Toy Story 3 (2010)

By the high standards of Pixar, the new TOY STORY 3 falls slightly short – which means it’s still better than anything else in the computer-animated sweepstakes.

Toy Story 3 (2010)After a while, it becomes a bit predictable, almost boring, to proclaim each and every new film from Pixar Animation Studios as a yet another masterpiece. Their consistently high quality has created a situation roughly analogous to Texas Hold ‘Em Poker, in which (thanks to the number of cards each player has in common) the difference between the winning hand and the losing hand is often very slight; that is, trying to rank a new Pixar film on a scale from best to “worst” in the company catalogue is a matter of choosing between the ace-high straight and the king-high straight. By that high standard, TOY STORY 3 can be reckoned a minor disappointment: unlike recent efforts WALL-E and UP, which surpassed their predecessors, the new TOY STORY falls slightly short. Which means it’s still better than anything else out there in the computer-animated field, especially the deadly dull SHREK FOREVER AFTER.
This time out, the plot has Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang contemplating their own mortality, or at least their obsolescence. Andy is packing to head off to college, and the fate of the toys is uncertain, with storage, donation, or eBay among the likely possibilities. Through a mix-up, most of the toys end up sent to Sunnyside, a day care center, and Woody (who was set aside to accompany Andy to college) races to retrieve them. However, Buzz and company are not so sure they want to go back. Their new home seems like a utopia. Certainly, a life among playful children and other toys is preferable to storage in a dark attic, hoping for the unlikely day that Andy retrieves them?

Toy Story 3 (2010)
The toys arrive at their new home, the Sunnyside day care center.

The brilliance of the TOY STORY 3 scenario is simple and elegant: although it is loaded with action set-pieces, and eventually morphs into a prison-break movie, the plot mechanics are grounded in a dramatic conflict that gives both sides an understandable point of view while putting them in conflict. The ever faithful Woody (Tom Hanks) firmly believes that the toys’ primary purpose is to always be there in case Andy ever needs them. Buzz and the others are more willing to see the writing on the wall: Andy has moved on, and does not need them any more. In traditional, safe Hollywood story-telling, Woody would be obviously right, and the entire plot would be contrived to preserve the essential situation carried over from the previous films, restoring the status quo for the next sequel. Instead, TOY STORY 3 dares to confront the sad reality of the need to move on when your time is done.
Fortunately, the film does so without resorting to bathos. Its drama is realized through some exciting action and suspense sequences; for the first time, Pixar even extends its reach into horror territory, with some dark and even disturbing  scenes. The baby doll that acts as an over-sized henchmen to the film’s villain is a twisted spoof on movie monsters, a little bit funny and creepy at the same time – a little bit scary but still fun. The finale, aboard a conveyor belt in a trash disposal facility dragging the toys down to what looks like certain doom – more than that, it looks like the gate of hell spewing forth flames of destruction – ceases to be an amusing roller-coaster thrill ride and turns into something terrifying, even heart-rending, as the toys join hands and face the approaching immolation. The moment when Jessie turns to Buzz, the hero who is supposed to be able to effect rescue from any situation, and all he can do is silently take her hand, is guaranteed to choke up even the most hard-hearted cynic.  (This is the kind of scene I like to call “The Money Scene” – the one so good that even if the rest of the movie totally sucked, you would walk out of the theatre feeling you had gotten your money’s worth. And by the way, isn’t it amazing that these CGI toys generate more audience empathy than live-action characters in the week’s other big fantasy release, JONAH HEX?)
Where TOY STORY 3 falls short is in pacing and sub-plots. The central conflict (stay at Sunnyside or return to Andy) is short-circuited when there turns out to be a dark side to the day care center: the apparently friendly Lotso the Bear (Ned Beatty) is really a villain who consigns the new toys to younger, age-inappropriate kids, who thrash the helpless playthings with wild abandon. Sunnyside turns out to be not utopia but a prison, and Woody must devise a way to help his friends break out. It’s fun stuff, but it’s not always as exciting as it should be, and it renders the initial conflict somewhat moot (the decision to leave is forced on the characters by the unpleasant circumstances).
Barbie, who first appeared in TOY STORY 2, reappears in Part 3, this time with Ken
Barbie meets Ken

