic bases, forcing them to waddle and hop around. If Rex’s fear of not being sufficiently scary didn’t make him seem hapless enough, his tail is sideways when we first meet him, putting the light colored airbrushing along his underside off register. The toys’ fears make sense too. They hold “Plastic Corrosion Awareness Day.” Woody insists that everyone pick out a moving buddy to ensure that no toys are left behind when Andy’s family moves in a few days. All of the other toys go into a panic when Woody announces that Andy’s birthday part has been moved up to today. For them, the arrival of new toys means that they are in danger of being replaced. Rex, with his confidence issues, is particularly terrified that Andy will get a better, fiercer dinosaur and have no use for him anymore.

Woody tries to calm the toys down, insisting that no one is going to be replaced. Mr. Potato Head isn’t buying it and points out the one thing that all of the previous scenes between Woody and Andy could not convey: Woody has been Andy’s favorite toy since kindergarten. So while Woody argues that the job of the toys is to be their for Andy when he needs them and it doesn’t matter who gets more or less playtime, he is speaking for the position of Andy’s longtime favorite toy who seems to be in the least danger of being replaced in Andy’s affections. He may be right, but he’ll find his own words a lot harder to swallow when his position at the top is threatened.

In order to stop the toys from panicking, Woody sends the green army men out on a reconnaissance mission. Just like the first scene of the movie, the “Recon Plan Charlie” sequence takes toy soldiers lowering a baby monitor downstairs with a jump rope and use music and camera angles to give it the feel of a dangerous military mission. Casting R. Lee Ermey as the sergeant certainly didn’t hurt either. The scene also provides a good look at the care and detail that goes into the backgrounds of the film. Since the computer’s tendency is to render objects with the same uniform texture throughout, all of the paint chips and scuffmarks that make the environments in Toy Story feel lived in have to be created by hand. In the soil of the potted plant that the soldiers conceal themselves in is a tag reading “Forest Fantasy: Water once each and every day, no direct sunlight.” Unless there’s some horticultural joke in there that I’m missing, it isn’t there to be funny. It’s just one of the numerous little details that contribute to the overall feeling of a real plant, a real house, a real word.

The pile of presents is slowly opened, revealing items like lunchboxes, bed sheets, and games that are not going to be replacing any of the toys. The last present is opened and it looks like everything is going to be OK, until Andy’s mom pulls a surprise present from the closet. Andy is so excited when he opens his surprise present that he rushes upstairs with his friends to play with his new toy. The toys don’t get to hear what the new toy is, only that the kids are on their way. They all rush to get back to their original positions and Woody flops down on the bed seconds before the kids burst through the door. They run around the room, talking excitedly about the new toy. In all the commotion, Woody is knocked aside to make room for the new toy’s spaceship-shaped box and slowly slides off the side of the bed. I’m not entirely sure if Andy is the one who smacks Woody out of the way; only the kid’s arm is visible. But whoever is actually responsible, the message of the action is completely clear: Woody has literally been pushed aside to make way for the new toy.

Woody is a little embarrassed when the other toys discover him under the bed rather than on it, but he quickly recovers and reiterates that neither he nor anyone else is being replaced. He climbs up onto the bed to check out the newcomer. The camera pans up as Woody’s gaze moves from the new toy’s feet up to his head, but not before it pulls back so that we get a front view of Andy’s newest toy: Buzz Lightyear. This not only gives us a better look at the latest and greatest action figure with all of his tantalizingly pushable buttons, but also sets up for the story briefly shifting to Buzz’s perspective.

Though Pixar has never relied solely on the novelty of computer animation and what they can do with it to win audiences over, their early films in particular feature a shot or two that seems to be designed to give the viewer a moment to appreciate the studio’s latest technological breakthrough. In Toy Story, it’s the shot from Buzz’s point of view where he takes his first look around Andy’s room and his face is reflected in the clear plastic of his helmet. The scene is not completely self-indulgent; the effect, combined with the sound of Buzz’s breathing tells us that this character is an astronaut just as clearly as the words “space ranger” that are printed on his chest. But at the same time, it shows off an effect that 3D animation does incredibly well and one that would be very difficult to replicate in 2D.

Well before he corrects Woody when they cowboy starts calling him a “toy,” it’s evident that Buzz is a little…confused. He expects a response when he presses one of the buttons on his chest to call “Star Command.” He refers to the box he came in as his “ship” and believes the torn cardboard wing will take weeks to repair. Everything he says and does indicates that Buzz believes he is a real space ranger who has crash-landed on an unknown planet. So it’s understandable that Woody gets frustrated with him when he tries to both welcome the new toy to Andy’s room and explain as nicely as possible that the bed is usually Woody’s spot. Buzz and Woody don’t talk to each other so much as past each other. Woody is trying to get the new arrival filled in and at the same time diffuse the potential threat to his status as top toy. But to Buzz, this is all just an unexpected delay in his mission. His only concern is getting his ship repaired and returning to Star Command, a goal Woody cannot possibly sympathize with since it is a complete fantasy.

