The Toy Story triumvirate will reign supreme among stories of toys coming to life and it’s hard to imagine any single film or series that uses the premise of living playthings ever besting the perfect trio of movies.
But having given the hat trick fair praise, the toys in Andy’s room weren’t the first to walk and talk under their own control, and other stories feature toys springing to life when their owners aren’t around or by the power of dreams and wishes, the magic of midnight or, in one case, the might of military grade munitions chips.
So, if you still have room for more childhood toy fantasies and adventures beyond Woody, Buzz and their crew, we offer these additional movie choices old and new…
Babes In Toyland (aka March Of The Wooden Soldiers) (1934)
This is only the first among four titles here that feature soldiers as the main animated childhood objects of attention. They’re a popular theme, the tin type being the action figures of their era, and perhaps allowing their adventures to be a bit more daring than the average toy.
This is one of the oldest of our film examples. It’s a version of Victor Herbert’s 1903 musical (Babes In Toyland), well known to Americans, as it airs annually in almost every state either on Thanksgiving or during the Christmas holidays.
Its greatest draw is in the starring roles of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, employees of Santa’s workshop. Their hopes of raising the mortgage money for Mother Widow Peep are dashed when their boss finds out they’ve made a mistake and instead of making 600 wooden soldiers at one foot tall, they’ve made 100 soldiers at six feet tall.
Although these soldiers don’t technically come to life, they do come to the rescue when the Bogeymen attack Toyland and Stannie and Ollie are redeemed. And any soldiers who can fight the gnarly bogeymen deserve to be here.
The few songs may be a bit saccharine, but there’s so much charm, plus Laurel and Hardy, that the film has remained a favourite all these years. It also has the ingenious casting of a real monkey in a mouse suit (who looks remarkably similar to a mouse named Mickey), and an impressive for its time stop-motion animation sequence as the soldiers head out to do battle with the Bogeys.
The Steadfast Tin Soldier Fantasia/2000 (1999)
Our second soldier entry, this is the tale of a solider with only one leg who falls in love with a ballerina who’s posed en pointe, leaving the soldier to believe she too has just one leg.
The Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, first published in 1838, has been interpreted many times in films and a ballet and each handles what is a quite poignant ending a little differently.
In the original story, the soldier falls from a table and goes on adventures before returning to the playroom where he’s thrown by a young boy into a fire, melting into the shape of a heart. And the ballerina, made of paper, gets blown to his side and perishes with him, with only her metal spangle remaining.
It’s quite a bleak, romantic ending for small children, and a 1934 Ub Iwerks cartoon short version even has the soldier facing a firing squad before burning in the flames. (As if simply frying wasn’t enough!)
An alternate and happier ending features in Fantasia 2000, where the tin soldier defeats the evil, lecherous Jack-in-the-box and he and the ballerina live happily ever after. Of course.
The story uses a motif we’ll see again, as the toys in the playroom come to life at the stroke of midnight.
The nutcracker’s story, written by ETA Hoffman (The Nutcracker And The Mouse King) in 1816, was adapted into a ballet with a score by Tchaikovsky and first danced in 1892. Since that time there have been numerous adaptations on the story of toys (again, mostly soldiers) coming to life to defend young Clara from an army of mice on Christmas Eve.
Dancers including Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov have performed the story of the Nutcracker. So have Macaulay Culkin and Barbie.
Our favourite is the 1986 version because of its costume, creature and set designs by children’s book author and illustrator, Maurice Sendak, probably best known for Where The Wild Things Are.
Additional to the familiar theme of animated soldiers, the production also employs the stroke of midnight to kick off the action, and even if you’re not a fan of ballet, each set looks like a scene that’s danced off the pages of a Sendak picture book.
A very brief bit of narration by Julie Harris makes this version more accessible to the younger fans in the family.
Small Soldiers (1998)
Unlike our hero soldiers above, half of the toys in Small Soldiers pose the biggest threat to their owners, when ordinary action figures are given X-1000 microprocessors, making them capable of thought and violence as The Commando Elite fight the peaceful monster Gorgonites and any humans who get in their way.
Despite a raging war scene, this film may be one of the least frightening here, as the action is always infused with humour and the combination of live actors and animated toys lessens the threat to manageable proportions. It also makes this film as much fun for adults as for the kids.
When the two leagues of action figures are imbued with critical thinking skills, the Commando Elite go A-Team on the Gorgonites, who prefer hiding to fighting.