Interpolated but not quite fully integrated into this is the appearance of  a Ken doll, who falls head over heals for Barbie (the two feel “made for each other”). Ken is on Lotso’s team, however, so Barbie dumps him to stand by her friends. It hardly requires a spoiler alert to say that Ken has a change of heart; unfortunately, the Barbie-Ken sub-plot is squeezed into the larger story in a way that feels slightly short-changed, as if this were a short-subject that should have been developed more fully.
Toy Story 3: Buzz goes SpanishThese developments offers some interesting bits, such as a friendly faced toy phone whose handset speaks in the voice of a tough convict. We get the wonderful scene of Buzz Lightyear in “Spanish mode” (with Tim Allen’s voice briefly replaced by that of Javier Fernandez Pena) – which allows him to express his heretofore repressed attraction to Jessie. And Barbie gets the most memorable line, quoting Thomas Jefferson to Lotso to remind him that the authority of government proceeds from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of violence.*
These bits feel like pieces mixed in with the familiar, lovable shtick (Wallace Shawn’s lovably nervous T-Rex, John Ratzenberger’s hilariously intelligent piggy bank). They’re good, sometimes great, and the script does not fully unify into a satisfying whole. Consequently, the pacing occasionally feels a bit off, as we wait for the next gag to reawaken our slightly flagging interest.
Fortunately, that wait is rewarded. TOY STORY 3 saves its best sequences for the third act, which delivers everything you could have hoped for – not just the bang but the melancholy tears as well. In a beautiful combination of the sad and the uplifting, we see the torch passed on to a new generation in a way that suggests the flame continues to flicker inside the previous generation. Toys are not just inanimate objects, mere possessions, says the film. Toys are an integral part of imagination and fantasy and creative (realized on screen through a mini-movie depicting one of Andy’s playtime scenarios). By keeping that love of toys alive, the TOY STORY films – and particularly TOY STORY 3 – celebrate and help preserve the Sense of Wonder that enriches the lives of all of us who enjoy cinefantastique.
One final note: As has become de rigueur today, TOY STORY 3 is being presented in 3D (Disney Digital 3D, to be precise). The computer-generated animation looks beautiful with the extra third dimension, but overall the process does not add immeasurably to the film, and you would not particularly shortchange yourself if you saw it in old-fashioned 2D.

DAY AND NIGHT: SHORT SUBJECT

TOY STORY 3 is playing withe a Pixar short subject titled DAY AND NIGHT. More a concept than a story, the film presents two characters (flatly rendered in the style of old hand-drawn animation) who are seen in a black void; however, within their silhouettes we see lovely background scenes that express the characters’ moods and feelings. One silhouette reveals day time scenes; the other reveals night time scenes. At first antagonistic, each learns to appreciate what the other has to offer. It’s an impressive visual conceit, but once the concept becomes clear, the episode is a bit flimsy – more clever than brilliant.
FOOTNOTE:

  • At times TOY STORY 3 sounds like a deliberate attempt to beat Pixar rival DreamWorks Animation at their own game. Barbie’s quoting of Jefferson recalls DreamWorks’ ANTZ, which quote Karl Marx (“The workers control the means of production”). In the manner of DreamWorks, there is also some double entendere dialogue between Ken and Barbie, meant to fly over the heads of younger children while eliciting laughter from adults. “Nice leg…warmers,” says Ken to Barbie, who responds, “Nice ass-cot.” There’s even a throw-away bit suggesting one character thinks Ken, who is presented as a bit of a metro-sexual, is a cross-dresser.

toy story 3

TOY STORY 3 (June 18, 2010). Directed by Lee Unkrich. Written by Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich. Voices: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Michael Keaton, Whoopi Goldberg, Joan Cusack, John Ratzenberg, Wallace Shawn, Bonnie Hunt, Timothy Dalton, R. Lee Ermey, Don Rickles, Ned Beatty.
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Galaxy Quest (2000) – 10th Anniversary Science Fiction Film Review

