Saturday, June 26, 2010

Toys United Against the Apocalypse

Through the hard work of a tireless creative team, Pixar has achieved a state among cinephiles almost impossible for a production company to reach: deification. The idea of their inability to make a bad film seems to be accepted far and wide, though it’s a position I certainly don’t hold. Their last two films, WALL-E and Up, while receiving massive accolades both professional and personal, didn’t rank very highly in my book. See, when Pixar gets it right, it’s scary how right it is. That said, when they miss the mark, even by a little, it’s so obvious as to stick out like a snail on Judgment Day. So, right at the point where they’re being praised for outdoing themselves, I’ve been lamenting a two-picture slide toward the merely ordinary. For my money, Pixar hadn’t put out a really good movie since Ratatouille in 2007, and I wasn’t anticipating Toy Story 3 breaking them out of that slump. Come on, didn’t you see Toy Story 2? What more of an ending did you really need? Why wait 11 years to make a third film? Why switch directors when John Lasseter clearly knows this territory better than anyone else? Then, as the release date rolled around, the usual stuff started happening. The rave reviews started coming in, people started gushing about how much they loved it, and I went the Monday after opening weekend to see for myself . . .

Friends, the dry streak is over. Toy Story 3 is rather wonderful. I felt this film more deeply than I have any other Pixar film I can think of.

The story’s fairly simple. Andy’s seventeen, going to college, and has to decide what to do with his long-forgotten toys, who’ve been patiently waiting for the day when they have the chance to be there for him again. Through happenstance, Woody, Buzz and the gang (minus a few principals. Come back, Wheezy!) end up at a day care center where things aren’t anything close to being what they seem. Now, they’ve got to figure out what to do, what their responsibility to Andy is, and how on earth they’re ever going to get out of the mess they’ve gotten into.

Some of the usual themes are explored, but with different implications. The toys have always known that Andy’s going to outgrow them, but now that moment’s actually arrived. Woody’s always been the clear leader of the group and their focus has always been on what’s best for Andy, but now Buzz and the others have to think of their own best interests in a way they’ve never had to before.

There are great things to be found here. I think Pixar’s best moments come in their incredibly skillful use of the montage, and that’s in evidence here. There’s a sequence that tells the story of a pink plush bear that’s one of the film’s best. The animation, not surprisingly, is fantastic. It’s wondrous how, even if I’ve been at times unconvinced by some of their narrative choices, each film represents a step forward for CG animated film. The narrative is surprisingly dark, with some remarkably sinister images that I think could prove frightening for the average kid. If you’ve ever lamented the fact that a lot of animated films tend to play it safe and wished that they’d try to be more like a so-called “real” movie (as if there was such a thing), Toy Story 3 represents a definite step outward, though I’m not sure if I'd consider it to be a step “forward.” There are some incredibly stark images here that are among the bleakest ever created for an animated film. Additionally, Toy Story 3 is wonderfully funny. Where the last few Pixar films at times seemed to rely on sight gags that were clever but not laugh-out-loud funny, this one commits, and I laughed and laughed. Two words: Spanish mode.

But there’s more to it than all that. When Toy Story 3 finished, I felt that my soul had been touched, and I wasn’t expecting that.

I’ve been trying to figure out what caused me to bond so closely with the film. Is it because it’s got an incredible story? No, I don’t really think that’s it. The story of the toys’ adventures in the day care center is one of a dozen different scenarios that could have been used for Toy Story 3. No, it’s not that.

What I’ve come to understand is this. I don’t think these films are about children and their toys at all. I think they’re about the relationship between parents and children, with the toys being the stand-in for the parents. The toys/parents want the child to always stay the same, continuously rely on them for love/support, and to receive as much love back as they give out. However, the inherent problem with this idea is that children can’t do any of these things. It’s a fundamental part of life that a child must not only grow up but also grow out. Certainly, there are exceptions to this, but children can’t help but move away from a place of dependency toward a position of independence and self reliance. What Toy Story 3, and, indeed, the whole series, does so brilliantly is illustrate this change in a tangible way. When the toys are left out of sight and out of mind in the chest, we almost take it personally. “Dagnabit, Andy! I don’t care if you ARE 17. Get in here and play with these toys. They deserve better than this!” As I’ve grown older, I’ve been forced to think long and hard about my relationships with my parents, the nature of the passage of time, and the direction of my own life. Toy Story 3 started my internal dialogue afresh.

I would not dream of telling you how the film ends and the ultimate fate of the toys. Know only that I found myself choked up, grateful for what is very nearly a perfect conclusion to the story of some bits of plastic and nylon that loved a young boy who became a young man and loved each other too.

4 1/2 stars out of 5.


Adam Zanzie said...

Wheezy didn't make it into the film most likely because Joe Ranft is no longer alive. It still gives me shivers whenever I read about how he died... I suppose Pixar wants to honor his memory by leaving his characters alone. Yet they still kept Slinky in the movie despite Jim Varney's death.

I've seen Toy Story 3 twice now, and my rating is fairly the same as yours. Very well done movie--almost as fantastic as Ratatouille and Finding Nemo. I wouldn't put it ahead of Wall-E, which still gets points for its silent movie opening... but I definitely prefer it to Up. And though I didn't cry when I saw it the first time, I did feel myself getting kind of teary-eyed the second time. Strange.

Adam said...

I can buy that line of reasoning, but the fact remains that a broken squeaker penguin with existential questions is one of my favorite Pixar characters, and I would have loved to spend more time with him.

While I (am actually starting to wonder if the word "love" is in order) dug Toy Story 3, I still have Finding Nemo at the top of my personal Pixar list. I don't really see anything toppling it soon. I still don't see what the big deal is supposed to be about WALL-E. It's beautifully animated, and I can certainly appreciate what they were trying to do. I just don't think they succeeded.

Any idea why you had a stronger emotional reaction to Toy Story 3 the second time around? You'd think it'd be the reverse . . .