It’s difficult to remember what theatrical animation was like before Pixar. I remember that a Disney movie would come out every year or so and I’d beg my parents to take me and that’d be about it. I wasn’t stupid enough to go see a Don Bluth movie in the theater, at least. And pretty much all the animation was 2D! I remember when it was a giant fucking deal that Aladdin had 3D CG mixed in. I remember when people’s jaws were dropping during the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast. You’d occasionally see a 3D CG animated short on Nickelodeon (especially on Thanksgiving), but other than those, that was about it. Computer graphics were a delicacy, like caviar for the developing eyes of a cartoon-addled child. This was back when 3D viewing was still considered retro and gimmicky, too!
But then it was 1995. Disney was quickly losing their shit (Pocahontas? HUNCHBACK?) and no one was stepping up to take the doddering king’s place. Except for one studio who dared to look toward the future, and saw the potential in the shiny, plastic-looking aesthetic of computer animation. And Disney still had enough sense left in them to see the potential, as well, and released Pixar’s film Toy Story into theaters. And it was a success! The rare non-Disney animated feature to garner universal acclaim and commercial success! Combining heartfelt storytelling with sly, inventive humor, Pixar created a franchise.
A franchise that’s never quite sat well with me.
I mean, I liked Toy Story well enough. I could appreciate it for the way it pioneered a whole new medium and for the relative sophistication it had compared to other offerings. Even as a child, it seemed a bit sharper than the competition. But the movie’s aesthetic just didn’t age very well (see: any human in the film) and then there was John Lasseter’s unhealthy taste in Randy Newman. It just didn’t resonate with me the same way Aladdin or other films did. And seeing Toy Story 2 years later, when it was rereleased in 3D, I can see why people consider it a marked improvement. The added characters actually ADD to the proceedings rather than detract and it explored some interesting aspects of toy culture. But it still wasn’t yanking me like I wanted it to. Was it the indifference to stars Tom Hanks and Tim Allen? The still-uncanny-valley human characters? The seemingly recycled bit where the gang has to deal with another fresh-out-of-the-box Buzz Lightyear? The world may never know.
So it was with some chagrin that I learned that Pixar was going back to the well again with Toy Story 3. I mean, I’m not surprised. Aside from Cars, it’s probably their most profitable property. It also has that nostalgic glimmer of being their first feature animation, and enough time has gone by that super-fans of the original might have kids of their own to take to a sequel. Canny Disney thinking at work, there. So after enduring months of breathless Toy Story fans spazzing out over the idea of a threequel and the outpouring of praise from the rest of the press, I decided to go see it to give it a fair shake. If anything, I probably wouldn’t hate it.
Toy Story 3 picks up, surprisingly, in real-time after the gap between it and Toy Story 2. Years have passed and Andy, the toys’ owner, has outgrown playing with them. Woody and the gang are so desperate that they actually try to trick Andy into rediscovering and playing with them. Andy is about to go off to college, so Woody is readying everyone for the inevitable banishment to the attic, which has everyone a bit glum and melancholy about their past days of glory. After Andy puts the toys in a bag intended for the attic, his mother mistakenly assumes they’re to be trashed and takes them to the curb. Frantic to survive, the toys smuggle themselves into a box intended to be donated to a local children’s preschool/daycare. It’s seemingly a paradise; a place where the toys will always be played with. But Woody remains loyal to Andy and insists the others should, as well, and sets off to reunite himself with his kid while the others discover the dystopian nature of their current situation…
Okay, I can’t contain my opinion any longer: I loved it. I more than loved it. I LOVED it. I am not sure what it is about Pixar these days… It seems like ever since The Incredibles (or maybe even Monsters, Inc.) their stories have been spot-fucking-on. And for the last three movies in a row now I’ve either burst into tears at some point or gotten a huge lump in my throat, my body temperature rising as I start breathing oddly because of all the EMOTION pouring out of me. Apparently there was a former Toy Story 3 in development when Pixar and Disney starting having their tiff in the mid-00s, and it had to get shelved thanks to the various legal stipulations surrounding it. It centered around Buzz Lightyear being recalled to Taiwan (or whatever) and the other toys finding out that instead of repairing the Lightyears, they’re replacing them, instead. And so they go on an adventure to save Buzz.
Thank GOD that slipped through the cracks and never got made. A decade’s perspective is precisely what was needed to take the story of the toys (olol) to the next logical place. Another silly Buzz or Woody adventure wasn’t a story worth telling. The one that got produced, about a toy’s usefulness to a boy that’s already grown up, is absolutely one with thematic potential worth exploring. The best Pixar movies are the ones that are about more than they seem to be on the surface. Finding Nemo isn’t just a road movie, it’s a touching story about a father’s love for his son. WALL-E isn’t just about a sappy robot, it’s about standing up for your beliefs and the environment (and stuff).
Throughout all three Toy Story movies, you never see Andy’s father. Why is that, do you think? Because Woody is Andy’s father. Not in the biological sense, of course! (Let’s leave that to fanfiction.net.) Woody is Andy’s protector, giving him unconditional love and a devotion that at times borders on the delusional. In Toy Story 2 and 3, Woody’s given very compelling reasons to give up on Andy. Stinky Pete tells him that Andy will never appreciate him like a collector could. The toys in Toy Story 3 tell him that letting Andy go and staying at the daycare means never being abandoned ever again. But Woody loves Andy as much (or more, really) as any father possibly could, never giving up hope that Andy still values them and wouldn’t want them thrown away.
Toy Story 3 isn’t afraid to put Woody’s devotion to the test, too. He and the rest of the toys are put in one seemingly hopeless situation after another. The scenes during Toy Story 3‘s climax are as harrowing as anything in WALL-E or Up, easily. One, in particular, is so friggin’ dark I couldn’t believe that a children’s movie was going there. If it had just faded to black and started rolling the credits, I would have wigged out. The bold decision to not back down from any situation that stays true to the message of the film sets Pixar apart from their peers, especially Disney. The closest Disney’s ever come to something that (perfectly) bleak is the death of Bambi’s mother. And that was sixty years ago. What have you done for me lately, Disney?! Don’t answer that.
And, jeez, the new characters added to the mix are more than worthy to mix it up with the classic crew. Lotso, the folksy teddy bear dictator, is easily my favorite villain in Pixar’s milieu now. His origin story (along with the creepy Big Baby) was one of the most wrenching scenes in the movie, along with the aforementioned climax. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, I wouldn’t dare spoil such sublime existentialism. But it’s not just Lotso that shines. After the addition of Barbie in Toy Story 2, could Ken be far behind? And he’s HILARIOUS, thanks to a Michael Keaton that you never realize is Michael Keaton. The man keeps reminding me why he’s a great actor. Multiplicity will be a faded memory… someday… Even the tertiary characters are likable, such as the hedgehog with Shakespearean aspirations. And TOTORO. Goddamn Totoro from Studio Ghibli shows up in the background of several scenes! It shouldn’t be such a surprise since John Lasseter chit-chats on the phone with Miyazaki every night before their mothers make them hang up and go to bed.
I said I’ve never been a big Toy Story fan and that’s still true. My opinion on the quality of the first two movies remains unchanged; fun, but not up to Pixar’s current snuff. Toy Story 3, however, shows me what a more mature studio can do with the concept. It’s a pitch-perfect children’s movie that any child from ages 8 to 80 can enjoy. And it’s one of Pixar’s best yet. Time to make a prediction! Cars 2: BETTER THAN SCHINDLER’S LIST, AND SADDER, TOO