It's almost hard to remember, but in 1995, Disney Animation Studios was still a pretty well-regarded brand name. They were fresh off the run of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King that had resulted in some of the biggest box office receipts and most glowing critical acclaim of the company's nearly 70-year history, and while the summer of '95 did bear witness to Pocahontas - in hindsight, arguably the first step on the path towards the studio's ultimate flaring out (Me, I'm no fan of The Lion King, while I harbor a perfectly indefensible affection for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But I am speaking in larger terms than one man's opinions) - there was no real reason at this point to assume that Walt Disney Pictures would ever again fall into the fallow period that its namesake's death had triggered.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that the advertising campaign for Toy Story, due in Thanksgiving, absolutely did not make reference to the actual animation studio that had spent some four years developing that feature out of Steve Jobs's garage, or wherever it was that Pixar was based in those days. The big deal at the time was that the tradition of excellence begun as far back as Steamboat Willie had hit another home run: Disney was giving the world the first fully-rendered computer-animated feature film, and it was a huge goddamn deal.

Nowadays, of course, Pixar has become the value-laden brand name that Disney uses to prop up their modestly-performing mediocrities, and half of the kids' shows on TV are fully rendered using technology that would have made the Pixar wizards blind with jealousy back in the mid-'90s, making it easy to lose sight of just how incredible and revolutionary Toy Story really was. "Like nothing you've ever seen" is an easy cliché, but in 1995, there was no better way to describe this film. It was at once a cinematic masterpiece, a giant step forward for computer technology, and above all (though least apparently, at the time) a manifesto: this is what Pixar is going to be about, constantly. We are going to make the movies that we would love to see, and in so doing make movies that everybody else will also love, because we will not allow trends or focus groups to make our storytelling decisions. We are first and foremost in the business of dazzling you with our imaginations. In this respect more than any other, John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter and all the rest instantly marked themselves as the true modern heirs to Walt Disney, the man responsible for the 20th Century's finest children's entertainment, largely because he remembered what he would have loved as a child, and hey! it just so happened to be what he loved as a grown-up, too.

Of the ten features and 17 shorts made by the Pixar animators, Toy Story has perhaps the most endearing hook, the one taken from childhood with the least adult mediation: what if toys were alive? And what if old toys were jealous of new toys? They'd done something similar in Tin Toy (the feature was, in its earliest incarnation, meant to be a sequel to that short), but even that film has the slightest of dark edges: it presents a toy absolutely petrified of its infant owner (and for good reason, the state of the art in 1988 made that baby look like a hell-spawned demon), while the toys of Toy Story are absolutely devoted to the happiness of their owner, Andy. Even when the film heads into the distinctly frightening places it reaches when the plot takes the heroes over to the horrible neighbor boy and his bedroom full of obscenities, the nightmare imagery is the kind that comes from childhood (besides, all of those hideous mutant toys end up being just as loving and noble as their undamaged counterparts).

The scope of Toy Story is resolutely domestic and intimate, even though the toy-level view gives something as small as suburban foyer the epic vastness of any adventure film you might name. The remarkably limited number of locations (of the studio's later work, only Ratatouille explores a similarly tiny universe) leaves Toy Story manageable in a way that few fantasies are: it does not expand beyond experiences that virtually every person who was young in a single-family home has known first-hand. For this reason as much as any other, I was long-inclined to regard Toy Story as Pixar's masterpiece; it is perhaps their most universal film.

Among the many things the film does spectacularly well, we could do worse than look at the stellar voice cast; in the wobbly transition period between animated films voiced mostly by dedicated voice actors, and the later DreamWorks-driven tendency for casts tricked out with movie stars who aren't always terribly well-suited to their characters Toy Story established one of the most under-appreciated of all Pixar's consistently excellent traits: their films are peopled by actors who are sometimes household names, sometimes not, but always perfectly chosen. In this case, we have Tom Hanks giving one of his finest performances as the reigning Favorite Toy, a cowboy doll named Woody; he is vulnerable when needed, authoritative when he can be, and his frequent dashes into exasperation are beautifully expressed. Tim Allen, meanwhile, may have had a leg up as the star of the Disney-produced hit sitcom Home Improvement, yet he never did anything as interesting there (or elsewhere) as his work as Buzz Lightyear, the delusional high-tech spaceman toy; and could there have been, in 1995, a more inspired choice to voice a character who was all masculine bravado yoked to a potentially lethal misunderstanding of how life actually works? And of course, the remainder of the cast is impeccably chosen, from Wallace Shawn's neurotic dinosaur to Don Rickles's scabrous Mr. Potato Head.

Nor did the filmmaker's inspired choice of collaborators end at the actors: in the first of his many films with the studio, Randy Newman turned in a beautiful score, simple but playful, and anchored by the delightful "You've Got a Friend in Me", hardly a typical song for the composer, but a charming encapsulation of the film's fable-like theme: no matter what, someone's got your back, even if you were having a fight over who was Andy's favorite.

As exquisite as I find the movie, I cannot deny that technology caught up with it - the human characters are sometimes quite unappealing, particularly Andy himself, who is much more disturbing on the big screen than on DVD. The new reissue manages to fix things a little bit, actually: Toy Story is the only Pixar film without a particularly sophisticated use of focus, and the re-rendering of the images into 3-D gives the images and the world a certain depth that it has previously lacked; the film is not as flat in certain places as it once was, though it is still plainly a movie that was animated in 1995.

Big deal, that; what was a magical thing when I first saw it half a lifetime ago (more, in fact; I was still 13 when it was new. Lord, that makes me feel suddenly old) is no less magical. Toy Story is unabashedly innocent in way that few children's movies even try to be, now or then or ever, the kind of movie that is good for young viewers and their parents not because there's a separate level of innuendo for the adults, but because it aims directly for the part of the adult viewer that is still six years old. Time has been kind to it, and future years I imagine will still be kind; a classic is forever, and Toy Story is a great modern animated classic, or I don't know a single thing about movies.

Reviews in this series
Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995)
Toy Story 2 (Lasseter with Brannon and Unkrich, 1999)
Toy Story 3 (Unkrich, 2010)