I can hardly imagine having more fun at the movies than I did at Toy Story, the miraculous new Disney feature that’s the first full-length animated film to be produced entirely on computer. Far from just a technological breakthrough, this hellzapoppin fairy tale, about a roomful of gleaming suburban toys who come to life when humans aren’t around (as soon as a person shows up, they snap back to their inanimate state), is a magically witty and humane entertainment. It has the purity, the ecstatic freedom of imagination, that’s the hallmark of the greatest children’s films. It also has the kind of spring-loaded allusive prankishness that, at times, will tickle adults even more than it does kids. The moment Mr. Potato Head arranges his snap-on features into a Cubist mash and says, ”I’m Picasso,” it’s clear that director John Lasseter and his team of writer-technicians have taken their most anarchic impulses and run with them.
In Toy Story, a Tyrannosaurus rex doll is so glossy and tactile you feel as if you could reach out and stroke its hard, shiny head (even as it speaks, amusingly, in the timid voice of Wallace Shawn). When some toy soldiers spring to life, the waxy sheen of their green fatigues will strike Proustian chords of recognition in anyone who ever presided over a basement game of army. As a visual feat, Toy Story makes the ”naturalism” of Disney’s cartoon features look about as advanced as cave paintings. In its techno-cool photo-realist way, though, this movie, too, invites you to gaze upon the textures of the physical world with new eyes. What Bambi and Snow White did for nature, Toy Story, amazingly, does for plastic — for the synthetic gizmo culture of the modern mall brat. The film’s wit (and resonance) is that it brings toys to life exactly the way children do in their heads. It molds plastic into pure imagination.
The kid doing the imagining is Andy, a 6-year-old tyke whom we see mostly from the pant legs down. Andy’s most beloved toy is Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), a pull-string talking sheriff who lords it over his fellow toys, including a porcelain Bo Peep (Annie Potts) who has a crush on him, a Slinky Dog (Jim Varney), and a Barrel of Monkeys. Despite his cowboy bravado, Woody is paranoid about being displaced by a rival, and his worst fear is realized when Andy, for his birthday, receives a flashy new toy from the post-Star Wars era, a bulky armored space ranger named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Buzz is so blithely egotistical that he doesn’t even realize he’s a toy; he thinks he is Buzz Lightyear, master of the universe. This is a wonderful satirical notion, and Buzz, with his Lionel Barrymore smirk and fatuous chin, his sci-fi macho hamminess, is a hilarious and touching character. His belief in his own superpowers, notably the ability to fly, is so complete that the very innocence of his self-delusion becomes oddly charming. Woody’s dejection at being usurped as Andy’s favorite strikes hard and deep. Hanks, believe it or not, gives a more arresting dramatic performance here than he did in Apollo 13. Woody’s jealousy sucks us right into the movie, even as his attempt to get Buzz out of the way results in the space ranger’s being knocked out the bedroom window.
To win back the approval of his fellow toys, Woody slips out to rescue Buzz, and the two playthings of different eras — the cowboy and the spaceman — tumble from one gleeful danger zone to the next. For a while, they get stranded at Pizza Planet, a spangly fast-food/game emporium that Buzz thinks is a space station. The heart of Toy Story, though, is the extended sequence in which they end up captives of a sadistic young punk named Sid, who likes torturing toys and recombining their body parts. His menagerie of schizoid playthings, led by a one-eyed baby-doll head mounted on Erector-set spider legs (it’s like something out of a Nine Inch Nails video), is the film’s most audacious triumph. Sid may be a bad kid, but in his twisted way he’s the soul of Toy Story, the spirit of imagination gone haywire.
For every image like Sid’s surreal toy collection, there’s another that lifted me into the comic stratosphere. At Pizza Planet, Woody and Buzz get trapped in a tub of chattering rubber aliens (they’re game prizes who think they’re being fished into the next world). And there’s a sublimely funny scene in which a devastated Buzz watches a commercial for himself on television (”Not a flying toy,” the announcer warns). Like the rest of Andy’s toys, Buzz needs to realize, finally, that he’s just a plaything. Yet that doesn’t mean he has to stop pretending. The beauty of Toy Story is the way it expresses the essence of child’s play — that pretending is the art of dreaming when you’re wide awake.