Despite a premise that sounds far from promising, GALAXY QUEST turns out to be an amusing adventure that ofers both good comedy and reasonably exciting science fiction; its obvious inspiration is the STAR TREK franchise, and it manages to best the majority of those films. The basic idea is to take some actors with a long history of play-acting in an imagnary world, then thrust them into a “real” version of that world. This sounds a bit like the sadly disappointing THREE AMIGOES, which undermined its own premise by presenting little contrast between the Hollywood West and the “real” West (which in the movie became just a slightly grimier version of the Hollywood west). GALAXY QUEST does something similar by taking the cast of an old, canceled sci-fi show and putting them in Outer Space, but it makes a running joke out of the fact that everything they experience in reality conforms to the cliches of their old tele-dramas. And it has one extra act up its sleeve: the actors in question are typecast has-beens whose only gigs, since their show was cancelled, consist of promotional appearances and fan conventions – an area ripe for parody.
When we first meet the cast of the old “Galaxy Quest” TV show, they are about to make a convention appearance for hundreds of rabid fans. Soon, however, they meet the ultimate fans: a group of Thermians who turn out not to be humans in costume but actual aliens. The Thermians have intercepted the old “Galaxy Quest” signals and misinterpreted them as historical documents. Faced with extermination by the evil Sarris (Robin Sachs), Mathesar (Enrico Colantoni) and his comrades seek out the help of Commander Peter Quincy Taggart, Lt. Tawny Madison, Dr. Lazarus, Tech Sergeant Chen, and navigator Laredo, little realizing that these are actors, not astronauts. Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), who played Taggart, is too flattered to break the awful truth to the Thermians, so he convinces his old cast to go along with the gig. Although they really don’t know what they’re doing, the actors are able to fake it, because the Thermians have faithfully recreated their ship, down to the last detail, from watching old episodes of the show.

Some dangerous aliens that our TV stars encounter
Some dangerous aliens that our TV stars encounter

The cast soon find themselves trapped in dangerous situations from which they must extricate themselves by acting as they did in the show. The only one obviously uncomfortable with this is Guy (Sam Rockwell), a bit-player whose only role in the show was dying in the first five minutes of episode #81. Things go reasonably well at first, but then ugly reality rears its head. Will the cast rise to the level of expectations placed on them because of the larger-than-life roles they played, and do they really know enough about their own show to negotiate a plot without a script and a director to tell them what to do? (Well, no they don’t; fortunately, their fans do, and in one of the funniest sequences, a group of fan geeks manage to put all their knowledge of trivia to good use, saving their heroes from certain death, with a little help from the Internet.)
The film’s opening is weak. The attempt to spoof the “Galaxy Quest” show is not nearly as funny as one would hope, although the material seems on target in terms of details (rock sets and cyclorama skies suggest the original STAR TREK series with efficient accuracy). But once our heroes are taken on their quest, the picture takes off and really flies. The script is peppered with funny dialogue, and the cast make the most out of it. Tim Allen, without doing a William Shatner impersonation, captures the feel of a starship commander; you believe he could have played this part, and the humor comes from his reactions to the situations, not from acting like a bad actor. Sigourney Weaver actually gets to be funny (she played more or less a straight man role in GHOSTBUSTERS); her character’s frustration at the limits of her role are believably amusing, and Weaver herself is stunning as a blond bombshell, quite the opposite of her usual image. Rickman gets the frustrated, pretentious English actor routine down pat; more than that, he actually makes the scene work when the film shifts to serious mode—something usually deadly in a comedy of this sort. Tony Shalhoub’s deadpan delivery is the perfect counterpoint to Sam Rockwell’s increasing edginess as guy, and Daryl Mitchell has one of the best scenes when his character is asked to really pilot a starship out of dry dock.
Dean Parisot captures the science fiction ambience perfectly, thanks to fine technical help form Stan Winston’s makeup, ILM’s visual effects, Jerzy Zielinski’s cinematography, David Newman’s music, and Linda DeScenna’s production design. The overall production is geared to capturing the glory and awe of the best science fiction, because we have to believe that the prospect would successfully lure some out-of-work actors who would know better if the whole thing just didn’t look so amazing. Rather like Blake Edwards, who made those kung fu scenes in the PINK PANTHER films really funny by doing them really well, Parisot takes the position that this story is not a spoof or send up of genre clichés, and humor is not derived from cheesy looking effects or cardboard sets. Instead, he handles the situations as if they were real, and the humor comes from the absurdity of actors reliving their familiar situations in real life.
The result is exciting and buoyant and fun. The movie doesn’t entirely sell the reality of its situation: it still seems rather easy for the actor-characters to rise to the occasion and succeed in real life just as they did on their show. But what works earns enough good will for us to overlook the minor flaws. And in a year that has poked much fun at science fiction fans (TREKKIES, FREE ENTERPRISE) is nice to see a film that acknowledges the eccentricity of fanatics but ultimately embraces them. With any luck, GALAXY QUEST will go on to generate its own fan following. Here’s looking forward to Quest Con #1.

