With its radical animation and existential angst, 'Toy Story' started a revolution in children's films.

Earlier this week, Pixar Animation Studios announced the impending arrival of a new project they've been working on in secret.

Called Soul, it is scheduled for release this time next year, and is described as - ready for this? - "a journey from the streets of New York City to the cosmic realms to discover the answers to life's most important questions".

Soul's director is Pete Docter, whose previous film played out across the abstract landscape of the human mind, and mulled over ideas that had previously nagged at Plato, Aquinas and Descartes.

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It was called Inside Out. Kids loved it.

In other words, mainstream animation has come a long way since the singing princess days - though with Frozen 2 due this Christmas, the singing princesses are still doing fine - the enormous recent leaps made by the medium can all be traced back to Pixar.

The studio's 21st feature, Toy Story 4, is in cinemas and we more or less take for granted at this point that watching the thing will be an existential roller-coaster.

In this latest instalment, Woody the cowboy finds himself questioning his purpose in life after his new owner, Bonnie, leaves the chipper cowboy rag doll gathering dust in her bedroom cupboard.

This comes nine years after Toy Story 3 forced Woody and friends to confront their own mortality, which in turn followed Toy Story 2, in which they grappled with the fear of abandonment and the inherent risk in opening oneself to love.

The 1995 original, meanwhile, may have been about a toy cowboy learning to get along with the space ranger action figure who usurped him in his young owner's affections, but it had a punchline worthy of Sartre.

Much as you might like to think of yourself as Buzz Lightyear, hero of the galaxy, we've all ultimately rolled off the same conveyor belt.

Where does a fledgling animation studio get the nerve to make a debut film like that?

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When Pixar broke ground on Toy Story in 1991, they were known only as a technology brand.

Having grown out of the computer division at Lucasfilm in the Eighties, they built complex imaging software and the equipment that could run it - first under the Lucasfilm brand, then under their own steam after striking out on their own with financial assistance from Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder.

Pixar kit had often been used to produce special-effects sequences for other people's films - the ghostly stained-glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes was a notable success - and this was the creation of one of their first employees, John Lasseter, a preternaturally gifted former Disney animator who had left the studio in 1983 under a creative-differences cloud. (Last year he left again under very different meteorological conditions, stepping down as Disney's chief creative officer after a series of MeToo-related "missteps" came to light.)

In his early days at Pixar, Lasseter had directed a series of short computer-generated cartoons to demonstrate the capabilities of their products - and when one of these, Tin Toy, won the Oscar for best animated short in 1989, his former employers took note.

He, Jobs and Pixar's co-founder Ed Catmull were summoned to meet Jeffrey Katzenberg, the then-head of Disney's motion picture division.

He laid his offer on the table: he would bankroll a Pixar feature - the first ever to be entirely produced on computers - and Disney would own and distribute the result.

Jobs, the master negotiator, argued him up to a $26 million (NZD$21 million) three-picture deal.

It was only afterwards that Lasseter and Catmull realised there were a couple of snags.

Firstly, no one at Pixar had any experience telling a story that ran for longer than five minutes. And secondly, they'd have to invent technology capable of telling it.

The latter was less daunting. Most of the studio's short films had centred on everyday articles that came to life.

Since such objects often don't even have faces, let alone the capacity for speech, this had forced Lasseter and his fellow animators to work out how to express vivid, easily readable emotions through movement alone: an early triumph was the angle poise lamp in his 1986 short Luxo Jr, which still appears in the Pixar company logo.

Accordingly, Toy Story was first planned as a feature-length expansion of Lasseter's 1988 short Tin Toy, featuring characters who would eventually morph into Buzz and Woody.

Storytelling was where Pixar were worried their inexperience would show, but fortunately their work was being overseen by a studio with almost three quarters of a century's worth of expertise. Yet Katzenberg became increasingly convinced that Toy Story should have an attitude to match its ultra-modern medium, and whenever the Pixar crew presented their latest ideas, they were urged to up the snark.

"More cynical, more edgy, more adult" was a typical script note: they dutifully obliged, assuming the venerable studio knew best.

At a November 1993 meeting that would later be balefully referred to as "Black Friday", Lasseter and his colleagues presented a work-in-progress version of the scene which in the finished film features Woody accidentally knocking Buzz out of the bedroom window. In the edgy version, Woody pushes him out deliberately, smirking "Hey, it's a toy-eat-toy world," before menacing the witnesses.

Another proposed scene featured Woody leering at a Barbie doll and commenting "I wish I was anatomically correct."

The character they'd initially pictured as an old rag doll who just wanted to be loved by his owner had become a tyrant and a sex pest - and Katzenberg, recognising a disaster in the making, immediately suspended production.

His plan was to bring Toy Story in-house, but the Pixar team - Lasseter, Docter, Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft - begged him for a two-week reprieve, tore up everything they'd done, and circled back to the story they'd initially wanted to tell.

That readiness to go back to the drawing board, however painfully, would also become a central part of the Pixar method.

Even Toy Story 4 was continually (and expensively) reworked until all concerned were confident they'd cracked it.

With the first Toy Story, "cracked it" feels like an understatement. It became the highest-grossing film of 1995, taking $358 million.

What's striking about Toy Story today is the sheer nonchalance of its brilliance, despite the fact it was doing things no feature-length cartoon had previously attempted.

In traditional cel animation, depicting point-of-view movement through three-dimensional space is effectively impossible. But Toy Story's opening montage can't get enough of it, with banister slides, chair spins and tumbling flights across the living room all seen from Woody's own perspective.

And though by 2019 standards, Woody and friends' digitally rendered forms are simplistic in the extreme, they have an on-screen presence - a hard-to-quantify sense of bounce and weight - that rings truer than it does for many of their non-Pixar descendants.

In the two decades after Toy Story's release, more than 250 computer-animated features followed in its wake - some of which were produced by a resurgent Disney, who adopted many of Pixar's working methods when the studios merged in 2006.

Other dedicated CG studios sprung up too, Illumination and DreamWorks among them. But their output rarely has Pixar's emotional clarity.

"Growing up in the Fifties I had yearned to be a Disney animator but had no idea how to go about it," Catmull wrote in his 2014 memoir Creativity, Inc.

"Instinctively, I realise now, I embraced computer graphics - then a new field - as a means of pursuing that dream."

When the reviews for Toy Story broke, critics focused on its artistry and chemistry: the fact they'd just witnessed the birth of a new medium was almost an afterthought. They hadn't seen technology, they'd been told a story.

Catmull took it as a badge of honour.