In early versions of Toy Story, back when he was called first “Lunar Larry” and then “Tempus from Morph,” Buzz was more of a traditional superhero. He was still a spaceman, but he had the grandiloquent dialogue and broad gestures of a stereotypical caped crimefighter. Eventually, the decision was made to make him behave less like a superhero and more like a space cop. So though Buzz still takes his role as a space ranger very seriously, the way he talks about it feels more down-to-earth, if you’ll pardon the expression. This simultaneously makes him seem more believable and adds humor that comes from a character discussing ridiculous ideas in a completely straightforward way.

Buzz’s delusions start to get on Woody’s nerves, but that isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that Buzz is the absolute coolest toy ever to hit Andy’s room, as the other toys are all too quick to realize. Buzz seems to have Woody beat on just about every front. Buzz has a digital voice box that activates at the push of a button, far more sophisticated than Woody’s scratchy pull-string model. Buzz has a “laser” – a pulsating red light on his arm. Woody has an empty holster. With all of his various features, Buzz is more than a match for Woody. And if the other toys have already realized this, what’s to prevent Andy from realizing it too?

So Woody gets more and more aggravated with Buzz and all his space ranger talk and keeps trying to get back to the point that Buzz is just another new toy and nothing all that special. As we’ll learn later, Woody doesn’t know yet that Buzz really believes that he is a spaceman. He just sees it as Buzz trying to make himself sound more impressive by calling himself a “space ranger” instead of just a toy. By the time he challenges Buzz to prove that he can actually fly around the room with his eyes closed as he claims, Woody is reduced to such infantile tactics as calling Buzz “Mr. Light Beer.” The challenge backfires on Woody as Buzz scales the bedpost, closes his eyes, recites his catchphrase: “To infinity and beyond!” takes a dramatic leap, and – through a series of Rube Goldberg-esque lucky breaks, manages to circumnavigate the room and land back on the bed triumphantly. Woody tries to dismiss it as “falling with style,” but the other toys are won over. Even Bo Peep decides that Buzz is going to be her moving buddy. Woody mutters to himself that this is just a temporary setback and after a few days, everything will go back to the way it was.

This leads into the film’s second song “Strange Things,” which is also from Woody’s point of view. In addition to emphasizing Woody’s feelings as Buzz’s influence in Andy’s room keeps growing, the song performs a task that songs are good at: connecting up the scenes in a montage. The purpose of this sequence is to show that Woody’s predictions could not have been more wrong as Buzz continues to win over the affections of both the toys and Andy. Buzz is able to teach Rex the fearsome roar that previously eluded him. Etch-a-Sketch now draws Buzz’s portrait. All of the toys seem to idolize Buzz. But what’s far worse for Woody is seeing Andy start to favor Buzz. The posters and drawings that decorate the walls of Andy’s room go from cowboy-centric to Buzz-themed and Woody even finds himself standing on top of a new set of Buzz Lightyear bedsheets. Andy himself trades his cowboy pajamas and hat for space themed nightwear and an improvised space ranger suit made out of cardboard. The scene ends at bedtime, with Buzz nestled in Andy’s arms as he sleeps while Woody can only look on sadly before slowly closing the lid to the toybox he has been relegated to.

The real last straw for Woody is when Buzz reveals that Andy has written his name on Buzz’s foot. Buzz interprets this as a sign that he has been accepted into the local culture, but to Woody and the other toys, it’s an indication of just how important Buzz has become to Andy. Rex and Slinky’s impressed reactions when Buzz shows them his foot tell us that this is not something Andy does with just any toy. Woody looks at the bottom of his own foot, which also has “Andy” written on it. But where the “Andy” on Buzz’s foot features solid black lines and confident block letters, the one on Woody’s foot is worn and the lettering uneven with a backwards “n”. This is a clear visual signal to Woody that Andy, who he once believed would love him forever, has moved on to another toy.

