TOY STORY - Blu-ray review

Though some of the animation seems dated compared to later Pixar efforts and not nearly as detailed, what's here is done impeccably well.

James Plath's picture

In "Toy Story" (1995), toys break their unwritten rule of toy silence and stillness by revolting against a rough boy who abuses his toys. And, of course, "Toy Story" was revolutionary in another way. It was the first completely CGI animated feature film ever made, launching not just Pixar films, but a whole new industry of CGI-animated full-length movies.

Subsequent Pixar features have all been hits--"A Bug's Life" (1998), "Toy Story 2" (1999), "Monsters, Inc." (2001), "Finding Nemo" (2003), "The Incredibles" (2004), "Cars" (2006), "Ratatouille" (2007), "WALL-E" (2008), and "Up" (2009)--but it was "Toy Story" that opened the door. And in 1080p, finally, it's never looked better. The new Blu-ray Special Edition also includes a DVD, so fans might even be tempted to jettison their stand-alone DVDs to create more shelf space.

I watched both "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" in Blu-ray because they both street today, and while you can really see the leap in technology during the four years between films--especially on animals, humans, and textures close up--"Toy Story" still looks great in Hi-Def. Put it this way: while "Toy Story 2" is a WOW in Blu-ray, "Toy Story" is still a wow.

But you can see why John Lasseter and his Pixar bunch initially opted for a script that features toys. They're easier to master than human skin and features, and this toy bunch looks more realistic than the dog in "Toy Story." But in HD you really start to notice details that might have slipped past you on the DVD, and every frame is a revelation.

Like many Pixar stories, "Toy Story" doesn't have all that complicated of a plot. Andy's toys fret that with a birthday party and new presents there will come toys that will compete for Andy's attention. The leader of this bunch is Woody (Tom Hanks), an Old West sheriff doll who has a soft spot for Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who adorns Andy's lamp. Among the featured toys are nostalgic favorites from the 1950s and '60s, including Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Slinky Dog (Jim Varney), a piggy bank (John Ratzenberger), and a T-Rex (Wallace Shawn). Anyone who grew up in this era will recognize almost everything here, from the Etch-a-Sketch to those little green molded plastic army men that little boys lined up for pretend battles.

When Andy (John Morris) receives a spiffy new Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) action figure, the new toy doesn't just compete with Woody for the place of honor on Andy's bed. He also doesn't get the fact that he's just a toy. He really thinks he is Buzz Lightyear, capable of flight and armed with a laser that can zap intergalactic arch-enemy Zurg. It's that kind of conceptual stroke-of-genius that characterizes the Pixar way of doing things, because that simple concept serves as both a source of humor and an important plot point. The other narrative threads in "Toy Story" are the mistreatment of toys by rough-boy next door Sid (Erik von Detten) and an impending move by Andy's family . . . another thing that stresses out the toys, because that means a yard sale (where some might be sold) or the actual move (where some toys might get lost or left behind).

Along the way there are subtle allusions to all aspects of American culture. In one memorable scene, Lasseter and Co. even have some fun with ontology and being. At the Pizza Palace an popular arcade game, the claw crane, ends up as a supreme being to all the little green toy men inside, who point to it and say, as one of them is grabbed and taken from their midst, "He has been chosen." And the toy "goes to a better place."

From the beginning, Pixar did almost everything right. They created sympathetic characters that made audiences care about them. To capitalize on the nostalgia factor they used real toys, except for the two heroes--Buzz and Woody--and that separation gave the two special status. They got Randy Newman to write some memorable songs. They threw in plenty of action and adventure. They made sure that there was lots of humor. And taking a page from Disney, they balanced the humor with moments of pathos. When you do all that and throw in a clever script and accomplished artwork and animation, you can't help but hit a digitalized home run. As John J. Puccio summarized in his earlier review, it's a "sweet fable." What's not to like?

Though "Toy Story" isn't as stunning as "Toy Story 2" in Blu-ray, the fact is that the quality of CGI work improved vastly in the four-year interim. That alone accounts for the disparity. Lasseter is a big fan of Blu-ray, and the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is flawless. The 3D effect is, as you'd imagine, superb, with sharp edge delineation and scene after scene that pops out at you. If there's any artifacting it would take a sharper eye than mine to notice. Or a sharper imagination, as I suspect is the case with some reviewers who fancy themselves ultimate videophiles. Colors are consistently saturated, and while there isn't as much texture or detail in this film as there is in the sequel, what's here is rendered precisely. I didn't see anything that I thought could have been visually improved. "Toy Story" is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.

Disney-Pixar rigged the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless audio so that it plays loudly, and even the littlest scuttle across the floor by a toy is amplified with pin-drop clarity. What's more, there's a pleasing logic to the distribution of sounds across the channels so that it all feels natural. All the speakers are involved for all of the film, and the sound is pushed away from the source so that it fills the room nicely. The .1 in this audio--the low-frequency effects channel--has a nice presence, especially in action scenes, as when Buzz has a skyrocket strapped to his back and he and Woody roar through traffic.

For those who think the 5.1 too much, there's a tamer (and less resonant) English 2.0 DTS-HD, as well as English DVS 2.0 Dolby, and Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.

As far as I can tell, all of the bonus features from the previously released DVD have been included on the single-disc Blu-ray, along with roughly a half-hour of new content:

--A trailer for "Toy Story 3"
--Buzz Lightyear Mission Logs: Episode One: Blast Off (Buzz reports back about his adventure to the International Space Station in this in-character bonus feature.
--Paths to Pixar: Artists, a series of clips in which Pixar artists share how they got to where they are and offer advice for aspiring animators.
--Studio Stories, three extended anecdotes about Pixar inside jokes: Lasseter's beat-up car, the crew's fascination with Halloween and "Baby AJ," and the scooter races that Lasseter and his employees do to release tension.
--Buzz Takes Manhattan, a clip of the Buzz Lightyear balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
--Black Friday: The Toy Story You Never Saw, in which filmmakers talk about an early cut of the film that was so off it nearly shut down production entirely.

As for what else is here, there's a number of featurettes that cover different aspects of the filmmaking process. Lasseter and his cohorts have a roundtable in one 17-minute segment, while they return for a standard making-of feature of slightly longer length. Only six minutes is spent on design, with another half-hour of design tests. Then there's segments on story, production, music and sound, publicity, deleted scenes, and the legacy of "Toy Story," all of which run a collective two hours or so--again, taken from a previous release. And that's not counting the better-than-average commentary track by Lasseter, co-writer Andrew Stanton, supervising animator Pete Docter, supervising technical director Bill Reeves, art director Ralph Eggleston, and producers Ralph Guggenheim and Bonnie Arnold.

Bottom Line:
Just as Disney fans will always have a soft spot for "Snow White," Pixar junkies will continue to revere "Toy Story," the film that started it all. And rightly so. This film had everything, and though some of the animation seems dated compared to later Pixar efforts and not nearly as detailed, what's here is done impeccably well.


Film Value