(2010) dir. Lee Unkrich
viewed: 06/19/10 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA
Pixar’s latest, a return to their most visible and repeat-performing pool of characters, the team that launched one of the most successful studios currently producing films in the American mainstream, is a genuinely quality film and most uniquely, a sequel that feels like a real movie, and is in fact, a real good movie. It’s been years since I’d seen either Toy Story (1995) or Toy Story 2 (1999) but whereas the sequels to the Shrek films for instance seem less and less appealing and compelling, Toy Story 3 actually feels like a complete movie and a worthwhile experience.
If you think about it, that makes this film quite remarkable. It’s not a cynical, get the product out to the people, keep rolling with the sequels until the audience becomes numbed and tired of the product. It evolves the characters and the narrative, from a prior film released over 10 years ago and an original 15 years ago.
The story follows the toys of a boy named Andy, now ready for college, ready to leave his favorite childhood playthings in a box in the attic or worse. Woody and Buzz Lightyear and the gang are going through the toy version of “empty nest” syndrome and there is something very compelling in the emotions therein. I’ve been reading about many a viewer in one’s 40’s who was hit “right there” by the story. And it’s striking that it’s able to pull that off with such genuine originiality.
With every film, Pixar’s design and technologies evolve, making each new movie look that much more fresh and striking, even the Toy Story characters, who were in many ways the prototypes for the company, the breakthrough for computer-animated feature films. The wit and charm of the characters, the clever developments of the narrative, it’s the whole package.
The film’s major plotline has the beloved toys accidentally donated to a day care or preschool, which seems like a good thing to the toys who have been losing playtime as their owner evolves into adulthood. And initially they are welcomed by Lotso, the strawberry-scented oldtimer bear and the other toys that live at the day care. But it turns out that Lotso is a twisted tyrant who sends all the new toys to the very dangerous “little tykes” room where they are manhandled, chewed on, and wrecked, while the other toys, who’ve earned their spot in the calmer, older child room, live in relative harmony.
The film’s best addition to the cast is the Ken doll, voiced by Michael Keaton. The mileage they get out of Ken’s dreamhouse and his endless closet of clothes, his vain, but good-natured affability and head-over-heels love for the newly arrived Barbie. You know, product placement usually annoys the hell out of me, but this material, clearly aimed at the adults in the office with their knowing precepts about the Ken doll, was killing me it was so funny.
The film on occasion does go a little extreme, particularly in the finale, where the toys are all headed to the dump to be chopped and crushed and burned in a totally apocalyptic vision far outside of the world of the rest of the film. Perhaps as a final chapter of this series (who knows if or not there will be another), the idea was to make the dangers more extreme, more universal. And gosh knows that it scared Clara. She was clinging in excitement to my arm through much of this final portion.
As I said, it’s been a long time since I saw Toy Story 2 which had its villains and drama, too. But in this case, the villainy and danger seemed to far outpace the storylines in the prior films.
Clara loved the film. Felix enjoyed it. Maybe he’s getting a bit old for it or just in that in between age of really enjoying it. I personally thought that the film was great, a real testament to Pixar’s character development, handling of story, making of movies.
I think that the Shrek comparison is the most apt. There is a series of four films now since the original in 2001, which to my mind never really was better than amusing, but which gladly rolled out film after film, every couple of years despite no one really wanting or needing them. We didn’t even bother with this year’s Shrek Forever After (2010), which is kind of unusual for us since the kids do like going to the movies so much. What I posit is this: Dreamworks offers a standard product, not utterly soulless, and not utterly unamusing, but vapid by comparison. Pixar could easily have made several more Toy Story films in the last 10 years had they simply wanted to cash in, but they didn’t want to cheat their audiences or their characters or themselves. Pixar makes films with greater heart and character than most others in the biz these days. And ultimately their legacy will be much greater.