Was Toy Story Nearly Canceled Because It Was Too Dark of a Story?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: “Toy Story” was nearly canceled because the original script was considered too dark.

In an old Movie Legends Revealed a couple of years ago, I discussed how Pixar accidentally deleted 90% of their work done on “Toy Story 2” nine months into the project. The studio managed to recover from that near disaster, but what is interesting is that there almost came a time when there would not have even been a “Toy Story 2,” because the original “Toy Story” came within two weeks of being canceled by Walt Disney Studios!

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Read on to discover why!

The 1995 film “Toy Story” is about what goes on with your toys when you’re not playing with them. In this case, a young boy named Andy has a variety of toys who have fun while he is not around. His number one favorite toy is a cowboy doll named Woody. In the beginning of the film, Andy gets a new toy, a futuristic spaceman named Buzz Lightyear. It appears as though Buzz might be supplanting Woody as Andy’s favorite toy. Woody, naturally enough, has a problem with this. When Andy is only allowed one toy on a trip to the local pizza place, Woody tries to hide Buzz from Andy but instead accidentally knocks Buzz out of the window. Woody eventually makes it up to Buzz and the two find themselves captured by Andy’s cruel next door neighbor, Sid. Can Woody and Buzz escape from Sid before he blows them up and get back to Andy before he and his family move? That’s the driving plot of the film (along with Woody and Buzz slowly becoming friends).

That, however, was not the ORIGINAL plot of “Toy Story.”

You see, the idea of having an outside animation studio like Pixar Animation Studio (at the time Pixar was independent – it has since become an official subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios) was considered quite risky at the time and then-Walt Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg had to fight hard for the project to go forward. Pixar’s technically advanced way of making animated films was enough of a hook that Katzenberg really wanted them to be at Disney (especially after Disney couldn’t convince Pixar to just sell them their methods). As a result, though, Katzenberg was continually attempting to mold the film into what he thought would work best. He once told John Lasseter, head of Pixar, that yes, he (Katzenberg) was a tyrant, but he was a tyrant that was right most of the time, so he should listen to him. One of the areas where Katzenberg had the most influence on “Toy Story” was the script, where he wanted the film to have a darker, more cynical edge. He wanted the film to appeal to grown-ups as much as it would appeal to kids.

This was manifested most clearly in the character of Woody. In some of the early treatments of the film, Woody was flat out the VILLAIN of the movie. Even after they developed the movie more towards the buddy comedy approach (something that Katzenberg himself pushed for), Woody was still a bit rough around the edges. Tom Hanks, who had been cast as Woody, remarked that Woody just seemed like a jerk. This all came to a head on November 19, 1993, when Lasseter and crew brought the first half of the film to Disney’s offices in Burbank. This incident was later referred to as “Black Friday,” as Disney hated the film. They felt it was so bad that Peter Schneider, head of Walt Disney Animation (who was never a fan of farming out a movie to an outside studio) wanted the film canceled and all the Pixar animators fired. Katzenberg, too, was shocked by how bad it was but soon realized that the simple fact of the matter was that the film was no longer the movie Pixar wanted to make, but rather the film that they were sort of forced to make.

This was shown especially in a clip where we see Woody intentionally throw Buzz out of the window…

The movie was just far too dark. Lasseter explained that this wasn’t the style of film that they wanted and they were given two weeks to turn things around. Things looked bleak, with Schneider none too pleased with the situation, but eventually their re-worked script addressed all of Disney’s issues and the film was back on track to being a lighthearted comedy and Woody was a nice toy again (also at this same time they came up with the hook that Buzz Lightyear doesn’t realize that he is a toy).

The finished film was a smash success, launching Pixar into becoming perhaps the preeminent animation studio in the business, with “Toy Story” grossing over $300 million dollars and getting nominated for three Academy Awards (Lasseter received a special Oscar for the film).

The legend is…

STATUS: True

Thanks to Paul for the suggestion!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is [email protected]

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