Toy Story 3 (2010, Lee Unkrich)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The eleventh feature film from Pixar Animation Studios closes — or pretends to close — a loop initiated by its very first one, made fifteen years earlier. The results are outstanding and invigorating, made more so when one realizes that Toy Story 3 also marks the debut of its director, Lee Unkrich. Under his leadership, this remarkable movie ushers Pixar further still into its increasing proficiency at subjecting kids and their parents to pure emotional wreckage the likes of which we’ve not seen since Bambi’s mother was shot. Through its laments about adolescence to its ruggedly charming update of the classisist prison film, this sequel bears little artistic resemblance to its ancestors, which is all the better. Pixar’s storytelling has never felt tighter or stronger, and the payoff —- get out your handkerchiefs —- feels not just like the cap to the three Toy Story films but to Pixar’s decade and a half of feature film triumph. Like most of you, we’ve got questions and doubts about the company’s direction since this was released, but never let it be forgotten just what a profoundly satisfying victory lap this seemed at the time.

The original Toy Story, as much as I loved it in 1995 (went to see it twice!), has always stood awkardly apart from the rest of Pixar’s illustrious output — from which, for convenience’s sake, we will momentarily exclude Cars. Down to every detail and joke, the bulk of their films deal with universal ideas, the pathos and joy as familiar to a toddler as to a senior citizen. What I’ve always felt is most impressive about a movie like Monsters, Inc. is that the hearty laughter and reluctant tears cross generations in unison, not separately. It isn’t Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or Shrek, children’s films with self-consciously hip one-liners to keep parents from nodding off. Pixar’s movies are genuinely great entertainment that doesn’t condescend. But Toy Story was quite visibly a movie that had been written for adults, and for this it suffered. The characters even swore in the pencil tests, and the final film includes a still-surprising number of (usually very funny) sexual jokes. (And I don’t think people who’ve not seen the film lately remember what an unmitigated asshole Woody is in it.) I have no problem with this, but the difference even between that feature and Pixar’s second, a bug’s life, is marked. So is the disconnect between the metaphor-stuffed penis-envy plotline of Toy Story — which actually grapples with jealousy, male jealousy in particular, more maturely and abrasively than most R-rated Hollywood adultery flicks — and that of Toy Story 2, which is actually about, you know, toys, and is a significantly better film.

The evolution can only be viewed as a positive, from any standpoint. Toy Story was at least half-designed for the same effects-picture-geeking Boomers who flocked to all 117 Star Wars movies. From the beginning, Pixar’s people cared about story more than technology, but with the Disney co-opting and general hype surrounding that first film, they could be forgiven for whatever extent the quantum leap in CG technology became the story. And anyway, there’s nothing wrong with using technique in and of itself as a storytelling device. If anything, Pixar’s shown remarkable restraint in the way that the plot, characterization, and traditional direction of each subsequent film, even Cars, has overwhelmed any desire to concentrate on computer-animation spectacle. Upon returning to the scene of that first hit fifteen years later, Pixar has shown the vastness of their evolution, but they have also made a different kind of movie than ever before. Indeed, the lapse of time (and the agelessness of animated characters) has permitted them to approach the very idea of a sequel in a novel, engagingly ambitious way.

In the mid-2000s, when Pixar was on the verge of foregoing its association with the Walt Disney studio, a film called Toy Story 3 went into development without the involvement of the creative team behind the original films. The premise played around with the idea of a mass recall of Buzz Lightyear dolls — you can almost feel the smugness, and no wonder; this was to be crafted by a new division at Disney, Circle 7, devoted specifically to the assembly-line generation of sequels to Pixar films. Because of what looked at the time to be an acrimonious split in the making, Disney was to retain rights to all of Pixar’s beloved characters from their first half-dozen or so films. Of course, Disney bought Pixar in 2005 and put an end to all of this — with the original studio not long afterward beginning work on its own new Toy Story sequel. The irony is that so much of Pixar’s creative contingent had rotated since the 1995 and 1999 productions that the new film seems in a sense just as much of a tonal departure as if the corporate hands had changed, but clearly a warmer one than Circle 7 could ever have offered.

The central improvement, of course, is within the design of the story itself; with screenwriter Michael Arndt in the Joss Whedon role, this becomes quite an inventive and constantly surprising bit of magic. We rejoin Andy’s toys in real time; a decade has passed and the boy is now a man on his way out the door for college. Many of the familiar characters are long gone, but those that remain have stayed true to their plastic — though scuffed a bit, they have not aged. To see them again feels oddly like rejoining old friends. But they are faced with yet another fateful challenge, now on the cusp of being thrown away or put into storage — either way, never played with again. Possible escapes are discouraged by ringleader Woody, who argues that despite Andy’s loss of interest he and his troupe still belong to their boy. (The miracle of toys being retained throughout adolescence is, perhaps wisely, not addressed.) A series of misunderstandings brings a trash bag full of toys to a terrifying day care center populated by uncaring toddlers and ruled with an iron fist by an extremely malicious and fascistic bear, Lotso, portrayed by Ned Beatty using his best booming Network voice. There’s also a one-eyed baby doll, a trash-destroying fire pit, an elaborate prison break sequence, a tortilla, and one of the sweetest, most endearing kids in screen history.

