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 came 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 a 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’ concerns over what is to come of them. It seems they’re destined for either 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’ve 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 he 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 to 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 in the character designs, which haven’t really been changed, but refined by a plethora of minute degrees. The biggest leaps can be seen in the intricate backgrounds, especially at the daycare center, which abounds in rich detail. But the thing that has always distinguished Pixar as a superior animation studio is 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 unto 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’s 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 to all other Pixar efforts is the ambitious diversity. The film opens with a 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.
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 a Pixar film, Toy Story 3 actually takes 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 feel as natural as the ones in the first two films, and the action-centric second and third acts seem to forsake 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 that 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 it 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 bookended with scenes of Andy and his relationship with the toys now that he’s going off to college; 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 reprises itself at the end it has an almost unbearable poignancy to it, the likes of which I haven’t seen in animated films since Grave of the Fireflies. Toy Story 3’s emotion seems rooted in an even older Japanese tradition than 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 in 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 it 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 toys away; yet, when the time finally comes, we find ourselves inevitably enraptured by and saddened at the loss of the past and our childhood.