In some ways, you could not find a sharper contrast than between #100 Ben Hur and #99 Toy Story. Toy Story clocks it a mere eighty one minutes (and is actually about 5 minutes shorter than that when considering credits) versus Ben Hur’s 3:45+. It is a light-hearted, animated, not a live-action epic.
In a few ways, though, the films are similar. Both were revolutionary for the time and influenced future films immensely. Ben Hur was the model for future epics and the chariot race scene became the standard for racing and action scenes for decades to come. Toy Story broke new ground with computer animation, providing a quality not previously seen for computer generated graphics and spawning 20 years of copycat films. The moving van chase scene, while ironically borrowing heavily from Ben-Hur in its design, set the standard for animated action scenes and clearly influenced live-action scenes from films such as The Matrix Reloaded and Pirate of the Caribbean as well.
As before, a quick plot synopsis:
Toys are sentient and can think, feel and talk. Our heroes are toys belonging to a kid named Andy, led by Woody the Cowboy. Andy is getting his birthday presents and receives a brand new Buzz Lightyear toy. Woody immediately dislikes Buzz, in part because Andy likes him and plays with Woody less as a result, and in part because, for some reason, while all the other toys know they are toys, Buzz actually thinks he is an interstellar commander. Woody conspires to kill Buzz by pushing him out the window – he gets him out the window but doesn’t kill him. The other toys boot Woody out for trying to kill Buzz. Woody tricks Buzz into following him to a galactic themed pizza place that Andy will be it, making Buzz believe it is, in fact a star port. A long sequence entails that leads Buzz and Woody to become prisoners of the kid across the street who likes to break and blow up toys. Buzz eventually learns his true nature and goes into a funk. Woody plans an elaborate mistake, but after the kid hatches a plan to strap a rocket to Buzz and kill him, Woody hatches a plan with the other toys in his house to save him. They eventually put a scare in the kid, make their escape, chase down Andy’s moving van (did I mention that Andy was moving for some reason?) and make it back to Andy.
It is obviously sort of an absurd premise, but in the realm of animation, it has some charm and makes some sense.
I saw Toy Story 20 years ago, but a few things struck me in rewatching it. First, Woody is awful. He attempts to commit murder and then continues to manipulate and lie to Buzz, who has done nothing wrong. This is all kind of brushed under the table in the happy ending. Second, all of the circumstances surrounding Buzz coming to be aware of his true nature are curious. Why he is the only toy who doesn’t know he is a toy to begin with is never clear. The unveiling and his emotional fall out from finding out he is a toy is never very well explained and moved much too quickly (bear in mind, the film only has 75 minutes of content). Third, the clearly somewhat disturbed bully who likes to blow up toys kind of made me cringe in an era of mass school shootings – I kept having the reaction that somebody should be helping this kid, but since he is just playing the simple part of villain, his motivations and origins are never explored.
Objections above aside, the animation holds up incredibly well 24 years after the fact and the standard that it set and industry it helped to spawn are obvious. It has a star-studded lead cast (Tom Hanks and Tim Allen) who play their roles with a depth seldom seen in animated films. And, as I mentioned, the van chase scene is a true classic.
Production Quality – 10/10
Screenplay – 5/10
Acting – 8/10
Rewatch Value – 5/10
Overall – 28/40
On balance, I don’t think this is a film that belongs on the list at the exclusion of what I would consider better animated films that do not make the list (Wall-e, Fantasia, just to name a couple from a couple of different eras), but I understand, similar to Ben-Hur, the basis for inclusion being the far-reaching influence of future films. It was not on the original AFI list in 1998 and obviously just barely made the cut in 2007.
Next up, yet another very different film, the 1942 musical Yankee Doodle Dandy. Stay tuned!