Toy Story 3: An Observation on Critical Carping

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Let’s face it, boys and girls: sequels do not exactly increase the pedigree of a solid, successful original film.  With the exception of, say, AFTER THE THIN MAN, THE GODFATHER II, THE EMPIRE STRIKE BACK, and a few others, they tend to do more harm than good, tainting the brightness of the first. Still, every now and again, a little gem bucks the history of the system.  TOY STORY 3 is just such a little gem, a critical and box office champ that has become the second highest-rated film in Rottentomatoes.com’s history and grossed over $225,000,000 at the domestic box-office in its first ten days. Still, this hasn’t prevented a few critics from reflexively sharpening their long knives.
In a way, you can almost understand their attitude. It is a fact in the standard world that the third time around is definitely not a charm. (JAWS 3D, anyone?) And Pixar’s successful streak is unprecedented: they haven’t had a dud since they debuted the very first  full-length CGI animated movie (the original TOY STORY) back in 1995. The simple law of averages seems to suggest they would drop the ball with this second sequel.  So you can bet that the assassins were poised for the kill.
They should have waited for another target, however, With TOY STORY 3, Pixar has navigated the sequel pitfalls with grace, charm and smarts not once, but twice (TOY STORY 2 is actually Rottentomatoes’ all-time highest rated film).  Now, this isn’t to say that the franchise loses nothing in a third outing – it does lack some of the strength and originality of the first two outings – and one could pick on a few things here and there, but as a third go-round it still stands pretty firmly on sequel ground.  So methinks jabs seem more like critical carping.
TOY STORY 3 completes a near perfect arc.  The original TOY STORY (one of the best animated movies of all time) gave us heart and depth that we don’t often see in animated features – with themes such as the fear of losing someone’s love and being replaced by something new and tantalizing.  TOY STORY 2 dealt with the concern of being played out, worn out and broken, only to be discarded once one has been “beaten up,” as it were.  It also touched on the theme that is entrenched within the third film: What happens when a toy is outgrown?  TOY STORY 3 builds on this idea to its final, touching conclusion.
Of course, these are all metaphors for life itself.  There is not a one of us who cannot relate to love, loyalty, loss, and fear of rejection, abandonment, replacement and so on. This is a main reason why so many people can connect to and enjoy these movies.  Another is simply the love, care and grasp of material that the Pixar team exhibits when making its films.  There wasn’t a single child in the theater during the time period I saw TOY STORY 3 –  a strong testament to Pixar’s universal themes and creative integrity.  Yet it was still easy to sense the connection and the fun everyone was experiencing while watching the movie.  One could even hear sniffles toward its close.
Pixar’s films are International phenomenons.  In the end, they do speak to us all (well, most of us).  It takes a pretty cynical soul to completely reject the creative spirit and intuition that Pixar’s exceptionally talented band of brothers and sisters brings to any given project it produces.  The world of film would be in a much sadder realm were it not for them.  When I watch a Pixar production I am constantly reminded of so many of the reasons why I fell in love with the medium of movies in the first place.
Not every single living soul agrees with this benign line of thinking, however.  Two particular critics have definitely been thrust into the spotlight for their polar views.  Armond White is a reviewer (more a critic, I would say) who betrays an air of haughty superiority, as if he enjoys thrusting a dagger into a well-loved film.  To his vituperate way of thinking, TOY STORY 3 is  “so besotted with brand names and product-placement that it stops being about the innocent pleasures of imagination – the usefulness of toys – and strictly celebrates consumerism,” but then he holds up a messy, exploitive piece like JONAH HEX, exclaiming that “without a $50 million ad budget to make JONAH HEX seem important, the media feels free to trash it – doing so exposes their collusion with marketing and refusal to read film for personal reflection.”
Such a position is just plain silly, to be quite frank.  History is replete with enthusiastic critical and audience acceptance of little films that could.  Now, I cannot say whether Mr. White takes controversial positions to generate attention, or if he is completely genuine with his views, but he acts as if he is in a college debate class and reflexively needs to take the unpopular side of an issue so that he can impress us with his rhetorical skills.
Cole Smithey is another critic who has taken a more negative viewpoint of TOY STORY 3. Smithey claims TOY STORY 3 “sends all the wrong messages,” and he reproaches the film for its lapse into what he sees as an inappropriately dark area.  To this I would counter that Mr. Smithey may not remember his childhood all that well.  I can assure him that the imagination and methods of play of children can be every bit as dark as anything portrayed in TOY STOY 3.
Smithey doesn’t understand why people think his C+ rating is so negative, writing in a later self-defense, “As with everything else in the American media, there’s no room for nuance in today’s court of public opinion; it’s all or nothing. My review was being sniffed at like it was a box of Cracker Jacks with no prize. Although I’d made fifteen points about specific problems I had with the film, some readers seemed unable to grasp a single criticism.”
Well, now, there’s a difference between understanding and accepting. Perhaps the real reason people object is that, within the body of his “nuanced” review, Smithey makes not a single positive comment on the movie. His comments on TOY STORY 3 and his follow-up comments about the reaction to his words show him to be every bit as black-and-white and snippy in his views as any of those against whom he rails.
A third film critic named Jeremy Heilman weighs in on the negative side as well.  His views are more understandable in their “been-there-done-that” perspective.  On that score he – and the others – have a point.  Many of the themes have been touched on before.  But as I said, they come to a rather natural full-circle that ties up the trilogy.  Still, reading between the lines it feels as though Heilman has a bit of a Pixar grudge too (he doesn’t like the fact that they may cast a type of shadow on the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki).
I’m not here to say “How dare these guys show any negativity toward the great gods of Pixar Studios!”  On the contrary, I fully support their right to make any honest observation they see fit. (After all, I doggedly bucked popular opinion on ALIENS, TERMINATOR 2, TITANIC, AVATAR, among others. No I don’t hate James Cameron; I just don’t think he’s very honest in relation to the execution of his stories and characters.)  Besides, Pixar sure doesn’t need me to come to its defense.  What I do question, though, is the possibility that they either had an axe to grind or were simply lying in wait, ready to poke any holes they could the third time around.  As fresh as the first it is not.  But as a threequel it is so much better than most.  And this is the pleasant surprise to which our trio of critics should be a bit more willing to concede.
Mr. Smithey claims to be quite sincere about his sincerity.  Mr. White, on the other hand, seems to be more ticked off at humanity.  There, is no doubt, reason to feel negatively about us particular bipeds, but there must be more honest and constructive ways to show it. We cannot all be “non-thinking children and adults,” as Mr. White essentially says of those who enjoyed the film.  No, in this third and final TOY STORY, almost everything comes together just about as well as one could hope for (with a few exceptions).  The time between the films is just about right, too.  With the years that have gone by, Andy has grown up and is moving away to attend college.  This prompts him to seriously consider: What is to become of the needful things that must now be set aside?  His fondness for his old toys remains (as it has with so many of us), but he cannot take them away to some tiny student dorm and into a completely different type of life.

