Friday, June 25, 2010

Moving On With Toy Story 3

poster_toy-story-3 I was immediately skeptical when Pixar announced Toy Story 3.  I, like everyone, had fond memories of the original and fuzzy (but ultimately also fond) memories of the sequel, but I wasn’t quite sure why we were getting a third. 

Pixar’s been on a roll lately, churning out original movies that – despite their optimism and colorful characters – don’t pull their punches.  A story about an adorable lost clown fish opens with the little guy’s mom being eaten.  A doe-eyed robot cleans up our photorealistic trash and then falls in love, but we’re too cartoonishly fat to care until our ship goes all 2001 on us.  An elderly man rediscovers his love of adventure, but not before a montage of his life reduces everyone in the room to a blubbering mess.

So why revisit a franchise with eleven years of dust on it?  Because the last time Pixar tapped that well, they created one of the most well-received movies of all time.  They actually had nothing to lose coming into this.  They’ve amassed absurd amounts of credibility over the last decade, both commercial and critical.  Plus, they had the popular Toy Story brand to fall back on if they somehow failed to knock it out of the park.

And knock it out of the park they did.

In case you’ve missed every Pixar movie since the last Toy Story, the film’s opening gambit quickly demonstrates how far the studio’s come technically.  It lovingly recreates a scene from the first movie – Andy playing with his toys – with a few twists.  Mr. Potato Head still plays the role of diabolical bank robber.  Andy’s beloved cowboy Woody still saves the day with his force field-eating dinosaur.  Only this time around, Pixar shows us the play through Andy’s eyes.  Hamm the Piggy Bank flies a ginormous space ship armed with a devastating, thermonuclear Barrel of Monkeys.  Buzz Lightyear’s jetpack roars and his lasers sizzle.  Pixar’s harvested an excellent crop from its massive server farms; the animation here is gorgeous.

Sid in Toy Story (1).  He is horrifying.Pixar’s not out to become some sort of cartoon Michael Bay, however.  (I believe Mr. Bay’s got that covered.)  The quality of animation shows not only in the action sequences, but in the film’s treatment of the human characters.  Humans in the original Toy Story were creatures lifted straight from the Uncanny Valley, which worked in the scenes with the terrifying Sid but looking at Andy’s family unpleasant.  In Toy Story 3, humans fit more naturally into the environment, moving fluidly and expressing nuanced emotion with their faces.  One stunning moment of facial animation occurs after Andy quarrels briefly with his mother.  The sigh that follows her exit is rendered in incredible detail.  The way his face falls, how he takes a moment with his hand to his temple, his posture as he sinks into his desk chair: it all contributes to a character demonstrating believable emotions.

And feel them he (and the rest of the cast) shall.  Toy Story 3 wastes no time getting to the crux of the matter: fading relevance.  There’s no feel-good sequence to match the earlier movies’ “While the kid’s away, the toys will play” scenes.  The toys can’t bear Andy’s absence any longer.  After a brief, heartwarming montage of home movies showing Andy with his toys, Woody and the gang enact an elaborate ruse to get Andy’s attention.  A frustrated, college-bound Andy briefly holds Rex, who later recounts excitedly to the others, “He held me!  He held me!”  It’s not enough, and everyone knows it.

Several unfortunate coincidences send the group to Sunnyside Daycare, whose toy world is reigned over by Lots-O-Huggin’ Bear (whose excellent Southern drawl comes courtesy of Ned Beatty) – Lotso, for short.  Lotso, who walks with a cane and rides around in the back of a Tonka truck, promises the new toys day after day and year after year of play with wonderful kids in need of good toys.  Woody breaks with his longtime pals, choosing allegiance to his boy over the equivalent of toy immortality. 

Things don’t work out for either party.  Woody gets waylaid on his trip back to Andy.  Taken home by a soul-crushingly cute little girl named Bonnie, Woody spends the night with her toys (my favorite of whom is an aspiring thespian hedgehog voiced by Timothy Dalton) before setting off to rescue his friends who’re being held prisoner at Sunnyside.  Lotso is not the gentle bear he seems to be.  Wronged by a previous owner, Lotso views moving on as the ultimate betrayal.  It’s only fitting then that he becomes the primary obstacle to the toys returning home and coming to grips with the end of their time with Andy.

Yes, Toy Story 3 is surprisingly dark at times.  Yes, it tugs quite hard on the old heartstrings.  And yes, I certainly could’ve done without the 3D (I’ll take more vivid colors over fake depth any day).  But it’s all in keeping with the spirit of toys – namely, fun.  The glee of a successful escape plan.  The old-fashioned bickering of the Potato Heads.  The confused, multifaceted, and shockingly well-written Ken.  The humor merges flawlessly with action which then quickly gives way to the story.

Toy Story 3 is a sterling example of Pixar’s uncanny ability to seamlessly blend digital wizardry, broad commercial appeal, and mature storytelling – all culminating in one of the most moving goodbyes I’ve seen in a while.  I don’t know that I’ve ever had my heart so summarily broken and warmed. 

If you’ve ever owned toys, bring tissues – or at least keep your 3D glasses on until the tears dry.

Final Verdict: 77 Congos