1995 was, in more ways than one, peak ’90s, especially where film was concerned. ’95 saw the release of movies like Braveheart, Heat, The Usual Suspects, Seven, Goldeneye, and Bad Boys. The bad attitudes and big budgets of the ’80s had come home to roost, and the result was a stew of testosterone and bravado, with unshaved heroes masticating out chewy lines about being ugly heroes in an uglier world, only lightly redeemed by the beautiful women who lived and died in it.
Children’s movies were not exempt from this. That same year saw the release of Pocahontas, a visually scrumptious but thematically bleak portrayal of love and loss in the New World, and how easily young love and young countries can be torn apart by hatred. Likewise, Babe was and remains a masterpiece, but how many other children’s movies can you think of that put their eye-mistingly adorable protagonist in the crosshairs of his surrogate father figure’s rifle?
So, yes, 1995 was a different time. But of all those movies — Seven, Pocahontas, even Braveheart, which would claim the year’s Oscar for Best Picture — none ended up being the year’s most influential movie. Instead, a struggling animation company with little to recommend it besides a tenuous business relationship with Steve Jobs released its first real feature film, Toy Story, and promptly turned the world upside down. Toy Story ignited a trend that not only continues today in children’s movie making, but all movie making. It’s not too bold to say that Pixar has changed the way we tell stories to children. Maybe even the way we tell stories to ourselves.
The technological achievements of Toy Story are well-documented. It was not the first computer animated feature, but it was unquestionably the first to justify the technology. Likewise, Pixar showed an early knack for voice casting — who else would have seen the wondrous potential in Tim Allen’s lazy grunts for Buzz Lightyear’s militaristic blockheadedness? But what’s less well-recognized is the movie’s innovation in plot structure and themes. Prior to Toy Story, the script for a children’s movies was predictable enough to follow one of two formats. You either had The Chosen One (usually the boys, like Aladdin and Simba) burdened with glorious purpose, or the Princess (Ariel, Belle) waiting to be swept away to grander fortunes. You add a bad guy to get a conflict going, a love interest as mandated by the fairy tale handbook, and a rousing score to get that Oscar nomination, and you could be reasonably certain the movie would make money.
This formula turned out some excellent films — so excellent, in fact, that nobody saw any reason to switch it up. Nobody that is until Pixar. What made Toy Story click so well was not the “Toy” part of the equation — kids have been pretending their toys are alive for at least as long as they’ve had toys to play with — but the “Story” part. While Toy Story does feature a traditional antagonist (the toy butcher Sid) and a romance (Woody’s dalliances with tall drink of water Bo Peep) on the side, the central plot is driven not by external forces, but internal ones. There are no parents crushed by a stampede of wildebeests or spells that must be broken. There’s just the all-too-human threat of being ignored and forgotten.
In doing this, Pixar pulled the children’s story out of the realm of pure fantasy, where romance and danger could be around any corner, and put it on a level children are already familiar with. In this sense, it owes a debt to stories like Beverly Cleary’s Beezus & Ramona and the make believe world on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood; stories that centered their conflicts around family, friendship, and emotional hurdles. The true antagonist of Toy Story isn’t Sid (although he makes for an inventively frightening villain), but Buzz and Woody’s own unwillingness to empathize with each other’s perspectives. Woody’s famous “YOU ARE A TOY!” conveys an emotion familiar to anyone who’s ever gotten involved in a debate in which their beliefs seemed so obviously correct, the other opinions so clearly wrong, that they had to resort to ALL CAPS to convey them.
Pixar’s Toy Story followup was A Bug’s Life, which fell back on some more classic tropes, but the company’s purest innovations were yet to come. Monsters Inc. and Cars likewise dispensed with expectations about what a great children’s story needed, and Finding Nemo did so radically — making protagonists out of a fussy single father voiced by Albert Brooks and Ellen Degeneres’ perennially absent-minded blue tang fish. If it’d been a 1995 Disney movie, it’s hard not to see the movie being less about the quest to find Nemo than it would be about Nemo’s own adventures while he was lost. By flipping the script, Pixar took what could have been an exciting but ultimately empty story about a fish finding his way home in the ocean, and made it a much more personal story about something universal: The fear of something happening to the people you love.
A lot has been rightly made of the unrealistic romantic expectations Disney movies have set up for children. From Snow White to Simba, love gets contorted and flattened into something pretty but wholly unrecognizable from reality. Less has been made of how deftly Pixar has avoided such pitfalls (they’ve done it so well, you almost wonder how something as adult as love stories ever became part of the children’s canon in the first place). Instead, Pixar maintains their focus largely on friendships and family relationships. Mike and Sully in Monsters, Inc. Carl and Russell in Up. The Parr family in The Incredibles. Romantic tension flits around the edges in all these movies (Up, of course, features one of the great romances in recent film history), but the focus is always squarely on something children can understand and relate to.
So now, we come to 2016. On the global stage, things are no better than they were in 1995. In fact, you could make a compelling argument that they’re worse. But the days of grouchy, frowny bros spitting out insipid truisms that don’t ring at all true are happily in the rearview mirror. A look at last year’s best films like Spotlight, Ex Machina, The Martian, Creed and Carol (to say nothing of Inside Out) reveals a more diverse landscape with more intriguing themes and plot beats. Even Mad Max: Fury Road, the film that feels most indebted to ’90s tropes, turned all of its expectations of their heads.
It’s impossible to definitely state what exactly changed between then and now, but it’s easy to speculate that now, twenty years after Toy Story, a generation raised on more thoughtful children’s fare might finally be taking those inspirations into Hollywood offices with them, and translating those lessons into films that may not be kid’s movies, but are nevertheless inspired by them.