Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Toy Story 3

About a month ago, I received an email from a reporter for RTE, Irish national radio, asking -- to my complete surprise -- for an interview related to the upcoming release of Toy Story 3*. Pat McGrath, a terribly nice man who put up with far too much of my nerdy rambling, read my reviews of the first two films of the series and liked them sufficiently to ask for my thoughts about the series and Pixar as a whole.

Now, I kept myself as in-the-dark as I possibly could for Toy Story 3, as I do for any film that catches my interest, so Pat caught me off-guard during the interview when he mentioned that the premise of Toy Story 3, about a college-bound teen leaving behind his toys, effectively targeted the film at my generation, specifically those who got to see the first movie as children in a theater -- I was 6 when I saw it -- and now find ourselves off to college. Because I tried not to let any unfair expectations build in my mind, I had not previously thought about this, and suddenly I felt excitement for the film that matched any of the art films I knew wouldn't come to my neck of the woods. For the first time since leaving childhood, I was in exactly the right age group to see an animated film. (This is also why, in the interview, you can hear me stumble when talking about this, to the point that I use the word "interesting" three times in less than 30 seconds because, damn it, I was very interested suddenly.)

After I sat down in the theater, however, I quickly realized that, as much as Toy Story 3 might be aimed at my generation, it must still play for the one that came after us. An understandable decision, to be sure, as mainstream American audiences still will not see an animated film as anything other than kiddie fare, and if Pixar has a tragic flaw, it is that they choose not to break through this ceiling despite bumping against it so often the glass must be one good shove from shattering at this point. Director Lee Unkrich, a longtime Pixar employee given his first big shot, clearly wants to do well by the series -- and, by extension of the first Toy Story's significance, the entire Pixar studio -- so he attempts to juggle the history of the franchise and the studio while still making a fresh story to appeal to younger children who may well be coming to Toy Story 3 to see their first Pixar movie.

Somehow, he pulls it off. Toy Story 3 deals in nostalgia, which is only natural because its characters are toys, which are rapidly becoming obsolete. With Andy all grown up and headed for college, the few remaining toys in his care find themselves awaiting an uncertain future bound either for the attic or the garbage can. Even Molly, now a tween still young enough to get away with playing with toys, has no interest in them, absorbed with her iPod and concerned only with taking over her brother's room and swiping whatever electronics he does not take with him. With only the slightest suggestion, Unkrich plants the idea into the mind of even a 20-year-old that "kids today" don't know the joy of tossing around some tacky plastic spacemen and cowgirls in your own imagined universe. For proof of this, one need only look at the opening sequence, a brilliant combination of the openings of the first two movies, in which Andy's playtime receives the grand, imaginative visualization that opened the second film (which incidentally presaged the modern mindset by replacing Andy's imagination with a video game). A child can envision a scenario more fantastically out-there than even the most sandbox-oriented video game can accommodate, and the first major heartbreak of Toy Story 3 is the presentation of this delightful use of free time in the flashbacks of home videos, as if capturing something that one day becomes just a memory and not a way of looking at the world.

If I might discuss Toy Story 3 in personal terms -- and, frankly, I can see no other way for someone my age to discuss it -- this opening sequence did not quite tug at my heartstrings, but it did something far more satisfactory: it put me in an oddly serene mood, a wistful reminder not simply of a happier time but an entire perspective that I lost. Watching Andy spin the same basic "story" of his playtime in the first film into an epic space Western, I remembered mashing up my own disparate types of toys into imagined wars for the soul of the galaxy, with Star Wars characters inexplicably fighting Army men and even the odd shark. To think that kids might lose that feeling made me want to leap to my feet in the theater and risk extreme incarceration by shaking the young children in attendance and screaming something largely unhelpful like "Don't you get it?!" before the hot sting of a taser hit my back.

Part of the appeal of the first two movies was the retro style of the toys, culled from the Pixar team's own childhood favorites, but now the age of the toys is just further proof of how outdated the very idea of toys is. These days, a toy like Buzz Lightyear, which looked so cool back in 1995 to my wide, 6-year-old eyes, might as well sit next to the ball-in-a-cup. When Molly's Barbie turns up with Andy's toys, she wears leg warmers and sports '80s hair, and the hollow reflection of chauvinist perception of the ideal woman now seems a hollow reflection of itself. Everything ages, including Andy's formerly manic dog, Buster, but the toys remain forever, sitting neglected in a toy box as Andy outgrows them. Over time, Andy and Molly dispose of all but the most beloved toys, and when someone mentions that Woody's belle, Bo Peep, got thrown out long ago, that brief moment creates a sudden gulf of sadness.

