Film: Walking, talking, living dolls

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THE BEST chase of the cinematic year so far is between a dog and a model spaceman in John Lasseter's Toy Story (PG). It may sound perverse to award plaudits traditionally reserved for grittily realistic adult genres - such as the action movie - to a cartoon fantasy. But Toy Story's huge appeal lies in its ability to cater for adults without seeming precocious, and for children whilst never condescending. With its use of cartoon figures entirely generated by computers, Toy Story is a technical landmark, a new-fangled marvel. But its greatest virtues are old-fashioned: a tight, witty script and a plot that stems from characters. If this is the future of movies, then it works.

So how did that dog get to be closing so terrifyingly fast on astronaut Buzz Lightyear? It's a long story - and it starts in a nursery. The movie opens on the birthday of Andy, the child whose toys form the dramatis personae of the film. Up there in the playroom, there is considerable tension: Andy's birthday presents may usurp his current toys' place in his affections. So it proves for his previous pride and joy, Woody, a toy cowboy, who is replaced by Buzz as Andy's top toy. Soon, though, Woody and Buzz are together facing the dangers of the real world after falling into the hands of Andy's sadistic neighbour Sid, owner of the ferocious mastiff, Scud.

These characters all have the three-dimensional appearance of models, but are in fact entirely computer-generated. There is nothing automaton- like about them; if anything the drawings appear more nuanced, more human than any cartoon figures before. Woody, with his pipe-cleaner limbs and bright, dimpled features, has a heroic decency: a cowboy with the face of a priest (before his disappearance, he acts as a kind of pastor and leader for the toys). Buzz wears a glass bubble as a helmet over a face that's almost entirely chin. Best of all is the spiky-haired, broad-foreheaded termagant Sid, always clad in a skull-and-crossbones sweat shirt.

The voices of actors animate and enrich these figures. Tom Hanks is all high-pitched high jinks as Woody; while Tim Allen, in his best film role, gives Buzz a swaggering bravado that can't hide the character's essential innocence. There's also a gruff cameo from Don Rickles as a pull-apart doll the shape of a spud - Mr Potato Head. Rickles was last seen as De Niro's henchman in Casino, and his sour wit enriches any movie.

The praise for Toy Story's script has been slightly exaggerated (though its Oscar nomination, the first for an animated film, is deserved). Critics have talked it up into a study of the agonies of identity, because of Buzz's refusal to accept that he is a toy. You might then add that it is a satire on colonialism, the toys representing the natives exploited by capricious masters. Such fancies are provoked by the movie's subtle, sophisticated wit - its real achievement. Gags are gently lobbed over the heads of children into the laps of their grateful parents: "So, er, where are you from?" a toy asks Buzz during the nervous introductions. "Singapore, Hong Kong?" Another carefully explains that although he is nominally a Mattel toy, he's "actually from a smaller company that was purchased in a leverage buy-out".

Toy Story's director John Lasseter, like Tim Burton, started at Disney, but found the regime too restrictive and conventional to allow him to develop in his own maverick direction. After making a couple of Oscar- winning shorts for a firm called Pixar, he was hired by Disney to make a feature with Pixar for Disney distribution. Toy Story is the result, and one of its greatest assets is that it is not a Disney picture. Philosophically and emotionally it feels quite different. The treacly sentimentality that oozes from every Disney pore is absent; so too the underlying hints of fascism - the rigid world order that The Lion King celebrated so stridently. Disney asked Lasseter to make Toy Story as a musical. Wisely, and bravely, he resisted, opting for a delicate score and some cleverly used songs by Randy Newman.

In sifting away the schmaltz and the reactionary sub-text, Toy Story rediscovers something Disney mislaid years ago: magic. There are moments here which recapture the unadorned joy of films before the fall, the sprightly invention of a Keaton or a Chaplin - movie-making that retains its innocence. The sequence that will live longest in my memory comes close to the beginning. Woody sends a squadron of toy soldiers down the stairs to "recce" the situation as regards Andy's birthday presents. Lilliputian men, their bodies and faces tense with nerves and professionalism, march towards the stairwell, and then parachute and climb down to the floor. It's a perfect image for Toy Story itself and its meticulous six-year gestation: for the army behind the scenes, which acted in unison to create a remarkable piece of cinema.

Tran Anh Hung's Cyclo (18) is like a cross between Bicycle Thieves and The Waste Land, directed by the Marquis de Sade - and I'm not sure if that's a compliment. I first saw this strange, troubling film at last year's Venice Festival, where it won the Golden Lion. Listening to Vietnamese dialogue imperfectly translated into English by an Italian, I found myself confused, and so decided to reserve judgement. Having seen the film with subtitles, I'm still confused. It may be that we should not view this film with the deadening expectation of realism, but as a surreal and brutal phantasmagoria.

The plot is relatively simple. The eponymous hero is the 18-year-old driver of a cyclo-pousse pedicab. When - in true De Sica style - his vehicle is stolen, he embarks on a life of crime, under the tutelage of a trio glorying in the names of The Poet, Knife and Tooth. Now the film turns nasty: the cyclo is schooled in transgression - graduating through arson, heroin smuggling, pimping and murder. Some scenes have a raw savagery seldom seen in the mainstream cinema. The movie ends with the cyclo released from his hellish education, and back taxi-ing. There is a sense of catharsis that suggests that Tran, a Vietnamese based in Paris, whose only other film was the smoothly immaculate The Scent of Green Papaya, has made a symbolic study of his own nation's recent agony. It is a harsh and muddling movie, but often an astounding one.

Christopher Ashley's Jeffrey (18) started life as a cult gay play by Paul Rudnick, and feels more like a series of revue sketches than a movie. Jeffrey (Steven Weber) is a gay man living in New York, balancing his love of sex with his terror of Aids. Or rather not balancing them: Aids has toppled the equation and turned Jeffrey celibate. The movie is divided into short segments, each with its own title, some no longer than the time it takes to pull off a gag (or usually fail to), others developing the plot a little further.

There are some smart lines, and Nathan Lane has an exuberant turn as a gay priest who worships at the altar of the Hollywood musical. But Jeffrey works best when it's not camping it up, but focusing on the strain and dilemma of living with Aids or HIV. Patrick Stewart gives a thoughtfully humorous performance as a friend of Jeffrey's engaged in a cavalier affair with an HIV-positive dancer. The film asks whether, in such a time of danger, solemnity or celebration is the answer - and comes down on the side of joy. Some may question the conclusion, but the question was worth putting. Jeffrey is at its most compelling when its wit and compassion spring from closely developed characters such as Stewart's, rather than adorning a series of sex sketches.

Matthew Harrison's Rhythm Thief (18) is a flashily atmospheric piece of ultra-low-budget film-making about a young hawker of bootleg tapes on New York's Lower East Side. He lives in a room furnished with just a bed, on which he has the occasional strictly functional bout of sex with a local man-eater. Various dossers and scumbags are on his case. The film is more interesting for its vivid, video-style black-and-white photography than its script. It's also available on video (from Screen Edge).

Cinema details: Review, page 84.

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