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How ‘Toy Story’ Became the ‘Die Hard’ of Animated Movies

So much of Hollywood’s animated feature output of the last 24 years has followed the formula of Pixar’s first big movie.
Toy Story
By  · Published on June 24th, 2019

When Disney released Toy Story on November 22, 1995, the world of animated cinema was changed forever. The movie, produced by Pixar Studios, was the first fully computer-animated feature, marking it as the biggest thing for the medium of animation since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Traditionally animated (2D) movies continued to exist, but soon enough other studios were producing or partnering with producers of computer-animated features, which became the norm for Hollywood.

Toy Story also pioneered a kind of animated story. While Snow White ushered in the custom for animated features to predominantly deal in fairytales and princesses for decades, primarily from Disney, Toy Story also became a trendsetter. The film’s subject matter  — sentient toys — wasn’t a totally original concept; not only did Pixar have its own early film about a living toy, the Oscar-winning 1988 short Tin Toy, but the idea goes back to very early animation, including Disney’s Midnight in a Toy Shop, and even before that with the Nutcracker and Winnie the Pooh stories, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier, and more. What Toy Story did was give these sentient toys more individual anthropomorphized personality and involve them in a communal habitation. It’d been done before with The Brave Little Toaster, but Toy Story popularized it.

Pixar’s next feature, A Bug’s Life, also features a varied ensemble of anthropomorphized non-human characters grouped together under an easy classification. In 1988, everyone was talking about its competition with DreamWorks Animation’s Antz because both are computer-animated features involving insects, but A Bug’s Life is distinct in being more diverse in the characters’ species. They’re not just ants but also a ladybug, walking stick, moth, rhinoceros beetle, praying mantis, caterpillar, pillbugs, grasshoppers, and more. Assortment is key.

Pixar seemed to continue to repeat themselves with the formula following the release of Toy Story 2. Their next few movies could be described with the elevator pitch of “Toy Story but with…,” similar to the famous “Die Hard in a…” trend with action movies the previous decade. Monsters, Inc. is “Toy Story but with monsters,” Finding Nemo is “Toy Story but with sea creatures,” Cars is “Toy Story but with cars.” The movies weren’t just about asking the question of what if toys or insects or monsters or fish or cars were conscious and could talk, though; they were all focused on the world building of the answer with assorted character types in a communal existence in a focused space. Their stories could be anything at all once their territory was proposed first. That’s always good for business, as far as sequels and TV series spinoffs are concerned, too.

Even with The Incredibles, you could just label it as the superhero Pixar movie. Each of the studio’s features was specifically placed in a niche environment or realm dealing with a particular kind of thing. In this case, the territory is a community of superheroes. Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles, diverted even further with Ratatouille, a culinary-focused film that thankfully isn’t about sentient foods — that would come later as the R-rated Sausage Party — but mixes the worlds of humans and rats without crossing their domains enough to have them able to talk to each other.

Since then, Pixar has mostly been out of the “Toy Story but with…” game with the big exception of Inside Out, which is Toy Story with emotions. The Good Dinosaur sort of fits the formula with dinosaurs, especially in the way humans are depicted as extras. The upcoming Onward also may also count as Toy Story with suburbanized fantasy characters. Of course, Pixar has also been making a lot of sequels lately, so the concept continued through Monsters University, Finding Dory, Cars 2, Cars 3, Toy Story 3, Toy Story 4, Incredibles 2, etc. Disney proper did their own variants on the pitch, meanwhile, with Wreck-It Ralph (and its sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet) being Toy Story but with video games and Gnomeo & Juliet (and its sequel, Sherlock Gnomes) being Toy Story but with lawn gnomes.

The basicness of these movies pitch-wise is what led to the apparent competition between Pixar and DreamWorks Animation with seemingly dueling releases. After A Bug’s Life and Antz there was DWA’s Shark Tale, the title of which says it all. Never mind the plot, it’s just a shark story, like Toy Story is a toy story. The movie, which arrived in theaters after its correspondent, Finding Nemo, also did better with the assortment element that Antz lacked (they later forgot the trick when they made Bee Movie). As did Madagascar, which is Toy Story but with zoo animals. If that seems like a stretch, it’s actually one of the more fitting because the concept is also hinged on the question of what are these things doing when humans aren’t noticing them?

Other hit animated films and franchises that came out of the idea include Blue Sky’s Ice Age, which like The Good Dinosaur offers a world of prehistoric characters outside of human observation, and the same studio’s Robots, which went with a human-free world of sentient robots. Their Rio is essentially Toy Story but with birds, down to the newcomer to the territory, yet for it to have been a definite copy it should have done away with the human subplot. DWA’s Monsters vs. Aliens and Sony’s Hotel Transylvania have gone with more familiar examples within their assortments and have had a bit more human interaction, but the interaction is what emphasizes these niche realms, too. Sony’s The Emoji Movie went all the way to the bank by essentially combining the digital realm a la Wreck-It Ralph and emotions a la Inside Out.

You could make a case for many more animated features following the formula of assorted individuals of a given class of thing within a localized communal realm. But is Trolls really just The Smurfs but with more variety in its miniature fantastical creatures? Zootopia and Sing would almost seem to fit but their worlds are too expansive and have no relation to a human or human-like other. They’re just Richard Scarry knockoffs. The Boss Baby would only work if it was just focused on the babies, a la Muppet Babies, and How to Train Your Dragon would only fit if the dragons were the main characters.

Outside of Sausage Party, which almost seems like it’s made to be a pornographic parody of Toy Story, one animated feature this decade topped all others in landing the formula: The Secret Life of Pets. Like Toy Story, the pitch is a question: what do these non-human pals residing in our own home — toys or pets — do when we’re not around? There’s plenty of assortment, going beyond the obvious of all kinds of dogs and cats to include pigs, rabbits, snakes, guinea pigs, parakeets, and more. And there’s the communal realm of an apartment building that they can navigate around. Secret Life even borrows a significant catalyst with a plot involving a new addition to the community causing the jealousy of one of the native members of the group.

You’d think The LEGO Movie was even more of a Toy Story follower in that it’s literally about toys and what they’re doing when people aren’t looking, but while it can be described as Toy Story but with LEGO toys specifically, it’s also executed in a way that takes its property beyond its main realm into an imagined extension of that realm — sort of like the imagination sequences in the Toy Story movies usually in their first few minutes. Now The LEGO Movie is becoming a bit more of a model for animated features going forward that are focused on singular toy-branded or video game-branded IPs, such as UglyDolls, Playmobil, Angry Birds, and Minecraft, alongside other established IPs such as Scooby-Doo and tons of sequels.

As the Toy Story movie franchise is finally truly coming to a supposed close after 24 years, the “Toy Story but with…” pitch could be dying, as well. Even The Secret Life of Pets 2 distanced itself from Pixar’s flagship franchise. And it makes sense, since how many more things are there that would work for the formula? Sentient anthropomorphized clothing items? Well, there’s always the chance of us seeing Toy Story but with a box of crayons, since Sony currently holds the film rights to Drew Daywalt’s popular children’s book The Day the Crayons Quit, which on the page already fits the formula to a tee. Perhaps the idea will just last forever, to infinity and beyond?

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.