DVD DETAILS

The original dual-layer DVD release of GALAXY QUEST featured a good widescreen transfer, a Dolby Digital 5.1 English soundtrack, and optional captions. There were a handful of bonus features: a promotional featurette titled “On Location in Space,” Deleted Scenes, a Theatrical trailer, production notes, a Thermian Language audio track, and cast and crew biographies. The deleted scenes were the most interesting, finally explaining how Sigourney Weaver’s blouse got ripped open in such a provacative way. Least interesting was the Thermian audio track, which replaces the English dialogue with the alien language of the Thermians heard in the film; it’s funny for maybe a minute. The 10th Anniversary DVD (released on May 12, 2009) retains these bonus features and adds several others, making it a preferable replacement
GALAXY QUEST (2000). Directed by Dean Parisot. Written by David Hoard and Robert Gordon, story by Gordon. Cast: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell, Daryl Mitchell, Enrico Colantoni, Robin Sachs, Patrick Breen.

Galaxy Quest – DVD Review

GALAXY QUEST was one of 2000’s nicest surprises; a sci-fi comedy that was neither snarky nor silly with a cast of both seasoned comic and more traditionally dramatic actors. The sci-fi spoof genre is littered with titles like Quark and Homeboys from Outer Space – not the sort of heap that anyone would want to be at the top of. It’s possible that the genre’s only real success has been Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, which had only a partly-successful film adaptation. Galaxy Quest’s clever conceit was to skewer Hollywood’s presentation of sci-fi while respecting the tenets that drew in fans in the first place. The initial ads brought in people looking forward to laughing at the typical convention-going fanatics, only to find it taking a surprising, welcome turn to affectionate homage. As Nicholas Meyer says in the supplemental features, “it’s a ‘have your cake and eat it too’ movie.”
The inspired beginning of the film finds the cast of early 80s television show “Galaxy Quest” making their umpteenth appearance at a sci-fi convention. Tensions among the cast are rising as aging ingénue Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver), frustrated thespian Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), burnt out Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub), and former child star Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell) discover that leading man Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) has agreed to a personal appearance sans castmates at the home of a fan. From someone who has been to more than a few horror/sci-fi conventions in his life, the accuracy with which the details are rendered here is depressingly impressive. As the actors are introduced to the audience, a giant screen plays images from the long canceled TV show behind them, and we’re treated to the first of many terrific Alan Rickman moments when he cringes at hearing his character’s catch phrase “By Grabthar’s Hammer…” but the film makes takes a brilliant turn when Nesmith takes the stage. Instead of playing off the famous SNL bit where Bill Shatner famously (and hilariously) berated conventioneers to “get a life!” Tim Allen relishes his celebrity and greedily soaks up the adoration of the fans. When he goes into a bathroom at the hotel (complete with a line of Klingons standing at the urinals) and overhears a civilian mocking both the actors and fans, it sucks the wind from his sails, depressing him to the point where he rudely dismisses a young fan (Justin Long).
After spending the night tucked into a scotch bottle, he wakes to find 4 people waiting outside his home in unusually detailed alien costumes (including an amazingly recognizable Rainn Wilson) ready to take him to his solo fan gig, and Jason passes out in the limo just before it turns into an alleyway and lifts off. Jason awakens in what he assumes to be an expensive set built in a fan’s basement. Allen is particularly good here, with a convincing weaving around asking for soda and complimenting them on how realistic everything looks. Of course everything is absolutely real, and the Thermians (as the benign alien race is called) have been intently watching the Galaxy Quest “historical documents” and designed their entire ship and all the technology on it after what they’ve seen on those records. The Thermians believe that the characters are all real space explorers and have no conception of what a television show is; an attempt to describe what an actor does simply translates as a “liar” to them. They have traveled to Earth to secure the services of Nesmith’s alter ego “Capt. Taggart” in the tense negotiations with the evil, lizard-like Sarris, who has already destroyed much of their civilization looking for a device on the Thermian ship called the Omega 13. The problem is, no one knows what the Omega 13 actually does – “Galaxy Quest” was cancelled before the plotline could be resolved. A still clueless Nesmith orders the Thermians to open fire on Sarris and blithely walks off the bridge, looking for his limo ride home. Only after being transported across the galaxy in a gelatinous pod does he realize that everything was real, but it’s tougher to convince the rest of the cast when he arrives late to the opening of an electronics store. This is one of the film’s most hilariously uncomfortable moments, with Rickman despondently hissing out his catch phrase and adding the suffix ” … what savings!” just prior to the release of about 4 small helium balloons. Even the arrival of the Thermians, who need urgently Taggart to return to their ship before it is destroyed by an enraged Sarris, fails to convince them – until the thought of turning down a paying job convinces them to go with Nesmith, with bit player Guy Fleegman (Sam Rockwell) insisting on tagging along.
As good as Allen is here (and this is his best screen work by a wide margin) the show really takes off once the rest of the cast has arrived aboard the Thermian ship. The film’s unexpected charm is that each member of the large ensemble cast is given room to maneuver; some roles, like Shalhoub’s engineer and Rockwell’s glorified extra (Guy would have been the red-shirted security officer killed before the first commercial break on Star Trek – the ‘no-duh’ inspiration for the Galaxy Quest show-within-a-show) would have been lost in the shuffle in lesser hands, but director Dean Parisot and writers David Howard and Robert Gordon keep most of the humor character based, and actor-dependant. We never cared much for Wings, but before Monk made him a viable star, Shalhoub was perpetrating minor comic masterpieces in films like Quick Change and Men in Black and his deadpan delivery is murderously funny. Ditto Sam Rockwell, whose reaction to being probed by the Thermians in their un-disguised form is a brilliant moment, and one that we wouldn’t be surprised to learn wasn’t always on the page. it’s also great to see Sigourney Weaver as loose and funny as she is here; even though she’s no stranger to the setting, the comedic element of the story – and blond bombshell wig – seems to have lit a spark, even if one of her best lines was clipped to avoid a PG-13 rating (watch her lip movements when she and Allen first arrive at the “chompers”). In this company, it seems disingenuous to say than any one actor steals the film; Galaxy Quest is definitely a case where every actor is given at least a handful of opportunities, but Rickman might have the juiciest role. Serving as the Spock surrogate to Allen’s Kirk, he wears an amazingly uncomfortable looking head appliance to give his Dr. Lazarus a nicely generic alien appearance, and spits venom at the aliens who worship him. Lazarus has the most interesting character arc; when an unexpected death late in the film breaks his resolve and he recites his hated catch phrase in utter earnestness, Rickman nails a difficult moment, and earns the scene a large measure of pathos. That’s the not-so-secret secret of Galaxy Quest’s success – a character-based comedy that walks the finest of lines; an affectionate parody that pokes gentle fun at a genre that it clearly loves.
Apparently, Galaxy Quest is still considered enough of a cult item to deny it a higher profile Blu-Ray release – a real shame, as Paramount and DreamWorks have assembled a very respectable array of extras. No commentary track is present, though it’s hard to imagine watching this film without listening to the actors.
Here’s what is:

