ASPEN, Colo.—You likely know the charming plot of the charming movie Toy Story: A boy named Andy has a beloved doll, a cowboy named "Woody." On his birthday, Andy gets a new toy: a spaceman action figure named Buzz Lightyear. Buzz becomes Andy’s new favorite; Woody gets jealous. The two toys fight; then, on an outing in the family car, a fight leads to the toys getting left behind. Adventures ensue.
It's a simple plot, but often the simplest things are the hardest to get just right. It took a long time—and testing, and tweaking, and work—for the Pixar team to get their movie right. In a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival, put on by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, the creativity researcher Keith Sawyer, who has studied creative collaborations among students, businesspeople, jazz musicians, and improv actors, discussed the many ways the movie changed as it developed. The results of the collaboration—among the writers John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Doctor, as well as executives at Disney—are wildly different from what the creators had first intended. The original treatment for Toy Story, Sawyer writes in his book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Creativity, "had almost nothing in common with the movie that we know and love."
Woody, for example, started out as kind of a jerk. ("An early scene," Sawyer notes in the book, "had him abusing Slinky Dog, and another had him pushing Buzz out the window.") Eventually, the Pixar team rewrote the script to make Woody more likable. (So instead of Woody pushing Buzz out the window, Buzz fell by accident.) Barbie was going to be involved in the movie at one point; so was G.I. Joe. Mr. Potato Head was added to the cast of characters because of licensing snafus.
Here is a rough timeline of the path Toy Story took in becoming Toy Story.
- March 1991: The first draft of the script was released. It featured two main characters: a one-man band (Tinny) and a ventriloquist’s dummy. Sawyer describes this early plot:
The movie starts with Tinny waking up in his factory, and then he is given as a birthday gift to a young boy. The boy’s family goes on a road trip to the Southwest, and they take Tinny along. But early in the trip, he gets forgotten and left behind at a gas station. There, he meets the ventriloquist’s dummy, and they work together to find their way back to Tinny’s home. In a series of adventures, the two travel from the back of a truck to an auction, to a garbage truck, a yard sale, a couple’s house, and finally to a kindergarten playground—the happy ending in which the toys are reunited with the children.
- Summer 1991: Jeff Katzenberg, of Disney at the time, told Pixar to rewrite Toy Story as more of a buddy movie. He wanted, specifically, an odd couple movie in which two characters who disliked each other would be thrown together by luck—and then forced to work together.
- September 1991: The Pixar team came back with a second treatment of the movie. This one still featured Tinny and the dummy, but the factory scenes were removed; this time, the dummy was already in the house, and it was the household kids' favorite toy. Tinny was introduced; the dummy became jealous of the new toy; the two started fighting.
And then more iterations came, one after the other:
- Lasseter decided that Tinny was too old-fashioned. He replaced the character with a G.I. Joe-style action figure.
- Lasseter changed the action figure character into a space hero doll. His name? Lunar Larry.
- Lunar Larry became Tempus.
- Tempus became Morph.
- Morph's outfit was changed to a red spacesuit.
- The dummy from the original script was turned into a cowboy character, the better to exaggerate the contrast between the space hero and the boy's previously favorite toy.
- Disney, worried that viewers would associate the ventriloquist dummy with similar characters in horror movies, changed that character into a stuffed toy with a pull string. They named him Woody.
- Tempus was renamed Buzz Lightyear.
- Pixar decided it wanted G.I. Joe to be one of the toys in the movie.
- Hasbro refused to license the rights to the doll. It granted permission, instead, to use Mr. Potato Head. That's what Pixar went with.
- The writers added a plot line in which Woody and Buzz would be rescued from Sid’s house in a commando-style raid. Their rescuer? Barbie.
- After Mattel refused to license the rights to Barbie, they dropped that idea.
- Pixar approached Billy Crystal to play Buzz, with the idea that the actor would give the toy an arrogant voice and feel.
- Crystal turned down the part.
- Tim Allen took the role, giving Buzz a friendly, "ordinary guy" sensibility.
And then, in February of 1994—three years after its original treatment was released—Disney gave the green light to Toy Story. The film would be released in November 1995, the first movie ever to be completely computer-generated. It was a risk, and everyone knew it; in the fall of 1994, Steve Jobs, Pixar's owner, had been about to give up and sell the company to Microsoft. He did not, in the end. And Toy Story went on to become not only the highest-grossing movie of 1995, but also an instant classic. One that stars not Tinny or Tempus or Morph or Larry, but Buzz. And a simple little doll named Woody.