Thus, it comes as no wonder that, when the toys inadvertently find themselves at a daycare center instead of in the attic where Andy relegated all of them but Woody, they find the prospect of being played with for all eternity overwhelming: when the current crop of kids grows older, they are replaced by the next wave of tykes to lavish love upon them. (Toys would love Menudo.) It's certainly preferable to stealing Andy's cell phone and making it ring near them just so the boy will look at them. Upon their arrival, Woody, Buzz and the gang meet all the other donated toys, headed by Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear (Losto for short), a cuddly stuffed bear who serves as the Virgil for the new arrival.

Speaking of Virgil, what's most interesting about the setup of Sunnyside Daycare is how Unkrich expands upon the existentialism of Toy Story 2 by making the third installment into a plastic version of Dante's The Divine Comedy. Initially, the escape from the purgatory of Andy's dusty toy box must seem like Heaven, but, when the bell rings and a sea of toddlers burst in to play, the toys realize they've been sent to Hell, trapped in a room with too-young toddlers. Instantly, we see that Lotso isn't as friendly as he lets on and, like the planes of afterlife in Dante's epic, Heaven and Hell can exist right next to each other, a locked door separating the nightmarish den of two-year-olds from the older children who will really play with toys instead of destroy them.

Soon, Toy Story 3 morphs into a prison escape film, an odd choice but one that lends itself to a number of clever gags. Woody's first attempted escape starts on a triumphant, defiant note and ends with a high comic anticlimax, while the "caging" of Andy's toys recalls a number of classic prison films like Cool Hand Luke and The Great Escape. Most inspired in the breakout is the "Mr. Tortilla Head" bit, a gag that comes out of left field and wins the biggest laugh of the film. Unfortunately, in a film bookended by beautiful ruminations on the nature of aging (and, for toys, horrible agelessness), this angle takes away from some of the emotional depth that the film offers, falling into the trap of cultural references that only briefly entangled Toy Story 2, made more noticeable here by how unrecognizable the references to prison movies will be for children and even most teenagers.

However, every Pixar film builds aesthetically off what came before, and if the prison escape plot distracts from the greater resonance of Toy Story 3, Unkrich nevertheless uses the storyline to exhibit the same sweeping visual advancements displayed on the epic canvasses of Ratatouille and Wall•E into a confined space and doesn't lose an ounce of technical mastery. Lotso is animated with over a million individual thread hairs, allowing his bright purple fur to mingle with a hint of dirt and water damage, hinting at his true character and his backstory long before we see how his own past turned him into a bitter villain (a story that plays as a dark foil to Jessie's own heartbreaking tale from the last film). A cheeky, recurring bit involving Mrs. Potato Head's missing eye allows Unkrich to occasionally peek back at Andy's house without breaking the narrative, and the occasional overlap of what Mrs. Potato Head can see in Sunnyside and what her eye catches back home create shimmering mirages that only enhance the feeling of Sunnyside as a hell that mocks the toys' desires to be played with and to see their owner again.

With limited locations, Unkrich creates a number of unique setpieces using nothing more than inventive exploration and skillful lighting, such as the sickly, neon yellow-green of the interior of a vending machine where all the rulers of the Sunnyside toys meet. Lighting is actually the key component of Toy Story 3: after experimenting heavily with animated reflection with Cars and overwhelming the eyeballs with Wall•E, the Pixar animators shrink the scope from Paris and outer space to a daycare center, yet the lighting is possibly the studio's most memorable. The daycare's default lighting is hazy and oppressive, rather like the same alternately foggy and revealing light Steven Spielberg used in E.T. Toy Story 3 makes the audience feel like these toys are really in a prison, muggy and bleak. All Unkrich needs to do is alter that setup, switching out the stifling mix of sunlight and fluorescent bulbs with the harsh, blinding white of an interrogation lamp or sinister glows to completely change the way you look at the same setpiece. And there has never been a more terrifying moment in all of Pixar's history than the sight of a raging incinerator at the end, belching flames that have actually been animated to be too bright to look at for an extended period of time.

So, the film may be too long by about 10 minutes, which could have been rectified by either cutting out some of the waffle in the middle or teasing out the truth of Sunnyside for a few minutes instead of immediately revealing its dark side. Also, the middle bit, in contrast to the point made by the opening sequence in relation to the imagination, does too much of the piloting rather than let the audience connect fully the way they do at the start and the finish.