Still, this isn’t the essence: it’s not simply that Pixar’s doing the same things only more here. The first two Toy Story films were mostly about the inner lives of toys; those were made by one director (though they almost weren’t) and pretty much the same crew of people. Toy Story 3 is in many ways a tribute to the earlier films more than a sequel, and while it spends most of its time with the Escape from Alcatraz goings-on of the toys attempting once again to circumvent certain doom and return home, it’s really at bottom about children and how they mature and change — and almost equally, it’s about Pixar itself and its relationship with the culture it’s created.

Longtime Pixar staffer Unkrich (who edited the first film) has taken the reins from big-cheese John Lasseter, whose voice strongly informed the previous Toy movies as well as the picture Pixar made between them, a bug’s life. With someone new at the helm, Toy Story 3 aligns itself with the structure more of later films from the studio like WALL-E and Up — rugged adventures fused with intense pathos — than the pure comedy of the first Toy Story (though like that film, it makes time for at least one incredibly bawdy joke). The pleasure of the film is the surface-level excitement of the constant catastrophes that face the toys, which give adults and children alike a sense of peril and tension, and the very grown-up, unfamiliar dangers of the systemized oppression at the day care. (Also bold for a children’s film to posit infants as terrifying and toddlers as abusive and gross!) The characters were constantly in various stages of madcap suspense in Toy Story 2, but the sense of danger and foreboding was always limited to parody or given a constant sheen of screwball levity. No such safety net here; even the funny bits can often be delightfully sinister (the new cast of villains), the usual perpetual ingenuity tempered with barbed menace (the gambling outpost located in the top of a vending machine). We also get the grim moment of the toys realizing that all hope is lost and — gulp — deciding to quit resisting. That probably has not shown up in a cartoon before. There’s more pushing, more lunacy, more darkness, more fear, but Unkrich and his staff of thousands always deftly come out on the right side in the nick of time.

But the major emotional pull of the film comes from the two kids who become three-dimensional characters. Andy never was before, but his exchanges with his mom and his resistance to throwing his old toys away tell us a great deal about him. Bonnie, the adorable girl who inherits the toys and already clearly has enriched the life of every plastic thing she’s touched, is perhaps the most sophisticated and complex human character in the franchise, her withdrawn shyness and playful but warm outrageousness in private a portrait of childhood as it really feels, and of the most vital, sanity-preserving dichotomy we all discover as we grow up — that between our inner and outer worlds. So it goes that the final scene of the film, when Andy gives the toys away, becomes the point at which it becomes useless to stop the tears from coming. For nearly everyone watching the movie, these characters have been a part of our lives as much as Andy’s — so he now stands in for us.

Toy Story 3 is, in a sense unique to it, a movie about its audience. The scene in which the toys are passed to a new owner, and their longtime protector explains each and every one in loving detail, is as much about the generation that has grown up with these personalities in their heart as about the toys themselves, or even the animation studio that invented them. But what may be most admirable is that the film doesn’t cop out on the question of maturity in the tempting ways it could — Andy isn’t an eternal child, he doesn’t revert. He is engaging in the same difficult nostalgia we all could be in that moment. All the closure finally provides us is a portrait of a grownup entering his world, the same way the kids who were three years old in 1995 are simultaneously doing the same. Never before has a time lapse in the telling of a story allowed such lovely synchronicity. So one wonders if Pixar’s allowed themselves just this once to talk directly to the people who ultimately motivated the ideological shift that has made them what they are. It took fifteen years to justify an emotional catharsis this extreme, but when it comes, it’s fully earned and overwhelming, peaking when Andy — with a catch in his voice — notes that Woody will never give up on you.

I strongly wish that Pixar would not go forward with a Toy Story 4, even though I do feel it could potentially be a good movie. The end of the third film is too ideal a way to send off the characters, almost eerily reminiscent of Charles Schulz naming off Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and Snoopy in the final Peanuts and saying “How can I ever forget them?” In some ways, it also seems like an appropriate finale to Pixar’s run of innovative and resonant films, given that it’s the first one put into production post-buyout. But who knows? It’s something to be proud of anyway, and renders the Toy Story series the only one I’m aware of besides Back to the Future in which the two sequels are both superior to the original film. And finally, we can say it here — Mr. Potato Head reconfiguring himself as a tortilla is pretty much the peak of CG animation, right?

[Greatly expanded and pointlessly agonized-over version of a brief review written and posted in 2010.]

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