Toy Story: An Analysis of the Story Structure

The other night whilst my dear mother was enjoying some sort of “Snowman Party,” us guys (Dad, Tyler, an I) were at home (boys night in!). I was elated that a couple XLR cables had arrived that day, and after doing a test with my shotgun mic (which, before this, I had been unable to use due to my lack of a cable) which went extremely well, Tyler suggested that we do a “Toy Story” marathon. That means watching Toy Story and Toy Story 2 back to back.

Though I wasn’t particularly excited at the chance to sit in front of a TV for four hours doing practically nothing, I did. But just before we started, I had an idea.

So I got my trusty pad of paper and a pen, and sat poised and ready to write as the first movie began.

Instead of a wasted four hours, it was perhaps a little beneficial, as I was learning about story structure by taking notes (and watching camera moves… BTW, did you ever notice that there’s absolutely no depth-of-field in the first movie, except for where there’s a matte painting behind the 3D animation?) on it.

I thought that I would share my findings with you. So here they are:

Toy Story


Story Structure
ACT I
— Inciting Event — “Bank Robbery” introduces the setting, main toys (characters), Andy, Andy’s room.
— Introduction of Settings

  • Toys are organized
  • Use of dutch angles to create confusion (okay, so that doesn’t have anything to do with the story…)
  • Toy “hierarchy”
  • Introduction of new character “Buzz,” conflict
  • Conflict deepened, introduction of the “Sid” plot
  • ACT II
    Main Plot

  • Woody’ conspiracy against Buzz
  • The two are lost
  • Enter Sid’s house
  • Buzz discovers the truth about himself
  • Hope rises for escape, is dashed, mistrust in Andy’s room at it’s height
  • ACT III

  • Buzz loses all hope
  • Conflict heightens
  • Victory, but then complications
  • Buzz is lost
  • Conflict from dog, traffic, other toys
  • Small bit of relief
  • All hope is gone
  • Hope rises, problems are overcome (“Wait a minute… I just lit a rocket, and rockets explode!”)
  • Conflict is resolved!
  • Toy Story 2


    Story Structure
    NOTE: It’s kinda hard to tell whether or not this movie is in a standard 3-act story structure, or a 5-act. The conflict is different from that which is in the first movie, and there are several “false fronts” that lead into the actual plot. For the sake of simplicity and not exploding or imploding my own brain, I’ve organized this into the 3-act story structure.

    ACT I
    Inciting incident (supposed)– Buzz in space, actually a video game
    Introduction:

  • Woody going to camp, lost hat
  • Theme of “belonging” introduced
  • “Al” introduced (in the TV ad)
  • Setup for plot:

  • Woody is broken, has to stay home, dream sequence
  • Finds “Wheezy”
  • The yard sale, goes to rescue Wheezy, complications
  • Inciting event (actual) — Woody is stolen (leads into the actual plot)

    ACT II

  • Toys trying to solve mystery
  • Al is the culprit, Woody is captive
  • Backstory to Woody’s value, introduction of the “Prospector,” “Jessy,” “Bulls-eye”
  • The plot to save Woody
  • More backstory for the “Roundup Gang,” museum plot
  • Woody loses his arm, delays Al
  • Failed attempt to get arm back
  • Toy’s victorious invasion of Al’s Toy Barn
  • Video game magazine element (tied back into the supposed inciting incident, tied to other future elements as well)
  • Introduce second “Buzz,” develop the conflict in Al’s Toy Barn
  • Theme of “belonging” further developed
  • Woody’s choice of staying or leaving
  • Toy’s failure to find Woody at Al’s Toy Barn
  • Zurg introduced, problems overcome, connection to video game magazine
  • Roundup Gang preparing to leave / toys getting closer to rescue
  • Rescue operation going amiss, conflict with the Buzzes, conflict with the Prospector, escape deterred by Al
  • Conflict with Zurg, exit the Buzz/Zurg/video game plot (these elements simply help the toys get on with the plot)
  • Problem overcome (“Pizza anyone?”)
  • ACT III

  • Airport conflict, confusion
  • Disappointment
  • Conflict with the Prospector (again…)
  • Rescue
  • Problems, attempted rescue by Woody,
  • Ingenuity/conflict
  • Resolution (Woody is fixed, the theme of “belonging” is completed)
  • McGuffins

    And now for a few thoughts on the McGuffins from each movie. If you don’t know what a McGuffin is, read about it here.

    Toy Story’s McGuffin
    What’s the first movie’s McGuffin? I believe that it’s RC. Yep, the little remote control car. Why?

    1) RC is used to enter the main plot in Act II with Woody’s conspiracy
    2) RC brings everyone back together again at the resolution (well, except for Mr. Potato Head, who ends up being spread all over the floor of the moving truck by RC)

    Toy Story 2’s McGuffin
    Woody. He’s the second movie’s McGuffin, at least, that’s what I think. Perhaps I’m wrong (the video game element could be it, but I tend to think of this element as a secondary McGuffin that simply helps the plot along a bit).

    But think about it: Woody is what’s stolen (and thus brings in the plot), he’s the one who is crucial to the Roundup Gang (without him, they go back into storage), and he’s crucial to the Andy’s Room toys as well (in their rescue operation, which is the main plot).

    Woody brings all the characters together (except for the second Buzz and Zurg; I tend to think that the video game element is a whole different side-story), tears them apart (not literally; only in that the Rounup Gang’s hopes and dreams are torn between Woody’s desire for Andy, and to keep the Gang together), and finally brings the movie to it’s climactic resolution (he rescues Jessie).

    So those are my thoughts on the movies. What do you think?

    I’ll also say that, for some reason (perhaps it being simply because it’s been so long since I’ve watched them, or perhaps because the Lord opened my eyes to it), there seemed to be a hint of mockery going on at Christianity. It was extremely subtle (and perhaps I’m wrong, don’t take my word for it), but I could see it there. Maybe I’m wrong. I’d have to watch it again and specifically take notes for that (I can’t remember exactly what the elements where at the moment)… So I’ll just leave it at that.

    So anyways, I feel like I learned a little bit from charting the story structure!

    3 thoughts on “Toy Story: An Analysis of the Story Structure”

    1. I think the video game may actually be more of the primary McGuffin, as many of the characters in the movie go through the acting out of fantasy lives (as the dinosaur is doing in the opening scene by playing the video game). In the end, Woody and Jessy “win” in the ‘real life’ fantasy of escaping their predicament in the airplane, and they all realize that ‘real life’ as a toy who belongs to a child is the most important thing of all.

      dad

    2. Hmm, interesting. So perhaps the McGuffin could be the transition from fantasy into reality?

      For instance;

      Video game translates to a real confrontation between Buzz and Zurg
      “Woody’s Roundup” show translates to real adventure/rescue

      I hadn’t really thought of that aspect… Good thoughts, Dad!

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