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.
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?
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).
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.
These 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.
- 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 (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.