It was November 22, 1995.

America was caught up in heated debates about race and justice. A jury had just declared O.J. Simpson “not guilty.” And the Million Man March had seen hundreds of thousands of black men march on the capital, seeking to give the world “a vastly different picture of the Black male” and to draw attention to the economic injustice suffered by African Americans.

Okalahoma City was recovering from the worst terrorist bombing in U.S. history.

Pope John Paul II had just wrapped up a U.S. tour.

Christopher “Superman” Reeve had become paralyzed when a horse threw him off.

eBay was born.

Calvin and Hobbes was in the final weeks of its celebrated run.

A lot of us were listening to Jagged Little Pill.

At the movies, Forrest Gump had won Best Picture for the year before, dumbing down heavy issues with sentimentality, and Braveheart had set off what would become a seemingly endless competition between directors to stage the most elaborate battlefield calamity for many years to come.

Adults in search of something that felt new, hopeful, inspiring, and intelligent would get it from an unlikely place: Pixar, which was testing out a new partnership with Disney.

Toy Story, Pixar’s first feature-length film — which opened 20 years ago today — would go on to earn an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, thanks to the work of five people who had not yet become household names: Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, John Lasseter, Peter Docter, and Joe Ranft.

Where was I when Toy Story landed?

toy story looking closer 20

I was a college graduate, working hard writing and editing in a new job in Seattle’s Department of Construction and Land Use. I was dating somebody new — and in less than a year I would marry her. And I had just begun writing the first draft of a story that would, 12 year later, become my first published novel: Auralia’s Colors.

I had not begun to take film reviewing seriously as a vocation, but I knew, when I saw an engaging, feature-length work of digital animation that I had seen something special.

It wasn’t the technical innovation that excited me (I was actually a bit bothered by what were, at the time, some obvious limitations). It was everything else: The movie was a joy for its high-spirited playfulness, its wild imagination, and its celebration of something that everyone could agree on: toys. And not just any toys, but the kind that require imagination to bring them to life. Kids loved it for the laughs, and the adults were nostalgic about some of the old-fashioned toys brought back to life in CGI. I was surprised to recognize one of the very first toys I ever played with: the smiling Chatter Telephone on wheels.

A few years later, building my first website at the end of the ’90s, I would write some quick reflections on Toy Story, already recognizing that it had changed movies forever.

Movies achieved through digital animation are a big deal these days. Toy Story deserves all the attention it gets.

And that came as a surprise to me. I had lost faith in Disney in recent years; films like Pocahontas showed that they had become more interested in giving audiences good feelings than in adhering respectfully to a classic story or developing strong characters.

But Toy Story started steering Disney in a promising direction, bringing back a sense of inspiration and genius true to the spirit of the studio’s innovative early classics. In some ways, this one’s even better than the classics. This film is innovative and it has a memorable, unpredictable, interesting — and truly original — story.

The script passed through some good hands and became more than just a string of clever toy-oriented jokes (although the jokes are much sharper and funnier than you’d expect); it became a great story about pride, jealousy, and identity.

(We’ll skip the long plot summary. You know it by heart anyway, right?)

Also noteworthy, the songs — the most common killers of the animated movie — turn out to be fairly well-written (by Randy Newman); they enhance the film instead of slowing it down….

Buzz Lightyear and Tim Allen are the most perfect match of animated character and voice since Sterling Holloway became Winnie the Pooh; Tom Hanks is also an inspired match for the exasperated cowboy Woody. Woody and Buzz interact with more chemistry, subtlety, and humor than any pair I’ve seen in Disney films.

And when all is said and done, the animation is really as good as it’s hyped up to be.

I can’t think of a movie I’d rather watch with kids. Let’s hope this Pixar/Disney collaboration can maintain such a high standard in the future.

Well, those hopes were well-founded. Toy Story 2 improved on the original, and Toy Story 3 was a better finale than I had dared hope for — not to mention the glories of The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Inside Out. You’ll find all of those on my list of 40 Favorite Films for Children, one of my many film lists at Letterboxd.

Variety has coverage of Disney/Pixar’s observance of the anniversary.

Metro has made animated gifs of their 20 favorite moments.

toy story oooo

Looking to celebrate? The Disney Store has 20th anniversary Toy Story mugs.

If you’d rather celebrate by reading some new perspectives on the film, check out these fan theories.