Toy Story 3

Has it really been 15 years since the first Toy Story? It seems like just yesterday I was a wide-eyed 10-year-old sitting in a theater watching the very first all-computer animated film; what a magical experience that was! It was more than just the thrill of seeing something completely new on screen, it was the wonderful humor combined with a deep humanistic poignancy and pristine classical craftsmanship that marked the best of classic Hollywood. Of course, I really come to realize these latter two points much later in life as I revisited the film repeatedly. Even after what must be 10 viewings by now the movie never ceases to conjure that magic of childhood; not just the magic of me watching the film as a child, but the magic of how childhood really is, with all its boundless imagination and the unbreakable bonds of friendship.

Of course, like all successful franchises, Toy Story wouldn’t be complete without a trilogy. Arriving four years later, I was astounded by the sequel’s ability to live up to the greatness of its predecessor. After an 11 year wait, I was understandably anxious concerning how they could keep the series fresh for third entry. I’m utterly delighted to say that the film put all my fears to rest. Like part two, three is concerned with what happens to toys when children grow up, but there are many variations that makes this more than just a retread. The film opens with Andy going off to college and our miniature cast of heroes’ concern over what is to come of them. It seems are either destined for the attic or the trash, but a mistake leads to them being donated to the Sunnyside Daycare Center. What initially seems to be an oasis for toys turns out to be a hellish nightmare as toddlers are more like tyrants than respectful owners.

The entire cast from the previous two films reprises their roles, and it’s extraordinary that they have been able to maintain the integrity of this cast over such a long period of time. The most important new addition is Ned Beatty as “Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear” or “Lotso” as he’s called. When the toys arrive, they’re greeted jovially by Lotso and the other toys at the center, including a Ken doll voiced by Michael Keaton, who, obviously, immediately falls for Barbie as the two go to live in his dream house. But it turns out that Lotso is a jaded totalitarian ruler who has manipulated the daycare system to allow him and his friends to be toys for the older kids, while the newbies suffer the wrath of the toddlers. Woody manages to escape, thinking that he is going back to Andy and that his friends are happy in their new environment, only to find out elsewhere what’s really going on, which prompts him to break back into the center and free his friends.

Comparing this entry with the original, it becomes quickly apparent how far the animated technology of the medium has progressed. The original looks downright sparse and juvenile compared to the lushness of part three. It can even be seen the character designs, which haven’t really been changed, but refined by a plethora of minute degrees. The biggest leaps can be seen and intricate backgrounds, especially at the daycare center, which abounds in rich detail. But the thing that is always distinguished Pixar as a superior animation studio was their ability to work as storytellers through the medium rather than being captive to the medium itself. So many today seem to use CGI as an end itself, rather than just a means to an end, and Pixar has always understood that it’s the heart and soul behind the animation that was of primary importance.

As with all Pixar, there is an effortless control over plot, character, humor, action, atmosphere, and pacing, but what really stands out about Toy Story 3 compared all other Pixar efforts is the ambitious diversity. The film opens with the breathless Western action sequence involving Woody chasing down a train that the “Evil Mr. Potato Head” has robbed. Of course, it’s replete with Western clichés including the blown out bridge, the train full of orphans (played by a cadre of troll dolls), and the villain making the hero choose between catching him or saving the victims. Subverting the cliché, Woody can’t stop the train from going over the edge in time, but he is saved by Buzz Lightyear. What ensues is a genre defying mix of action incorporating prehistoric monsters and sci-fi villains in spaceships.

The Toy Story 3 is nothing if not a smorgasbord of cinematic genre influences. The entire central section at the Sunnyside daycare center plays like a prison movie (think Cool Hand Luke) that develops into a prison break movie. When Lotso resets Buzz Lightyear to “demo mode” there is a reprise from the second movie, where Buzz reverts back to believing he is the real Buzz Lightyear. When he is eventually switched back, he goes into Spanish mode and proceeds to romance Jesse like something out of a Telemundo TV drama. The most successful action sequence in the movie follows their escape as the toys find themselves in a trash dump which is conveying them to a shredder. But escape from that horrible fate isn’t sustained for long as they next find themselves being hurled towards an incinerator, reminiscent of the fires in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

If the film falls short of its predecessors it’s that this diversity can frequently come off as a lack of focus, rather than as an organic mixture. Unusual for Pixar film, Toy Story 3 actually take some time to establish its primary conflict. The opening one appears almost as a reprise of the second film, with the theme of toys lamenting their owners growing up. The debate between Woody and the other toys never seems to fill as natural as the ones in the first two films, and the action-centric second and third acts seem to for say character for more superficial entertainment. Of course, all of the characters’ catch phrases have to be repeated at least once, and it’s hard to ignore the it’s getting a bit stale by now. I’m inclined to attribute this awkwardness to the change in directors. Up until now, Lee Unkrich had only served as an editor and co-director for Pixar, and while there is a fresh exuberance in his direction, it lacks the finely honed craftsmanship of a John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, or Brad Bird.

