Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and a bunch of computer geeks create a holiday smash -- and Disney leaps into a whole new world of animation

It almost didn’t happen. It almost fell apart on Nov. 19, 1993—a date that the makers of Toy Story refer to as Black Friday.

That was the day a creative team from Pixar Animation Studios brought to their bosses at Disney, who had already agreed to back the Toy Story project, a collection of story reels—filmed storyboards edited into a photoplay over a rough soundtrack. The reels of Toy Story presented on Black Friday were hardly the rollicking light fare that opened to $39 million and critical raves over Thanksgiving weekend. In those reels, the movie was a flat, unexciting endeavor, in which the toy heroes Buzz Lightyear and Woody the cowboy were sarcastic, contrary, unlikable sorts—not the kind of figures children would embrace, much less pick off the shelves of Toys ‘R’ Us. And despite the bouncy vocal tracks supplied by Tom Hanks as Woody and Tim Allen as Buzz, the awkward chemistry between the two main characters, who vie for supremacy over a child’s roomful of toys, was apparent to everyone in the room.

In short, the movie wasn’t fun. And, already nervous about having agreed to the Pixar animators’ insistence that Toy Story not be a musical, the financial godfathers at Disney seemed willing to give up on their first experiment in feature-length computer animation.

”Guys, no matter how much you try to fix it,” Disney animation chief Peter Schneider told them, ”it just isn’t working.”

With a collective sigh of resignation, director John Lasseter and producers Ralph Guggenheim and Bonnie Arnold agreed to regroup, rethink, and repair the film’s concept in three months. If that didn’t work, they feared the plug could be pulled on the project. The creative team itself knew the film needed work. Admits screenwriter Joss Whedon: ”The original Woody was a thundering a — — — .” Eventually, the making of Toy Story would have a happy ending, but the struggle en route would make the scrabbling among the movie’s volatile toys look like, well, child’s play. Even Barbie would get in on the action, and it wasn’t always pretty.

Just 14 years ago Toy Story — 77 minutes of eyepopping three-dimensional moving pictures created on computers — was unimaginable. Except to John Lasseter. In 1981, Lasseter was a 24-year-old journeyman Disney animator, and as he sat in a darkened screening room at the Disney studios, checking out dailies on the movie Tron to see what some fellow animators were doing with computer-graphics imagery, he started to see the possibilities of full-scale computer animation. Tron, a technologically dazzling but silly cyber-adventure, ultimately did little business, but ”the minute I saw the light-cycle sequence, which had such dimensionality and solidity,” Lasseter recalls, ”it was like a little door in my head opening to a whole new world.”

Lasseter and fellow animator Glen Keane (who went on to make Beauty and the Beast) tried to interest Disney in the medium by animating 30 seconds of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are with standard animation drawings in computer-generated settings. But Disney, which was then trying to right itself after years of box office ineffectuality, was not interested in experimenting with untried computer animation.

Toy Story
  • Movie
  • 81 minutes