Disney head Michael Eisner (with the help of now-departed creative mastermind Jeffrey Katzenberg) has so firmly taken the reins of American pop culture with one ingeniously marketed animation epic after another, you've gotta give him credit for an entertainment instinct that's rivaled in Hollywood only by Spielberg, even as the interchangeability of plot, character, and theme in films like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Pocahontas grows more depressing with each new release.
Nowadays a full-length animated Disney feature feels just like one of those Saturday morning cartoon shows produced solely to market a product that existed before the show itself, yet you wouldn't dare find any of the parents' groups that sprang up a decade ago to protest those abominations breathe such a sentiment. Disney is a name that's synonymous with American family entertainment, and who in this moralistic age is willing to attack a G-rated film of high technical quality from a decades-old dream factory for something as piddly as lack of imagination? And amidst the current conservative battle cries of "free-market capitalism or die," what's so evil about commercial manipulativeness, anyway? Making a profit off of captivating the nation's children is something only a fuddy-duddy communist critic could find fault with.
This is only one of the factors that makes the new Disney film Toy Story such an ironic pleasure. On one hand, it seems a logical progression for the company, a movie loaded with free advertisement for actual toys that have been in stores for years. Yet somewhere in this three-dimensional computer-animated world of copyrighted names, the filmmakers (who also include the cutting-edge Pixar Animation Studios of Northern California) have forged a smart, wickedly funny, turbo-paced adventure that pokes fun at the whole culture of contemporary mass-market toy promotion. Better yet, the film never drags itself through the cloying sentimentality that has passed for pathos in box-office champs such as The Lion King and Pocahontas.
Every birthday and Christmas, the toys that belong to six-year-old Andy gather nervously on his bedroom floor to eavesdrop on the gift-giving. The waiting is torture--will Andy receive a new toy that's neater than the rest of them, thus upsetting the delicate hierarchy of favorites that's been established in the kid's toy box? The ringleader is a cheerful if overconfident pull-string talking cowboy doll named Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) who's a combination camp counselor-mediator for the constantly bickering crew, which includes a nervous-nelly Tyrannosaurus Rex (Wallace Shawn); an irritable Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles); an amiably dopey Slinky Dog (Jim Varney); and a bossy Piggy Bank (John Ratzenberger).
The occasion of Andy's sixth birthday is a day of reckoning not for these toys, but Woody. Andy receives another icon of masculinity that promptly knocks Woody off his throne, an ultra-cool spaceman action figure named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen, in a terrific vocal performance full of charming hubris). Problem is, Buzz is so cool--he has pop-out wings and karate chop action arms--that he doesn't understand he's a toy. He thinks he can really fly and shoot lasers, and the crumpled-up package he arrives in is the spaceship that must be repaired so he can return to fight the forces of intergalactic evil.
Woody's jealousy eventually gets both dolls in deep trouble. Through a series of riotous comic misadventures that would be a crime to divulge here, Woody and Buzz wind up in Toy Hell--the junk-strewn bedroom of the boy who lives next door, a hellcat named Sid who has a terrifying reputation among toys all over the neighborhood. Sid is one of those preternaturally energetic kids with a mile-wide destructive streak that falls somewhere between endearing and disturbing. He loves to torture dolls, pulling off arms and legs and reassembling them in grotesque shapes that recall the surreal creations of the Brothers Quay.
Sid may be the greatest Disney villain since Cruella DeVille, a wiry punk with a buzz cut, braces, a black T-shirt emblazoned with a skull, and heavy metal posters all over his room. He resonates with menace and prickly authority, precisely because--unlike the Shakespearean evil of Scar in The Lion King or that prissy emblem of Euro-imperialism in Pocahontas--his malevolence is never played at Broadway-musical volume. He's never more or less than a vicious little brat, which means his mischief rings true through carefully accumulated detail, not the broad brush of characterization that makes so many Disney characters bland and smeary.
The adults at the preview screening of Toy Story I attended were laughing as hard or harder than the kids. Maybe the film feels so enjoyable because it doesn't attempt to carry the burden of The Disney Tradition, and in the process sheds some of that genre's worst excesses. Toy Story dances with furious grace and agility on its own marionette legs, interested in a goal no loftier than providing you with an intelligent good time.
Toy Story. Disney. The voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles. Written by Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow. Directed by John Lasseter. Now showing.