No longer needed by Andy, the toys end up at Sunnyside Day Care.
No longer needed by Andy, the toys end up at Sunnyside Day Care.

Regardless of what our detractors say, this plot line offers a nice, natural trajectory in connection with the life of a child-turned-young-adult and a handful of beloved toys; it provides a proper, heartfelt note on which to end this charming, silly symphony that is TOY STORY.  And certainly by the movie’s end, Pixar shows they know that this should be and will be its fond full-length farewell to one of the most beloved animated film franchises in the medium’s history.  The group at Pixar has treated it with love, tenderness and care from the first fame of the first film to the last frame of the last film.  There may have been a small trip up here or there along the way, but to ask for much more than was delivered is to demand almost more than mere mortals are capable of.
Heck, all I really know is that Comic Book Guy would dig it.  That’s good enough for me.
TOY STORY 3 (Pixar Animation Studios/Full Circle Releasing/Walt Disney Pictures; 2010; 103 min.) Directed by Lee Unkrich.  Screenplay by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich, and Michael Arndt.  Produced by Darla K. Anderson and John Lasseter.  Production Design by Bob Pauley.  Direction of Animation by Michael Stocker.  Supervision of Animation by Bobby Podesta and Michael Venturini.  Music Composed by Randy Newman.  Edited By Ken Schretzmann.  Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Betty, Don Rickles, Michael Keaton, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Estelle Harris, John Morris, Jodi Benson, Emily Hahn, Laurie Metcalf, Blake Clark, Teddy Newton, Bud Luckey, Beatrice Miller, Javier Fernandez Pena, Timothy Dalton, Lori Alan, Charlie Bright, Kristen Schaal, Jeff Garlin, Bonnie Hunt, John Cygan, Jeff Pidgeon, Whoopi Goldberg, and R. Lee Ermey.  MPAA Rating: G for general audiences.
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