Pixar: The Storytellers Part 1

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I proudly present to you the part 1 of Pixar: The Storytellers, by Upcoming Pixar’s first guest writer, Tyro. It is a 7 part series, and this first part critically analyses Toy Story and looks at why it is a great film in storytelling terms. Enjoy!


What makes a great film? A film so good you can think of nothing else for days after? A film that makes you laugh, cry, experience a spectrum of emotions, climaxing in a transcending, supremely grounding moment, so that the person who went into the cinema is different to the one that came out? It’s not the sheer thrill of the cinema, for the same effect is achieved from a superb play, television show, opera or novel. Or taking it wider still, a concert, a painting, a collage, a sculpture, or a three and half minute pop song. Works of art can move us all, but cinema, along with the aforementioned novel etc, achieves the cathartic effect of art through its story. There is simply no arguing on this fact.

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You can debate to your heart’s content that film is entertainment, you could even say it’s ‘just’ entertainment, just a ‘chick flick’, just a comedy. But I don’t buy that. For me, that’s making an excuse. “Aww, too bad hundreds of people spent a year of their life and hundreds of millions of dollars making something that I give two hours of my life to. It missed the mark, but hey, it’s just entertainment.” No. It is an art form. There is a lot to be said about the industry, Hollywood, and the industrialisation/commercialism of this art form, but at its best, film is art. And by art I don’t mean some kind of pretentious, high brow piece of work that needs discussion and critical acclaim. Rather, it’s something that moves us, deeply, profoundly, and in its own way.

So if film is an art form, and a story is what powers the film, makes it a work of art. But what makes a story? I’m not aiming to make these brief analyses lessons, rather I’d just like to give you my two cents on why Pixar films work. Some people hate reducing, delineating and categorising films, they feel it’s overly simple and loses the magic of what made the film work in the first place. Well, I hold the view that if you get to the root of a story, the few elements such as its controlling idea, and identify these, then you can see how they gave rise to the many complexes of a story’s makeup. At least, that’s what I hope to achieve.

Finally, what sets all Pixar stories apart from the slew of other animation films today are primarily two factors: originality, perhaps the most obvious, but also authenticity. Don’t you just get a sense that they know the world that they’re writing in? When I read scripts, within the first half a page there is just this essence given off by them, like an odour, that tells you either the writer knows their world – and thus the story will be of a certain type of quality – or they don’t, which often means it’s boring, predictable, lazy, insulting, forgettable and risible. Just as story drives a film, authenticity gives rise to all sorts of qualities. But mainly, things just fit, they work, the story events couldn’t’t unfold any other way. You’re just immersed into the world of the film.

With those two general principles laid out, I’ll start at the beginning, in 1995, with a certain cowboy doll…

Toy Story

I’m sure you’re all aware of, among others, Andrew Stanton’s discontent at the formulaic animation films when they were working on Toy Story. I think Brad Bird put it best when, to paraphrase, he said that due to the new medium of computers, people were willing to give them a bit of elbow room. “You want a contemporary story? You want Randy Newman, doing Randy Newman? Go for it, knock yourself out”. They sure did. Toy Story is a brilliant premise. It was original. But as I said before, that’s the obvious part.

What’s perhaps more striking is the authenticity of the world. Within those opening ten minutes, virtually everything you need to know has been masterfully set up. The rules of the world, how toys operate, when they operate, who’s boss, who’s the joker. And what’s more, it’s all done naturally. We’re not told in some amateur way, rather, we just watch these characters go about their daily routine, and without realising it we’ve sucked up a wealth of knowledge. It’s organic, none of it seems fake, there aren’t any characters telling each other things they already know just for the benefit of the audience. Somewhere in these opening minutes, we just think “brilliant, I love it”. And we’re in.

Note also, how a lot of things we see in these opening minutes aren’t just used once. Rex’s roar and the etch-a-sketch, for example, are paid off when they’re improved/changed due to Buzz. Potato Head’s habit of getting broken apart, a comic device which is used a good few times. Everything we see is there for a reason, there’s no flab, no excess.

Genre is a tricky topic. Mainly because there’s so many viewpoints of it. There’s marketing, buying, distributing genres. Video stores may even classify differently to each other. For me, to say Toy Story is a comedy is a trifle pointless. For that tells me nothing about what to expect from the story. A Fish Called Wanda and Shaun of the Dead could both be called comedies, but they’re drastically different stories. If, however, you look deep into the values of the story, in dramatic terms, and the journey the character goes on through the telling, then I believe this serves as better indicator as to the genre.

Specifically, there is a type known as the Education Plot, where a character starts the story with a negative view, either toward themselves, others, or some aspect of their world. Then, through the telling as they’re forced to make choices, the actions they take show a gradual change in this character, and by the end they’ve arced to a positive view point. American Beauty, Groundhog Day and Harold and Maude are examples. For a twist on this genre, I recommend Adaptation, though good luck trying to pin it down. The argument against defining a genre such as this, is that it’s more of a “theme”, an element of the story, but not really a genre. But that then depends on your definition of a genre, and here is not the place to start that debate.