However, these minor tremors cannot derail the copious pleasures of Toy Story 3, and writing them down shows me how well the film manages to address and fix its mistakes. Unkrich inserts numerous callbacks to previous Pixar films (and even what appears to be a toy based on Miyazaki Hayao's masterpiece, My Neighbor Totoro), yet he never allows the film to get stuck into the rote of these sequels, serving only to remind the audience of the better films that came before. These are but minor touches in a narrative that expands upon the ideas of the first two: if Toy Story 2 posited the idea of toy (im)mortality and existentialism, Unkrich shows a toy losing its soul, when Lotso has Buzz's programming reset. As much as I suspect that the Pixar team cleared out so many of Andy's toys to allow for easier processing of all the new characters, the loss of so many old characters is logical, appropriate and heartfelt. Besides, the additions are more interesting than many of the original toys who would have outstayed their usefulness and appeal otherwise, such as a group of toys in the home of a sweet, imaginative girl named Bonnie; they take to their roles as if being a toy is an actual occupation, spouting out hilarious lines like "We do a lot of improv" and "Are you classically trained?"

But it all comes back to the central idea of the second film, the question of a toy's life when no one plays with it. When Andy surveys his remaining toys while packing for college, he dismisses his mother's assertion that he should donate them by calling the remnants of his childhood "junk." Unkrich then holds on the faces of the toys, unable to move in front of him, forced to absorb this cruelty with flinching, the frozen plastic eyes more heartbreaking than tears could ever be. Keeping that in mind, who can really blame Lotso for thinking, "We're all just trash waiting to be thrown away"? Toy Story 3 does not settle for simply giving us all our old pals to laugh with: it builds off what came before and reminds us what we leave behind when we mature. And then, somehow, it turns its heartbreaking final scene -- the most touching in Pixar's oeuvre -- into as hopeful and delicate a finale even as it sets off yet another iteration of the same cycle that lead the characters to this point. It may not match the heights of Toy Story 2, nor some of the studio's recent marvels, but Toy Story 3 may be the single best piece of evidence that there are people in this world who know exactly what it means to grow older without losing a sense of wonder, and they all seem to work for the same company.

*For anyone interested, the Toy Story segment Mr. McGrath for which interviewed me can be found on the page of Morning Ireland's broadcast from June 14 here. I rambled about all things Disney/Pixar/animation for about 20 minutes, about a minute of which survives in the final edit. It's almost certainly for the better, given how out-there I got with some of my material, but the idea that my slurred, half-suppressed Southern drawl can be heard for any length of time next to audio of John Lasseter on a bona fide radio broadcast is about as cool as it gets for a geek. Note: RTE's player requires either Windows Media Player or Real Player to run.


  1. One small correction. This isn't Unkrich's first shot at something big. He was a co-director (animated films typically have two directors) for FINDING NEMO, MONSTERS, INC., and TOY STORY 2.

  2. I meant first time with his name in the marquee or whatever kids use these days with their iPods and Fandangles.

  3. "I might discuss Toy Story 3 in personal terms -- and, frankly, I can see no other way for someone my age to discuss it -- this opening sequence did not quite tug at my heartstrings, but it did something far more satisfactory: it put me in an oddly serene mood, a wistful reminder not simply of a happier time but an entire perspective that I lost."

    And therein may lie the disparity or at least degree of affinity for this work, but there's so much more in this stunningly exhaustive treatment (surely one of your best, and kudos again on that terrific connection there with the Irish Radio Network).

    It's true that toys are outdated, and that there has been a period of time from the appearance of the first film that may eroded the emotional bond. But the message is similar to one that Chris Van Allsberg opined on the last page of his deeply-moving THE POLAR EXPRESS, when he posed that Christmas comes every year for those who truly believe. That ideal is woven into TOY STORY 3, which at it's heart is a nostalgia piece with deep sentimental underpinnings, that with some (myself included) mirrors parallel instances of youthful departure. In the end, it really matters.

  4. Hah. I actually listened to that interview when it was broadcast over coffee and toast. How droll that it was a WiTD connection. I did not think that you stumbled BTW - sounded more like polite agreement with the guy's question. Kudos, even if I must confess to never having seen a single one of the films!

  5. I loved reading this review, as it really speaks to my own personal connection to the film (I'm of the same generation). Great discussion of the lighting as well, something I hadn't thought enough about!

  6. Sam: I was never a big fan of The Polar Express, as a book or any other property, but I do agree that the idea filters into Toy Story 3 to some extent.

    @NOF: "Polite agreement" may be the kindest description a person could give of that moment in the interview. I damn near jumped out of my chair and booked a flight to Ireland just so I could high-five the guy. He put me in just the right frame of mind to see the movie, too.

    @Alex: Isn't it awesome that we're in just the right age group to see a mainstream cartoon, and we're no longer children?

  7. Brilliant review, Jake as usual. A a terrific comparison to Dante's work. I really liked the film. But what's with all that adult humor?!

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  9. great animation movie, like this very much ^^