Highlights of the Joe Dante-directed film are when the soldiers arm themselves with whatever they can get their hands on, with everyday objects in the garage becoming warring weapons, and theFrankensteinesque scenes where Gwendy fashion dolls are mutilated and brought to life, all to a Jerry Goldsmith soundtrack, with a great use of War, and a Spice Girls track used as psychological torture.
The animatronic design and effects (no doubt made more complicated by human beings and animals also in the scenes) are by the late, great Stan Winston, which all adds up to a very worthy romp and inclusion here.
The Mouse And His Child (1977)
Based on a 1967 Russell Hoban novel for children, The Mouse And His Child is an animated adventure of father and son wind-up toys, attached at the hands and built to dance in circles.
The story uses the enchanted midnight hour to bring the pair and the rest of the toyshop to life, where they meet other clockwork characters and learn the strict rules of their existence, including ‘no crying’.
When they’re knocked to the floor and discarded, the Mouse and his Child try to reunite with the seal and elephant. All they want is to become self-winding, and not rely on someone turning their key to advance in the world, and to form a little family of their friends.
On their travels they meet a villainous rat, Manny, who abducts broken clockwork creatures and makes them slavishly forage for food for him. They have miserable lives and, what’s worse, if they complain or shirk their work, Manny has them ripped apart and dismantled into spare parts.
This is quite an upsetting situation for children and, at one point, the father and son face the same fate, although they enjoy a happy ending with the help of a psychic frog and mechanically inclined muskrat, defeating the rats, finding their friends, and becoming self-winding individuals.
Although the slightly awkward animation makes the film appear directed at young children, the story touches on philosophical themes that are explored further in the book. But the movie features a great cast of actors (Peter Ustinov, Cloris Leachman, Sally Kellerman, Andy Devine, John Carradine and Bob Holt) voicing the characters, which are all quite cute.
Unfortunately, this may be a hard film to track down as it was only available on VHS.
The Indian In The Cupboard (1995)
Another film based on a much loved children’s book, The Indian In The Cupboard is the first in a series by Lynne Reid Banks. The film, directed by Frank Oz, is all live-action and tells the story of Omri, who’s given an old cabinet and key for his birthday and discovers that the combination breathes life into anything put into the cabinet.
Being a modestly-sized cabinet, he tries the small toy figures in his closet. The first, Little Bear (played by Litefoot), a Native American, is a much better live companion than other attempts, including RoboCop, Darth Vader and a dinosaur.
Through a series of events in which he also makes a plastic cowboy live (David Keith as Boo-hoo Boone), injuries occur and it’s here where the first real worry is visited amongst the adventures. It’s also the entrance of Steve Coogan in his first film appearance, playing a British medic toy soldier who renders aid to the wounded.
Omri becomes aware that actions have consequences, no matter how much fun you’re having, especially when he learns that the act of Little Bear becoming real has wrenched him from his own world where he was hunting with a nephew, who’s now left on his own, and there are a few moments of genuine peril in the film to drive the cautionary message home.
In the end, Omri remedies most of his mistakes with his new friends and returns them to their worlds and plastic state.
Now, here’s the film that’s probably best known and loved of this collection by readers of this site. And what’s not to love? With a nuanced performance by then-ingénue, Jennifer Connelly, original songs written and performed by David Bowie, a screenplay by Terry Jones, costume and creature designs by Brian Froud, the riddles, optical illusions and conundrums, and of course, the whole shebang under the leadership of the incomparable Jim Henson, it’s a favourite of many.
On Sarah’s unforgettable journey to rescue her baby brother, Toby, from the Golbin King, Jareth, she’s aided by allies made up of the toys in her room, who come to life and help her on her journey. In the opening scenes, you can see the stuffed animals, bookend, Escher poster and toy maze as the camera pans her room, ending at a likeness of the conjuror himself, standing right by her bedroom mirror (also seen in the junkyard scene), before the live versions join the toy-filled room for a celebration at the film’s end.
Labyrinth is a brilliant collaboration of some of the finest talents in filmmaking, with timeless themes and humour. While it’s probably, at first, most popular among those who can relate to Sarah and her age, and the youngest of this generation may not recognise David Bowie or realise the coup in casting that was achieved at the time, it will always be an excellent example of its genre, Henson puppetry, and great storytelling.
Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977)
Raggedy Ann and her brother Andy may be the most US-centric of the characters named here. Created by author Johnny Gruelle in the early 1900s, the siblings’ adventures were the stuff of a series of books and, even today, are popular rag dolls still manufactured with their trademark on their cloth chests: the words “I Love You” printed in a heart.