To illustrate the Education Plot, I’ll now run through the story, delineating Woody’s character, his arc, then end up by stating the film’s meaning, its controlling idea.

After the credits sequence, Woody’s status quo is well established. He’s the favourite toy, top of the bunch, and he’s thoroughly happy there. This may seem obvious – that Woody is genuinely happy where he is – but recently two films have made the critical error of having a brief “I’m sad” moment for the character at the start of the film. Flushed Away is the first, it’s one of many problems with the film, but it’s a drastic error. I heard somewhere that the two servants to the rat protagonist you see in the trailer were cut because it made the character look like a snob, like he wasn’t that much of a nice guy. I can only presume that the same person decided to leave these few, but damaging, seconds in the film: The protagonist, the apartment finally to himself, says ‘goodnight’ to the empty flat, but just his voice echoes back – he’s lonely and feels sorry for himself.

But if he’s already sad, then we instinctively know the journey he’s about to go on doesn’t mean all that much, because his life at the moment isn’t worth that much to him. If he’s sad in his plush apartment, a flush down the toilet would do him good. Consequently, the stakes and emotional involvement of the audience are drastically lessened. It makes for a far weaker story. And at climax, when he decides to leave his apartment behind – who cares? He never loved it in the first place, so really, the story doesn’t mean all that much. Whoever that person was who cut the servants and, I’m guessing, added these few seconds in, does not understand storytelling.

Thankfully, Toy Story makes no such mistake. Consequently, when Buzz arrives, it is categorically the worst thing that could have happened to Woody, and his entire world is in jeopardy. The action that unfolds really means something.

So Woody’s negative view is towards Buzz, and his life not as toy-number one. Knocked from his top spot, Woody vows to get back on it. But as the action unfolds, is Woody thrown from one sort-of-safe environment to another? I ask this simply because the slew of CGI films simply do not put their characters in the most demanding situations, they never face them with the utmost forces of antagonism. And if they’re never pushed to the limit, how is the action they take in reaction to the antagonism they do face going to be compelling? It’s just another example of what separates Pixar from the rest. To answer the question that started this paragraph, Woody does not remain in moderately safe settings – to quote the script, when he’s trapped in Sid’s room “They’re in hell. Toy hell”.

And once in hell, the antagonism – the setting, the characters and also Woody’s internal emotions – gradually overcome him. Trapped in the plastic crate, he finally realises the game is up. The top spot will never be his again, it was an attempt in vain, all along – Buzz is just better than him. But Buzz has had a fall as well, one of the most touching moments of the film. And at roughly the same time the characters realise one thing: the only way out of this hell, and back to Andy’s – top spot or not – is as friends. Remember that previously, Woody only bothered trying to get Buzz back to Andy’s to convince the others he wasn’t a murderer. But now, Woody sees Buzz as much more than evidence – he is a true friend. And given this decision, the following action is all climactic, the result/playing out of the effect of this decision. Given Woody has decided to accept Buzz as a friend – what will be the result of this?

We all know what the result was, they fell with style, right back into Andy’s lap. And it’s here that we can now see the heart of the story, what it’s really about. To do this, we look at the value the characters achieve at the end, then we look at the cause that got them there. I see the meaning of Toy Story as: we are reunited with our world, when we learn the value of true friendship. Never try to assess the meaning in terms of the on-the-top action, instead get into values that we can all relate to.

If you’re unsure whether this is the meaning or not, think back to the credits sequence, and Randy Newman’s theme song. “When the road looks rough ahead… And you’re miles and miles… From your nice warm bed… Just remember what your old pal said… Boy, you’ve got a friend in me”. They don’t call it a theme song for nothing.

And it’s the universality of the meaning, the fact that it applies to not just a cowboy doll, but every human being, that makes the film so touching – that’s what makes it a work of art. It moves us all. An eighty year old man in Thailand, an eight year old kid in Poland, or you. We can all take something from it. The obvious parallel is when a new sibling comes along, and our parents devote their attention to them instead of us. But it goes far wider than that. A new kid joins your circle of friends, a new colleague your office, or it doesn’t even have to be the entry of someone unwanted. What Pixar are saying to us, is that whenever we’re in trouble, whenever we’ve lost touch with the world we know and love, just look around you at the people you’re with, you’re friends, and with them, with friendship, you’ll find your way back.

To conclude, then, in terms of the Education Plot, Woody makes a conscious decision to arc to the positive in terms of Buzz, a huge, and thoroughly meaningful, character change.

Yet all films have a controlling idea, it’s what arises out of the action. For me, what makes Toy Story so brilliant a film is that the theme really means something – the quality of the story (the originality, authenticity, heights of antagonism the characters were pushed to) makes it that much stronger. Makes the cathartic effect we experience as the credits role that much more transcending and grounding. We’ve been to hell and back with these guys, and it’s taking the story to the extremes of human emotion that the other CGI films lack, in my view. Or at the least, it’s one of their problems…

So that was Toy Story. I hope you garnered some sense from that. If not, I suggest a trip to the library. And just think, next time you watch a film, really think to yourself why it disappointed you. Dig deep into the film’s values and causes. For that is where the heart of all films lie.

Last modified: March 9, 2007