Bo Peep tries to reassure Woody that he hasn’t been forgotten and that Andy will always care about him. While she may have been caught up in the initial excitement of Buzz’s arrival, Bo still cares about Woody and recognizes how neglected he’s feeling. But Woody is too upset to really listen to her, especially when Mr. Potato Head jokes that the “special place” that Andy will always have for Woody is the attic. Woody has finally reached the breaking point. He confronts Buzz directly and tells him outright to stay away from Andy, adding possessively “He’s mine, and no one is taking him away from me.” But Buzz only responds “What are you talking about?” and goes back to repairing his cardboard spaceship. This is what makes Buzz truly infuriating to Woody. Not only is Buzz stealing Andy away, he is doing it without even being aware that he is and without even trying. Buzz is like the new baby who gets constant attention no matter what he does while big brother Woody is left feeling unappreciated and jealous.

Even more aggravated, Woody tells Buzz to knock off the spaceman talk, making at clear that he believes Buzz is just staying in character past playtime. Buzz, of course, misinterprets what Woody is saying and the two start an argument, which gets physical when Woody shoves Buzz and knocks his helmet back. Buzz makes what seem like an overdramatic show of gasping for air until he realizes that the atmosphere is not toxic. He is furious at Woody for opening his helmet on an “uncharted planet” and endangering his life, which is when Woody realizes that Buzz actually believes he is a real space ranger and proceeds to mock him mercilessly. It’s a weakness that Woody is eager to exploit, because while the other toys may not understand or sympathize with Woody’s jealousy towards Buzz, Woody is hoping they will be equally amused by Buzz’s delusional state.

Interestingly, what Woody says when he figures out that Buzz isn’t just playing around is “You actually think you’re the Buzz Lightyear?” Does this mean Woody believes that there is a “real” space ranger named Buzz Lightyear out there somewhere and that this Buzz is merely a toy of him? It’s never made entirely clear, but considering that Woody could theoretically encounter toys based on the likes or Arnold Schwartzenegger or Angelina Jolie, it doesn’t seem too farfetched for him to assume that there is a real Buzz Lightyear.

Woody doesn’t get a chance to let the other toys in on the “joke” before all of them notice a commotion coming from outside. The frightened reactions of the toys tell us that they know all too well what is going on. Living right next door to Andy and his family is Sid, a toy’s worst nightmare. Sid is the type of kid whose idea of “playing” with his toy is tossing rocks at them, letting his bull terrier Scud tear them apart, or blowing them to smithereens. Andy’s toy watch helplessly from the window as Sid proceeds to blow apart an unfortunate “Combat Carl” with a small explosive. All of this serves to put Woody’s reaction to his current situation into perspective. Whether or not Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, he still has a home where he is taken good care of, while right next door are toys who get mistreated on a daily basis. Woody’s plight may still be sympathetic, but it’s clear that he could have it much worse.

That evening, when his mom comes to suggest dinner at Pizza Planet, we find Andy having Buzz pound on Woody. This is the point where it becomes important to remember that what we’re seeing is a kid playing with his toys, toys that he has no reason to think are anything more than inanimate objects. Though the narrative of Toy Story can be seen as a metaphor for just about any situation where someone who was formerly on top is forced to make room for the new guy, the movie never loses sight of the specific reality of these two characters or the fact that they’re toys. Andy is not being cruel, nor has he decided that he hates Woody now. Woody is just no longer a recurring character in his games. Previously, Woody was probably always Woody the heroic cowboy no matter what game Andy was playing. But Andy’s other toys were all essentially character actors, playing whatever role Andy needed them for in that particular game. Mr. Potato Head might be the notorious bank robber One-Eyed Bart one day, but there’s nothing to stop him from being Woody’s sidekick the Six-Gun Spud the next. All that has happened is that Woody has gone from being the perpetual hero to being cast as the guy Buzz defeats. It isn’t guaranteed that this is a permanent change of status for Woody, though Woody fears it is.

One question that the movie never really answers is why Buzz, who does not know that he is a toy, still freezes or goes limp every time there are humans around. I think there are two possible answers. One is that it’s a reflex, something Buzz does without even thinking about it or even realizing that he does it. There are some moments where we see toys moving around while humans are present, but turned away from the toys, but maybe this is because toys that realize they are toys can break the rules a little, as Woody does towards the end of the film. The other possibility is that it’s a “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” situation. Buzz refers to Andy as the toys’ “chief,” so maybe he figures that the toys remain still as a sign of respect when humans are around and does the same to avoid causing an intergalactic diplomatic incident. It’s not such a major question that the lack of an answer distracts from the story, but it is interesting to think about.

Showing once again that Andy hasn’t necessarily forgotten about Woody, it is Andy’s mom who restricts him to bringing only one toy with him to Pizza Planet. Woody is pretty sure that Andy isn’t going to pick him. Mere days ago, he could have counted on Andy to take him along whenever he was limited to just one toy, but now even Woody knows that Buzz is first in line. And that’s when Woody comes up with a plan to get Buzz out of the way for a little while. If Woody knocks Buzz behind the desk, Andy won’t be able to find him and Woody can have Andy all to himself again.

