AFI film school #18: Toy Story — Beyond infinity


A question often asked is “what makes a Pixar film so much better than other contemporary animated films?” The endless stream of Dreamwerx movie, the Emoji one, the Hotel Transylvania series. Pixar DESTROYS all of them--both with critics and audience.

The simple answer is that they’re better. But we knew that. The answer to why they’re better lies in the approach.

Most animated movies are made for kids, with some parts thrown in for adults. Seems sensible. Afterall, kids are the often the ones wanting to see the movies, which means the parents have to see them too. To keep the grown-ups happy studios usually throw in pop culture references or thinly veiled sexual innuendo. Win win, I guess?

Pixar, on the other hand, doesn’t do this. Instead they make movies for people, and they throw in elements that will be entertaining to kids. Their movies are smart, often deep, and contain themes that will be relevant to people at any age, thus creating flicks that everyone will voluntarily want to watch throughout their lives.

Gone are trendy references and fart jokes, and instead we have stories that make us think.

This is the original intention of both animation and Walt Disney himself. He didn’t aim to make children movies. He aimed to make family ones. AKA movies that everyone will like. And while this includes things that can keep kids entertained (as animation can so easily do), it also assumes that kids are smart enough to resonate with a great story.

This brings us to Pixar’s first and one of its best. Following along with the order of the podcast that has a friend in me, Unspooled, we are at Toy Story (1996), written and directed by John Lasseter.

Love is all you need


The universal theme in this one is one that I think everyone experiences sometimes, even kids: the feeling that we’re not enough.

The movie reminds us of something that we should probably tell ourselves all the time: we are enough. And that things like friendship and love are the most important things we can have. In the words of another incredibly imaginative person “all you need is love.”

Woody experiences this. He was once confident in his identity being Andy’s favorite toy, but as this is challenged, his worst instincts and emotions come out.

Buzz goes through a similar journey. He thinks that he’s a space ranger, and despite all the signs pointing to him not being one, he can’t bear to imagine his identity being anything else. Then, when he discovers that he’s been a toy the entire time, it destroys him.

But both of them discover that love and friendship is way more important than these identities. Much like the characters in Midnight Cowboy a few weeks ago, they discover that unconditional love beats everything--even being a favorite toy or a space ranger.

What to pick up with the claw


I’m going to focus on one thing that Toy Story does well because it’s such an impressive feat: it invented a new genre. There’s been tons of animated films before, but they invented the computer generated one--and they did it so well.

If Toy Story was less of a movie, it might have taken longer for the genre to catch on, but it became THE movie every other movie wanted to be.

How many other movies have three sequels, seven theme park rides (even multiple theme park lands), and a cult following spanning decades. Pretty much only this, Star Wars, and Weekend at Bernies.

The fact that the story, acting, characters, humor, and even it’s primitive CGI was so good led to a phenomenon.


I hope everyone does take the lesson that they’re enough. Sounds important.

But almost just as much, I hope filmmakers take the lesson that movies and shows should be made for people first and not dumbed down.

When we dumb our art down, we’re doing it in a way to try to be more general, and get that mass appeal but in reality, it’s alienating anyone who doesn’t want to see a bad movie. And although kids might love it temporarily, it’s not going to be the type of thing that sticks with them for life.

We don’t have to ask the question “what would kids like” but instead ask “what do I want to say?”

If it’s the former question, then we’re going to have “Sid”s: an audience who might enjoy us momentarily but know ultimately how disposable we are. If it’s the latter, then we’re going to have “Andy”s: an audience that will always appreciate us on a deep level.

Thanks for reading!

For more filmmaking articles, a free eBook, and to get in the inner-circle of our upcoming streaming site, join our newsletter:

You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram.