At long last, I’m writing about Toy Story! people see my post about Harry Potter post and say “Why don’t you write about Harry Potter more?” And all I’ve been saying is “Why can’t I write about Toy Story more?”
Toy Story, for many people of my age, was a crucial part of childhood. It’s no stretch of the truth to say that it was, definitively, the most successful children’s movie of the 1990’s. It spawned two sequels, with another one on the way, while changing the way movies were animated and launching Pixar Animation to the forefront (which lead to a slew of other amazing films). In this regard, the first Toy Story might have been the most influential film of that decade (aside from perhaps Pulp Fiction). Is Toy Story 2 better? Is Toy Story 3 better? Probably. Will Toy Story 4 be better? We’ll have to wait and see. But damn, if the original Toy Story isn’t just a phenomenal movie, I don’t know what is.
Now, I could talk about any assortment of things that Toy Story does wonderfully, but what I’ve decided to focus in on is the character arc of Buzz Lightyear, which I believe to be the emotional center of the film.
Yes, Woody is the main toy of the series, the other movies make that apparent. But, if anything, Buzz should be the main character in this movie. Woody’s character arc? Pfft. All he does is learn to cooperate with other people and share the spotlight, despite still being Andy’s favorite toy. On the other hand, Buzz? Buzz gets existential. Buzz questions everything he knows about himself.
As a toy, Buzz’s main advantage over Woody are his wings. This is what makes Buzz such a hit among the other toys and with their owner, Andy. So it’s not surprising that Buzz’s arc is easy to track throughout the film by building upon the motif of flight.
The first scene with Buzz results in him lucking into flying around the room. Woody, rather upset, scoffs, “That wasn’t flying, that was falling with style!” But it’s too late, Buzz is popular, loved for how cool he is.
As the adventure goes on, Buzz and Woody find themselves in Sid’s house, entirely powerless. One of the most notable scenes in this section of the film is Buzz wandering into another room and seeing a commercial for a Buzz Lightyear toy. “Not a flying toy,” the commercial says quietly. He peels back a sticker on his arm to reveal the words “Made in Tawain.” Cue Randy Newman’s “I Will Go Sailing No More,” which is probably one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever heard.
Buzz tries to fly out the window, but falls and injures himself. It’s a sequence that teems with emotion and perfectly encapsulates the feelings of failure and self-doubt. Looking at this scene, it’s no wonder that this was the movie that changed animated film forever; Buzz’s facial expressions convey a lot of what’s going on in this scene. It’s powerful.
And then, in one of the last few scenes, Buzz and Woody are making their escape from Sid’s House, with a rocket strapped to Buzz’s back. In one of the most iconic scenes Pixar has ever put to film, the duo lights the rocket, and they shoot up into the air. Buzz stretches his wings and they detach from the rocket, gliding on the wind.
“Hey, Buzz! You’re flying!”
“This isn’t flying, this is falling, with style!”
When Buzz admits that his flight is just him “falling with style,” he accepts the fact that he is just a toy. This really is the perfect culmination of the two story arcs; Woody has learned to work alongside Buzz and understands what makes him great, and Buzz has learned that he’s just a toy, but has used this to his advantage.
I love to look at these scenes because they fully show how Buzz develops over the course of the film. Early on, he’s cocky, arrogant, and believes he can fly. But when he finds that he’s powerless because he’s been taken by Sid, he can’t fly again, and feels the sting of failure, he must look inward and evaluate himself. The film ends with him accepting himself as a toy and just learning how to be himself. The first Toy Story illustrates a crisis of identity, which is solved by merely learning to be comfortable with oneself. And I think that’s a beautiful sentiment.