Reach for the Sky: A Trailblazing “Toy Story”

In today’s guest post, Craig Joseph Pisani shares his thoughts on the Disney/Pixar family favorite Toy Story.

Prior to 1995, animated features followed a specific formula for success, catering to children with a G rating — featuring characters that break out into song, and a clear cut villain. In collaborating with Pixar for the first time, Disney CEO’s notes to the filmmakers nearly derailed the beloved, ground-breaking, Oscar-winning film Toy Story.

When the film’s production nearly shut down, director John Lasseter requested two additional weeks to right the ship and forge forth with the movie they wanted to make, sometimes jumping the PG line to give the film an edge that would appeal to children as well as adults. Co-writer Andrew Stanton recalls, “The biggest motivator through all the hard times was to prove that theory wrong.” All the while using a new animation application which had only been used in short films previously, specifically Tin Toy (1988) on which the film was based. The end result would earn a Special Achievement Academy Award for the development and inspired application of techniques that have made possible the first feature-length computer animated film.

The innovative animation’s priority took a backseat to the script, which was also nominated for an Oscar. Producer Ralph Guggenheim said, “This film is driven by character and story first. The technique we are using is secondary to the story that we want to tell.” But it’s hard to ignore the fantastic movement and expressions of each character paving the way cartoons were created for the last twenty years.

With a contagious buzz (no pun intended) circulating amongst the filmmakers as they progressed their lifelong dreams into reality, I believe it’s no coincidence the first sentence spoken by main character Woody is “Reach for the sky.” Sure it makes sense that a pull-string western sheriff toy would speak a line such as this to apprehended outlaws, but it easily serves a double purpose. Clearly breaking ground in multiple areas and with early failures, the filmmakers did reach for the sky and it paid off in a big way.

In honor of the 22nd anniversary, I re-watched the film to find numerous mise-en-scene sky reference plantings to support my theory that the line was carefully and craftily chosen:

1. “It all started with a mouse”- Walt Disney: To get where you’re going, you have to know where you came from. And none of this would have been possible without Walt Disney’s drive to succeed. That is why there is a Mickey Mouse clock hung up on the wall in Andy’s room.

2. The entire bedroom, wallpapered in light blue with clouds perfectly spaced out, serves as the “sky”.

3. On a dresser, a globe sits right against the “sky” also serving a double purpose as homage to Indiana Jones during the inciting incident scene where Buzz is tossed from the house.

4. A quarter moon resides atop Andy’s wooden headboard.

5. Buzz, a space ranger, has wings and he can “fly” or “falling with style” as Woody would say.

6. A toy airplane hangs by a string from the ceiling and a rainbow can be seen.

7. When Andy upgrades his bedsheets to match the newly Buzz themed decorated room, they have stars on them.

8. In Sid’s room he has a knapsack with a pig with wings drawn on it, a Pterodactyl toy, and a package with the word “eagle” on it.

9. Also in Sid’s house you can find raindrops painted on a wall and geese-themed wallpaper.

10. A rocket saves the two protagonists at the end of the film, launching them into flight and onto the moving truck to rejoin their compadres.

Craig Joseph Pisani is an avid moviegoer and aspiring screenwriter with Bachelor’s degrees in both Cinema and English. This guest post originally ran in February.