But these relative failings and misgivings are quite abated by the emotional profundity of the ending. I won’t give away, but I will say that it’s every bit as moving as the Carl/Ellie montage in Up! In fact, the greatness of the ending almost makes sense of the scattershot nature of the rest of the film. Essentially, the movie is bookmarked with scenes of Andy and his relationship with the toys now that he’s going off to college and the turning of attention towards the toys, action, and conflict of the rest of the film makes us forget the human element driving it all. When that human element reprise is at the and it has an almost unbearable poignancy to it, the like of which I haven’t seen in animated films since Grave of the Fireflies. The Toy Story 3’s emotion seems rooted in an even older Japanese tradition and Fireflies, and that’s the wistfulness at the passage of time.

The remarkable thing about this ending is that even though it’s a retread of the same thing that the second film and this film (in the beginning), it still comes as a shock. It’s strangely reminiscent of the Club Silencio scene in Mulholland Drive in the respect that it telegraphs its punch, yet still delivers a knockout blow when it hits. While Mulholland Drive was more overt in its ability to tell us what was going to do, do it, and then still surprise us with its power, Toy Story 3 is a bit more subtle in that it makes us forget about this thematic motif, only to use it as an overwhelmingly powerful climax. It’s one of those situations in life where you can know what’s coming, prepare for it, but still be profoundly moved and caught off guard when it happens. We know we grow up, we know we grow out of childish things, we know we eventually have to put the them away; yet, when the time finally comes, we find ourselves inevitably enraptured by and saddened at the loss of the past and our childhood.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

6 Responses to Toy Story 3

  1. C.A.P. says:

    Probably another problem with the movie is that it feels like the whole movie was more interested in the brand new surroundings it created and how the characters get out of those surroundings, rather than using those settings to help establish what Pixar wanted to get across in this movie. If you compare the action scenes with this movie and the first one, the first one used the actions scenes to get from point A to B and let the audience have fun with it before the movie moves forward; in this one, it feels like it wants the audience to stick in between those points and hope they want to stay there. In a way, it feels Pixar had three movies in mind for this movie, and rather than split ’em up, they decided to cram ’em all in the movie and hope for the best, and whenever or not they succeed is up to the viewer.

    Not saying this is a bad movie (it definitely one of the better ‘third movies’ Hollywood movies out there, and you made good points on why that is), but it wouldn’t surprise me if 10 years down the line, people will call bullcrap that the TS trilogy is the best trilogy ever made.

    (BTW, here’s a negative review of the movie if you’re curious…

    http://www.michaelbarrier.com/Commentary/ToyStory3/ToyStory3.html)

  2. maz89 says:

    Unfortunately, the ending wasn’t profound enough for me to get over the “scattershot” nature of the film (in fact, I thought the ending was overbearingly saccharine, even if it was somewhat effective in fogging my vision). That being said, I relished the opportunity of joining the toys in another journey and it was plenty fun, even if the movie paled in comparison to the first two. I don’t know what it was exactly; there was just this magical and poignant quality which made the first two special and it was definitely missing in this one (I hope it’s not just me).

    Nevertheless, your review of the ending, in which you reference Up, Grave of the Fireflies and even Mulholland Drive(!), makes me want to see it again, and hopefully this time with a less cynical eye.

    *Also, I never quite got over how, after Buzz was reset, he was somehow able to get back his original memories. It doesn’t work like that, does it? Urgh.

  3. Jonathan Henderson says:

    I really don’t have any counterarguments to offer either of the above two comments. I think it’s obvious that TS3 has a lot of problems with it that really weren’t there in the previous two films. Besides the ending, I think most of it is salvaged because it’s just so darn entertaining.

    @ CAP: I read that link and it seems that he’s quite biased against Pixar’s aesthetic from the outset. There’s no denying that Pixar is extremely sentimental, but I’ve always said that it’s the kind of classic sentimentality that the best of classic Hollywood, like John Ford, used to be able to do so well. One good point he makes is that the characters certainly aren’t rich and complex, and, to me, worse than them not being rich is that TS3 seems to really cash in on the characterizations of the first two films, acting as if it doesn’t have to do any more here. There is a certain disconnected quality about TS 3 all across the board, from the action, plot, conflict, to the characters. I guess I would’ve probably harped on this more if the ending didn’t get to me like it did. I can’t remember who said it, but there’s an idea that mediocre movies can be turned into great ones by the mere presence of a great ending, and a great movies can be transformed in the mediocre ones by the presence of a bad ending.

  4. Daniel Joseph Caron says:

    Those were Troll dolls in the train, as the orphans. The little aliens drove the get-away sports car that Mr. Potato Head escaped in. Okay, I’m done being a dick now. Wait, no I’m not.

    But, seriously, is Andy autistic or something? I can’t be the only who thinks there’s just something off about him.

  5. Jonathan Henderson says:

    Oh, yeah, you’re right about the troll dolls in the train, Muggy… I can’t believe my memory’s that bad that I forgot something I saw last night! LOL.

  6. David says:

    Eh, you all seem blinded by nostalgia. The only reason you guys felt something was missing with 3 is because you grew up with the first two movies. You didn’t grow up with 3.

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