Now Woody isn’t dumb. He knows this isn’t a permanent solution to his problems. If Buzz doesn’t get out from behind the desk on his own or the other toys don’t find him, he will certainly be discovered once all of Andy’s furniture is taken out of the room when they move. But if Woody can take Buzz out of the picture even just temporarily, maybe Andy will start playing with Woody again and remember how much Woody meant to him. At the very least, Woody will get to go to Pizza Planet with Andy.

This scene turned out to be pretty important in the development of Toy Story and underwent some big changes. It is still probably Woody’s least sympathetic moment of the film. Though we can understand that Woody really just wants to spend some time with Andy again, his plan is still pretty underhanded and is all the more so because Woody plays off of Buzz’s view of himself as a hero to get him into position, telling Buzz that there’s a toy trapped behind the desk and begging Buzz to come to the rescue. But in previous drafts of the movie, Woody was less an understandably jealous toy and more of a mean, self-centered bully. The absolute worst moment, when test audiences completely lost all sympathy for this Woody, came when Woody pushed Buzz out the window on purpose. This moment and the negative reactions to it in an early screening at Disney, caused production on the film to shut down until the story could be reworked. Pixar rose to the challenge and revised the film in general and the character of Woody in particular, including making Buzz getting knocked out the window an unintended result of Woody’s much less nasty plan to get Buzz stuck behind the desk.

So Woody appeals to Buzz’s heroic nature and sends RC, the radio-controlled car, over to push him behind the desk. RC is not a willing participant in Woody’s plan. He has what is possibly the strangest and most crippling downside to being a toy of any of the toys we see in the movie. RC is alive; he has a face, can “talk” in horn honks and high pitched motor-revving noises, and can drive around on his own when the humans aren’t around. But if anyone - human, toy, or otherwise – gets a hold of his controls, he can’t help but do what whoever is at the wheel is making him do. RC is sent racing towards Buzz, but misses him and knocks over the bulletin board on the desk instead, setting off a chain reaction that ends with Buzz being knocked out of the window. Woody watched the fast-unfolding disaster with growing horror and calls out Buzz’s name after he falls, making it clear that what has happened is much worse than anything Woody actually intended.

This puts Woody in a very awkward position, albeit one that is very necessary for the story. We still feel sympathy for Woody because we know how worried he is about possibly losing Andy, how annoying Buzz can be, and that Woody never intended to put Buzz in any serious danger. But none of the other toys know that Woody wasn’t trying to push Buzz out the window. And since Woody still isn’t entirely blameless, he doesn’t have a very convincing argument for his innocence, even if he could get the other toys to listen. It’s no surprise that Mr. Potato Head is quick to believe that Woody purposefully pushed Buzz out the window or that faithful Slinky is certain that Woody is innocent. But when the green army men start calling Woody an honorless dirt bag, we know he’s in trouble.

Up to this point, Woody’s ultimate goal has been to remain Andy’s favorite toy. While that is still very important to him, he now has the additional and seemingly contradictory goal of getting Buzz back to Andy’s house. It’s not because Woody really cares about Buzz or that he realizes how important Buzz has become to Andy. That will come later. At this point, Woody needs Buzz to prove to the other toys that Buzz is still OK and that Woody wasn’t trying to get rid of him. Getting Buzz home is entirely about Woody saving his own skin.

To be continued.....

All images in this article are copyright Disney/Pixar.

Friday, August 14, 2009

"Ponyo" In Theaters Now!

Just a quick reminder that Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo (Japanese title Gake no Ue no Ponyo meaning "Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea") comes out in theaters around the US today. It is not a huge release, but chances are if you live near a major metropolitan area or a theater with an interest in showing anime, Ponyo is playing near you. Disney has actually been marketing the film pretty well and I've even seen trailers on TV. Unfortunately, none of the ones I've found on YouTube will embed, so we'll have to make do with some links.

The first US trailer and the second one.

One of the Japanese trailers, including the theme song guaranteed to get stuck in your head.

And even some ads for some of the Ponyo merchandise available in Japan.

Being a big Miyazaki fan, I'm pretty excited for this movie. A couple of friends and I are working out the details of our plans to see it this weekend. I'll share my thoughts with you once I've had a chance to see it. In the meantime, check it out for yourself and let me know what you think.

