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CHARACTERS IN SO MANY LIVE-action movies these days are little more than cartoons. So where to turn for original characters with all-too-human weaknesses? Cartoons, of course. Consider the new Disney animated feature, John Lasseter's Toy Story, which is, incidentally, the first full-length film created wholly by computer and, not at all incidentally--by design, in fact--the year's most inventive comedy.

In Andy's bedroom the toys are alive. They are also working stiffs with the fear, every time a birthday approaches, that they will be replaced by more sophisticated gewgaws. Toy Town's leader, a cloth cowboy named Sheriff Woody (wonderfully voiced by Tom Hanks), talks to his charges as if he's a genial teacher and they are slow kids. Actually, they're finicky adults. Rex (Wallace Shawn), a sexually insecure dinosaur, dreams of being "the dominant predator." Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) grumbles about planned obsolescence while praying that Andy's new prized toy will be Mrs. Potato Head. It's not, though. It's an action figure called Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Buzz's power is that--to Woody's chagrin--he seduces the old toys with his space-age gadgetry. His problem is that he thinks he's human.

So here, recognizably and delightfully, are two weird dudes: a political figure stripped of his moral authority and taking it with a lack of good grace, and a hero who is deeply delusional. Woody turns weak and spiteful; he contemplates criminal mischief to discredit his rival. ("I had power,/ I was respected,/ But not anymore," spits out Randy Newman in one of the film's three very grownup sing-along tunes.) And Buzz is, in the blithest, most genial way, nuts. If you've never in your life seen a toy have a nervous breakdown, Buzz's will make it worth the wait.

Woody and Buzz become uneasy partners, Defiant Ones-style, when they are captured by Sid, the toy torturer next door. Sid must have spoken to a deep, dark streak in the animators, so lovingly do they detail the boy's atrocities. His bedroom, a playpen for Krafft-Ebing, is a place of ominous eccentric angles (his parents stuck him in the attic) and walls papered with posters for bands like Megadork. "The patient is prepped," he declares, revealing a doll with its head in a vise. This Sid is vicious.

Hiding beneath the bed are the results of Sid's experiments: mutant toys as bizarre as anything seen in a Hollywood film since the human oddities in Tod Browning's 1932 Freaks. Creepiest is Babyhead, a doll's head--its hair plucked, an eye missing--perched on Erector-set legs. The neat trick Toy Story pulls off is to make these creatures first repulsive, then poignant and finally heroic.

A kid's nightmare with a happy ending; a Rorschach drawing in fingerpaint--these are definitions of a Disney cartoon. Toy Story, though released by Disney, was not exactly generated by it. In the mid-'80s, Lasseter, a Disney alumnus, joined the Marin County computer lab Pixar and made three terrific shorts (Luxo Jr., Red's Dream and Tin Toy) in which he invested metal objects such as lamps, unicycles and drummer-boy toys with life and heart. These films, forerunners to Toy Story, ingeniously show that things have wills and wits of their own and exist in intimate relation to their human masters. They're funnier too.

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