  • Historical Documents: The Story of Galaxy Quest – Here we get a general overview of the production, from screenwriting and casting through shooting and reception. Impressively, each major player – both in front of and behind the camera – is on hand for interviews, an impressive feat for a 10 year old comedy that was far from a blockbuster.
  • Never Give Up, Never Surrender: The Intrepid Crew of the NSEA Protector – This featurette concentrates on the cast, all of whom remember the film fondly. Sigourney Weaver has a particularly take, having been part of the sci-fi universe with the Alien series for so long, she clearly relished the chance to play such a different character.
  • By Grabthar’s Hammer, What Amazing Effects – a bittersweet recollection, as it features a vintage interview with one of the great creature creators of all time, Stan Winston, who passed away last year.
  • Alien School: Creating the Thermian Race – This piece focuses on Enrico Colantoni, who played Thermian leader Mathesar. During his audition, Colantoni came up with the distinctive method of Thermian movement and speech.
  • Actors in Space – Similar to the Crew featurette, the actors discuss certain aspects of their characters that might his too close to home.
  • Sigourney Weaver Raps – Unable to attend her agent’s birthday party in New York, Weaver, with help from Mitchell and Rockwell, perform a brief hip hop tribute from the set.

There are also about 12 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, which include two hysterical moments, including Dr. Lazarus being shown his Spartan quarters aboard the Thermian ship, and Rockwell’s reaction to a malfunctioning gun in a scrapped version of the finale. The set is rounded out with the original trailer and a Thermian language track which is funny for about the same length of time it takes to go back to the menu and turn it off.
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