Image copyright Disney and Studio Ghibli

Monday, August 10, 2009

Let The Show Begin: The Best Animated TV Show Intros

The opening titles are possibly the most important piece of animation created for an animated television show. Not only does it need to be able to run in front of every episode of the show without the audience getting sick of it, an intro has to sell the show to potential viewers in roughly one minute. A successful intro grabs the attention of the viewers, makes them pause in their channel surfing. It showcases the characters and concepts at their most exciting and doles out just enough information to get its intended audience interested and leave them hungry for more. Like the cover of a book, the intro is a quick and direct advertisement for the show.

Some animated TV series put their openings together from existing clips from the show, combined with a catchy or compelling theme song. These can make for really fun and exciting intros, but the ones I am going to be talking about today feature original animation created specifically for the openings of their respective shows. With this method, the show’s creators don’t have to rely on available clip and can construct all new animation that highlights all of the strengths of the series. The following are some – though by no means all – of the very best opening titles in television animation, in no particular order.

The Ink and Pixel Club will not be held responsible for any theme songs that get stuck in your head as a result of viewing these clips.


This one is so obvious that I almost feel silly including it. Thundercats is an action cartoon and is widely recognized as having one of the best openings ever. With dramatic camera angles, energy bursts and explosions all over the place, and pretty much everyone and everything in near constant motion, this intro barely gives you a second to catch your breath as it introduces you to the heroes and villains of the show. The theme song has become a little dated and there are a few sounds effects that strike me as cheesy. But just watch as the camera follows the crack of Tigra’s whip or the Thunder Tank comes crashing through a wall of stone and tell me you aren’t pumped for the next adventure of Lion-O and his friends.

Bionic Six

What do you get when you cross Fantastic Four with The Six Million Dollar Man? Evidently, you get Bionic Six, the story of a family given bionic superpowers which they use to battle evil. I think I’ve only seen one episode of the show which I barely remember, and I can’t decide if I want to see any more because I would be really disappointed if the actual show isn’t as good as the intro. Theme songs are always a matter of personal taste, but for me, this one has a lot of charm. The animation is full of dynamic action and promises the viewer plenty of exciting adventures with the six very appealing (and very consistently drawn) members of this “super future family.”


Speaking of shows that didn’t live up to the promise of their intros, C.O.P.S. - Central Organization of Police Specialists – had a really fun intro that used fast action and stylish animation to get viewers ready for some good old fashioned cops and robbers stories in a futuristic setting. Unfortunately, the animation in the show never came near the quality seen in the intro and the writing just didn’t capture the potential and fun of the core concept. But the opening remains one of the best examples of 80s cartoon intros.

Batman: The Animated Series

Another no-brainer, this one practically rewrote the rules for what an animated intro could be. Rather than presenting numerous quick vignettes of Batman doing what he does best, the series kicks off every episode with a short, self-contained story of our hero saving the day, er, night. The heavy black shadows, blood red sky, and moody music borrowed from the live-action “Batman” films sets viewers up for both the look and tone of the show to come. Unlike most openings, the beginning of Batman never actually displays the name of the show. As the creators of the series have pointed out, it would have been redundant. No matter what language you may speak, the visuals of the intro say “Batman.” After such a strong start, it’s a pity that none of the subsequent animated shows set in the DC universe featured intros that really measured up to the granddaddy of them all.

Men In Black: The Series

Based on the movie of the same name, Men In Black: The Series followed Agents J and K as they worked to keep humanity unaware of the aliens in their midst. The intro reflects the show’s focus on the world of the most secret of agents with its whispery instrumental theme and shots of J and K donning their shades and looking ready to take on any intergalactic menace that comes their way. Though many intros rely on fast action and quick cuts to cram the maximum amount of information and impact into their short running time, the Men In Black intro takes it time with shots focusing on various aspects of each scene, reflecting the laid back, smooth pace of the music. The combined effect strikes the exact right note for the series, including just a touch of humor.

Cowboy Bebop

Another vision of cool, with the pace kicked up a bit, the opening to Cowboy Bebop takes a page from Saul Bass and other film title designers of the 50s and 60s. The result is a fast paced mix of text elements, geometric graphics, stark color fields, and monochromatic figures moving in and out of silhouette. The show’s theme music – “Tank!” - is certainly up there among the best and most immediately recognizable pieces of opening music for any TV show, with its jazzy bass leading into driving horns. Rather than really introducing viewers to the spacefaring cast of the show and their world of planet hopping bounty hunting, this intro whets your appetite for stories and animation that just about define “cool.”

That’s my list, though it is by no means complete and it grows constantly as I see more and more animated TV shows. So what do you think? Do you agree with my picks? Are there favorites of yours that I left out? I’m waiting eagerly to hear your choices for the all time best animated TV intros, so let me know what’s on your list.