With the release of the Buzz Lightyear spin-off, Lightyear, it’s a perfect time to reminisce on what made Toy Story such a beloved classic. With most animated movies utilizing computer-generated imagery, it’s easy to forget that Pixar’s Toy Story was the first to do it. CGI wasn’t exactly a new idea in 1995, but Toy Story was the first feature-length film to be made entirely using computer animation. Part of its success is due to its story concept. It was much easier for audiences to engage with CGI when it was being used to animate something outlandish, like talking toys. And because every great story needs a great villain, what greater antagonist could there be for a band of toys than Sid Phillips (Erik von Detten), a kid who plays with his toys way too rough? Here’s the thing about Sid, though: he never actually did anything all that villainous.
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From the toy perspective, of course, the punk next door who straps fireworks to toys is nothing short of a nightmare: The ultimate terror. When Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) try to survive the threat of being blown apart, melted, decapitated or otherwise maimed and dismembered, Sid makes complete sense as a maniacal psychopath in their eyes. But is it fair for us to see Sid that way? How was Sid supposed to know the toys were alive? I did the same thing when I was a kid. My brother and I strapped firecrackers to Stormtrooper figures to make our own “battle damaged” toys. That’s really no different than Sid in his first scene, blowing up a Combat Carl. And who among us can say they never pulled an arm or a head off a doll or action figure, just to see if it would come off? True, Sid exhibits a high degree of premeditation with his supposed crimes, but is he sadistic, or is he just bored? A closer look at what he actually does with the toys he tortures reveals a creative mind with too few outlets.
Let’s get something straight, first. Sid is by no means a well-behaved kid. He’s awful to his sister, Hannah (Sarah Freeman), and he probably broke the Whack-a-Alien machine at Pizza Planet. But he’s still a kid. He dreams about riding ponies, and he gets genuinely distressed when it storms too hard to play outside. Also, his level of excitement when his mom tells him his Pop Tarts are ready? Come on, that’s kind of precious. Kids that age bully and annoy their siblings, they misbehave in public places, and, yes, they bust up toys for fun. For fun! That’s what it’s all about for Sid.
When Sid steals Hannah’s doll, Janie, he doesn’t just rip it up in front of her to make her upset. He makes a game of pretend out of it. He plays doctor in the scene where he switches the doll’s head with a pterodactyl head. He is actively involved in a make-believe world, reciting dialogue and embodying different characters. The next morning, when he interrogates Woody and burns his forehead with a magnifying glass, he’s an actor in the role of an imperial officer trying to get answers out of a rebel. These games are creative outlets for his imagination. Sid creates storylines to act out, and the toys are his props.
When his hotly anticipated fireworks rocket shows up in the mail, he makes a pageant out of the occasion. He can’t just strap any toy to The Big One, it needs to be the right toy – the right toy for the story. Naturally, Sid picks Buzz Lightyear, the space ranger, to take a trip to the stars. He constructs a launchpad in his backyard and goes through the whole process of a rocket countdown, because sending an astronaut into the sky on an actual rocket is objectively cool to a kid. Sure, Sid is possibly a pyromaniac, but he’s not a lazy one. When Woody shows up in the backyard unexpectedly, he plans to have a “cookout” with him later and tosses him on a grill. Sid tailors his games to the aesthetics of the toys available to him. Now that’s dedication!
Speaking of the toys available to him, there’s something to be said of the toys that populate Sid’s room. They’re all Frankenstein’s monsters, horribly mismatched displays of plastic body horror. While it’s understandable that Woody would immediately fear the mutant toys, Sid isn’t so much sick and twisted as he is practical and resourceful. Sid takes toys that would be otherwise uninteresting to him and uses them to make new toys. He builds Erector set crab legs for a baby doll head. He uses Barbie legs to turn a fishing rod into a strange, walking creature. He glues an action figure’s torso onto an old skateboard he doesn’t use anymore. Sid doesn’t think he’s torturing living, feeling things, he thinks he’s creating something new out of the old.
It was always the intent of the team behind Toy Story to use Sid to force an unexpected perspective on the audience. In a featurette of The Making of Toy Story, director John Lasseter speaks about one of the Toy Story’s progenitors, Tin Toy: “Also with Tin Toy, I first started developing this notion of a juxtaposition with the audience. It’s where you can show them something that they are so familiar with, and then all of a sudden you make them look at it from a different point of view. Like looking at a cute little baby from a toy’s perspective. For a toy, that’s a monster! And we were inspired from Tin Toy with the ideas that we had developed in there of toys being alive.”
Co-writer, Andrew Stanton, goes on to say: “A lot of us really played hard with our toys, but even though in our eye in the movie Sid’s a bad guy, and he does bad things to toys, it’s somewhat more true to what we were.” Lasseter adds, “We all agreed that Sid was the kind of kid who would grow up to be an animator.” Sid is a natural storyteller, and the storytellers who created him know this. It’s true that Sid’s delight in destruction could be seen as a little concerning in its severity. He laughs when his dog Skud chews up the Little Green Man, and the severed heads in his lava lamp is probably a red flag. None of that can get around the fact that to Sid, these things are just things— inanimate objects. Unthinking, unfeeling. They are his canvas with which to experiment and make art. His affinity for the macabre is nothing more than an artist’s stylistic choice, a niche aesthetic.
If Sid knew any better, he wouldn’t be using toys as his medium. So when Woody’s plan to save Buzz results in Sid discovering all of his toys can move and speak, he’s naturally frightened. He is immediately regretful. Sid may never be able to look at another toy again after Woody threatens him the way he does. There’s a good chance the kid is going to therapy if he ever tries to tell his parents about what he experienced. However, the important part of Woody