Sunday, July 11, 2010

Toy Story 3

Pixar Animation Studios spends so much time creating timeless family films it’s no surprise that every couple of years they need to phone one in. That’s not to say that films like A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., Cars and now Toy Story 3 are bad, they just don’t possess the sweep and the pull of Pixar’s greatest work. They exist, more often than not, to be light and amusing as opposed to vast, exciting, adventurous, and to pull the imagination to the end of the world and back. They’re still magic little films but they’re not the first ones you grab off the shelf when you need a fix. Toy Story 3 picks up mere days before Andy, now 17, is moving off to college. The toys, stored in a chest, desperate to be played with one last time devise a failed attempt to lure Andy back into his toy chest for one more go. Mom orders Andy to box up all his stuff to separate what will go with him, what will go to the curb and what will collect dust in the attic. Andy, seeing the cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang one last time as he roots through his stuff has one brief moment of Proudstian revelation in which he is transported back through all of the great times he shared with his favourite cowboy. It’s funny, after coming of age, to look back over life and see what objects seem to have created deep physiological connections that can trigger emotional responses at a mere glance. So Andy throws Woody in the college box and bags up Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and co. to go to the attic. However, the bag is mistaken as trash and heads for the curb instead. Knowing that Andy would be devastated to lose his old friends, Woody runs to the rescue but the toys all think they have been junked and, out of equal parts spite and heartbreak head for the back of the van where a box of toys is being donated to the Sunnyside Daycare. This is great opening stuff. Not only has director Lee Unkrich put us right back into engagement with these beloved characters but he, along with writer Michael Arndt of Little Miss Sunshine fame, seems to really understand the psychology of toys. The movie not only understands the important, unbreakable emotional connections that children form with their favourite toys, who, in a sense, are always there through the most important moments of childhood, but it also understands what the owner means to the toys; how they are dedicated to Andy and will forever be there for him whenever he needs them. All they ask in return is to never be forgotten about. Andy may grow up, but does one ever really grow out of their childhood toys? This is what is so special about Pixar films: No matter their subject they always understand their characters, first and foremost, in relation to their dramatic surroundings. But then the toys get shipped to Sunnyside, which seems great at first. All the other toys welcome them with open arms and assure them that here there will always be kids that will want to play with them. And when those kids leave, it’s no matter because more just as eager will soon arrive. The daycare is run by the old bear Lotso (Ned Beatty) who ships the new toys to the Caterpillar Room where the young children, all riled up from recess, lay waste to them. In the meantime, knowing his true intentions, Woody escapes the daycare in an attempt to get back to Andy. Back at Sunnyside it turns out that Lotso was once the favourite toy of his owner until he and his accomplice Big Baby and Chuckles were forgotten about one day on a picnic and quickly replaced. Feeling betrayed by his owner, Lotso became bitter and now rules over the daycare with an iron fist along with Baby, Ken (Michael Keaton) and others. The long middle section at the daycare is essentially one complete action sequence. The toys are trapped, Buzz is reprogrammed, and Woody returns to rescue them in a sequence that plays more like Escape From Alcatraz than the cute adventures of past films, until it finally ends in a junk yard before the fires of hell in which the heroes become less like toys and more like your standard action hero. The film ends strong with a final scene so touching and moving that it’s a shame the midsection couldn’t live up to the bookends. The action is entertaining enough but these films have always gotten most of their mileage from showing the toys acting like, well, toys. Even what happens to Lotso is a missed opportunity. What could have been one of the films biggest emotional moments becomes no more than standard movie villain commuperance. And yet, when the toys are being toys, the film has a magic all its own. It’s neat to see how the toys use their specific capabilities in order to evade Lotso and his goons; and Unkrich, a veteran Pixar man, knows how to get big laughs out of small places. When Ken first appears on the balcony of his dream house he takes the elevator down and it moves, not like a real elevator but like a cheap toy one. It’s details like that that keep Pixar at the top of the heap. Of course there is always the sentimentality, as is the case with old toys, of picking up with these characters so many years since we last saw them. Tom Hanks, still the most endearing man in Hollywood, is perfect as Woody, the good hearted do gooder; Allen is still doing Buzz as what he is: the best movie part the man has ever had; Joan Cusack is lovely once again as cowgirl Jessie; Michael Keaton is the best choice one could imagine for Ken and no actor other than Beatty as Lotso could play a lovable bear with dark tones lurking just below the surface. And then the film ends with a classic Pixar moment in which Andy and the toys both find solace in each other one last time before the inevitable must happen. The film opens musically with Randy Newman’s You Got a Friend in Me. It could very well have ended with Tom Waits’ I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.


  1. I saw it in 2D and I definitely felt a connection. I find 3D almost exclusively irritating rather than effective.

  2. I agree that this movie is being overpraised -- not vastly overpraised, just a little bit overpraised. If I should embrace any Pixar film unreservedly, it should be a Toy Story film, as I consider the first two to be among my top 50 films of all time. So hopefully that gives me a bit more credibility when I say that this one is very, very good, but I think it may stop just short of great.

    One suggestion I have about 3D -- don't do it for Pixar. They don't put much effort into getting the most out of 3D, since they are correctly aware that their stories and visuals don't need the gimmick. (I learned this lesson from Up.) However, there are certain films where it's great. For example, I thought the 3D was stunning in the duo of under-appreciated 2009 films, Monsters vs. Aliens and Disney's A Christmas Carol. How will you know which movies need to be seen in 3D and which don't? That's a tougher one.

  3. Yeah, Mike, I agree with Vancetastic that Pixar 3-D films are far more subtle and less "pokey" than other 3-D films. "Despicable Me" has an End-Title sequence where the Minions attempt to bridge the gap between screen and sudience that I imagine would be hilarious in 3-D...and the Pixar short "Night&Day" preceding "Toy Story 3" makes amazing us of 3-D depth informing a 2-D environemnet.

    I thought "3" was actually the best of the TS films.