The film captures all the characteristic charisma and spirited determination of the pair as they set out from Marcella’s playroom to rescue her newest toy, a French doll named Babette, stolen by The Captain, who’s hopelessly smitten with her. Along the way they befriend the forlorn Camel with the Wrinkled Knees and outwit King Koo Koo, whose body parts expand when he laughs at other people’s expense.
The Raggedy story follows the same conventions as the Toy Story films, by having the toys come to life as soon as no humans are around, and the film is bookended by live-action scenes that dissolve into and out of the animated frames.
Sophisticated hand-drawn animation techniques are used, with a very flowing style that was necessary to properly represent the movement of rag dolls. As if to reinforce the fact that the animators succeeded admirably in that task, two other scenes in the storyline feature constantly moving, flowing creatures, The Greedy and Gadzooks.
The songs, while they may not sound brilliant at first, stick with you through the years and the film has all the heart and soul that you’d want from the story of Raggedy Ann and Andy. It’s a real delight and well worth seeking out, if you can find or import a copy.
The Christmas Toy (1986)
Another film that shares the Toy Story and Raggedy Ann And Andy rules of life, this Jim Henson Company film tightens the conditions of being to include the proviso that, if any toy is caught out of position from when a human last saw them, it’s frozen and lifeless forever.
And that does happen to one of the toy room pals, with a brief funeral ride to the closet in a very sad scene.
Unless you’ve seen The Christmas Toy before, all of the Muppet-like character puppets are new, except for an introduction by Kermit, who appears again at the film’s end.
The story is also similar to the rivalry of top toy favourites’ Woody and Buzz, except that last year’s Christmas present, Rugby the Tiger Cub, has no idea that the holiday comes more than once and is not prepared to welcome new toy, Meteora, into the family. Also, even the cat’s toy, a wheeled catnip mouse named Mew, gets to join the toys, although they constantly complain about his smell.
Like all Henson productions, the movie has some great songs and excellent puppetry in a story to charm all ages.
The Christmas Toy is a brilliant film that was shown as a holiday special on TV in the States and then bundled with A Muppet Family Christmas. Finally, just this year it became available on its own on DVD (in the UK, 2009 in the US) and should be a part of any Christmas, toy lover, or Henson fan’s collection.
We’ve saved the wooden prince of toys till last, but his is one of the oldest and most frequently adapted tales of all.
The Adventures Of Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi, began in 1881 in serialised and book forms. Of all the live-action and animated versions that followed, most of us are likely to picture the 1940 Disney version when Pinocchio’s name is mentioned.
This is one of the few films where, by becoming real, the toy becomes a danger to himself, as Pinocchio is exploited by strangers and corrupted by bad boys and makes all the wrong decisions when left to his own devices.
Telling the story of the marionette that’s brought to life by The Blue Fairy in answer to carver/father Geppetto’s wish upon a star, Pinocchio is a classic cautionary tale. While some of the allegorical elements and fates of characters from the original story were changed for the times and youngest viewers, it’s still a story of longing and wish fulfilment, provided you follow the rules.
This is old school hand-drawn animation wherein each background scene is richly rendered, shadowed and shaded and still makes much of modern animation drab and sketchy in comparison.Pinocchio is a wonder to watch, and in that final scene where he becomes a real boy, we can share Geppetto’s joy, but will miss the unlucky, plucky wooden one.
Special Mentions:Coraline (2009)
Toys don’t feature heavily in this animated treat, but any excuse to mention the excellent Henry Selick-directed take on Neil Gaiman’s story is a fair excuse. Coraline’s toys in the Other Mother/ Beldam world are full of life, flying and moving about her prettier room, where she eats better food and has more attentive parents, but at a terrible price.
Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Another Christmas staple in the States, the stop-motion antics of Rudolph and his pals take him to the Island of Misfit Toys, home to Charlie-In-The-Box, the spotted Elephant, the Choo-choo with square wheels, the Water Pistol that shoots jelly, a Bird that swims, a Cowboy who rides an ostrich, and a Boat that can’t float. They’re all misfits. Though there’s no explanation for the toys’ actions, they sing and dance, and that, to us, is life.
Winnie The Pooh
The Winnie-The-Pooh books by AA Milne, first published in 1926, have lead to feature films and TV series starring the pudgy stuffed bear and his buddies, and although there is no life generation story, the fact that Pooh is based on the author’s son’s own toy, Edward Bear, who’s since been seen, heard and loved by millions of children is, to our minds, proof that his is a true story of a toy brought to life.