Freeform’s 30 Days of Disney September scheduling block begins today with a number of well-enjoyed Disney animated features– Hercules, Mulan, and The Princess and the Frog among them– but the one that stands out is the original Toy Story. It stands out because looking back nearly twenty-four years ago to its release, it represented the beginning of a new era for American animation, and for The Walt Disney Company itself.
In 1995, the world had never seen a fully computer-animated movie before. It’s kind of amazing to think that was just a thing that didn’t exist, because we’ve seen so many hundreds of them since. Toy Story was the first strike in a revolution that not only established CG animation as a viable medium, but eventually (within about a decade) eliminated traditional hand-drawn animation from Disney’s production schedule– and bear in mind Disney was built on hand-drawn animation.
Beyond its technological innovation, Toy Story was a powerhouse at the box office and in the hearts and minds of a global audience. At the time of its release, it quickly became the third highest-grossing animated film of all time (behind only The Lion King and Aladdin), earning more than 370 million dollars worldwide. It’s characters– Woody and Buzz Lightyear chief among them– became household names, not to mention Pixar Animation Studios, the then-still-fledgling company that had only produced little-seen (though award-winning) animated shorts prior to that point.
In the two and a half decades since Toy Story’s release, Disney and Pixar have built on the franchise’s popularity by creating three incredibly well-received and financially successful sequels, several straight-to-TV short films and theatrical shorts starring the Andy’s Room gang, numerous theme park areas and attractions including 2018’s Toy Story Land at Walt Disney World, and countless merchandising tie-ins. What better marketing for toys based on movies than a movie series where the characters are toys?
But thinking back on what feels like Toy Story’s inevitable popularity, I can’t help but mourn the loss of what came before. Surely there must have been a possible future where computer animation and hand-drawn animation could exist side-by-side at Disney, but apparently it was not to be. In 2009 and 2011, the studio tried to revive the beloved more-than-a-century-old process with The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh, but those attempts didn’t quite take, as we haven’t seen another cel-animated film since then from the House of Mouse.
It seems unfortunate to me that Disney hasn’t made more of an effort to keep hand-drawn animation going into the 21st Century. While I’ve seen all of Pixar’s theatrical features and really enjoyed most of them– I’d count a few among my favorite movies ever made– I think there’s something to be said for keeping tradition alive and honoring Walt Disney’s legacy by making cel animation a priority again at the company. I’d guess fans would even settle for one new release via that method every five years or so. But the last thing I want is to see it die.
Still, all that being said, I’m glad Toy Story has earned the accolades and following it has. If one movie had to mark the beginning of a new era of animation, you could do much worse than the one that gave us Buzz “falling with style,” Pizza Planet, “The Claw,” Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head, Woody pulling an Exorcist head-spin on Sid, those unforgettable (for better or worse) Randy Newman songs, and the camaraderie between Andy’s playthings that would inspire generations of fans.
Toy Story airs at 7:50 PM this evening on Freeform, and the basic cable channel’s 30 Days of Disney programming block runs throughout the month of September. It will also be available on Disney+ when the streaming service launches on November 12.
Mike serves as Laughing Place’s lead Southern California reporter, Editorial Director for Star Wars content, and host of the weekly “Who’s the Bossk?” Star Wars podcast. He’s been fascinated by Disney theme parks and storytelling in general since a very young age and resides in Burbank, California with his beloved wife and cats.