Monday, December 6, 2010
Toy Story 3
Director: Lee Unkrich
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Don Rickles, Michael Keaton, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Estelle Harris
Running Time: 103 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
In the minds of many it's a travesty that Pixar doesn't have a Best Picture Oscar yet, even if I don't necessarily agree. And that's not because I believe animated films are incapable of carrying the same impact as live action (though there may be some small truth in that) but rather because I've found that as technically proficient and emotionally moving as they can often be, they just don't hold up very well on repeated viewings. Last year they earned a Best Picture nomination for Up, a forgettable action-adventure barely worthy of a mild recommendation and ironically their weakest effort to date. Despite only being recognized to make up for the snubs of Ratatouille and Wall-E, it brought to light some problems with these films I couldn't previously pinpoint. It might be a stretch to say Pixar's grown complacent, but whether it's toys, fish, cars, rats, robots or grumpy old men and boy scouts, you can't help but get the feeling that they're making the same movie over and over again. The advantage they have is that they do it so well there's little reason to complain and audiences can also plead guilty in taking their artistry for granted, expecting a home run each time out.
I still had little interest in seeing their latest horse in the race, Toy Story 3, despite it ranking as the second best reviewed film of the year (what else is new?) and the highest grossing animated film of all-time. That is until I overheard a description of the plot, which took me aback in its maturity. But I should have sensed this coming being that over the past few years these movies have been handling more mature topics and can no longer be written off as just for kids. They're thematically substantial films being made for a mass audience and now the far-reaching ambition that propelled Ratatouille and Wall-E is being applied to what was always Pixar's most juvenile property, and the one that put them on the map. In what's kind of a relief, this isn't as ambitious as those two, eclipsing its predecessors as the strongest in the series and working on an entirely different level as a meditation on the passage of time, moving on and growing up.
Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and most of the rest of the gang are back but not seeing nearly as much action this time around with their now 18-year-old owner Andy (John Morris) about to head off to college. Having been stored away in his room and not played with for years the toys have outgrown their usefulness and face a couple of options for their future, none of which are particularly promising. It's either a lonely life confined to the attic, being donated to day care, or obviously worst of all, the trash. Only Woody is selected to take the trip to school with Andy but a mix-up sends the attic bound Buzz, Woody, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Barbie (Jodi Benson), Jesse (Joan Cusack), Bullseye, Rex (Wallace Shawn) and Hamm (John Ratzenberger) to Sunnyside Daycare, which at first looks to be a paradise where toys are spoiled and played with all day long. But it isn't long before they discover they've arrived at what's essentially a maximum security prison ruled with an iron fist by a bitter purple bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty) and his two henchmen, the giant, really creepy looking Big Baby with a lazy eye and Ken (Michael Keaton), of Ken and Barbie fame. Now Woody and company have to somehow find a way to escape and return home to Andy before he leaves for school, and potentially leaves them for good.
It's unnecessary even discussing the animation in these Pixar films anymore. It's always incredible, and this is right on par with the previous two in that regard. Like Up before it, this was released into many theaters in 3D but I can't imagine it made much of a difference either way since the real point of interest is the story's unexpected depth. It's as much about Woody letting go of Andy as Andy letting go of Woody, plus a lot more than that. Whereas Up contained a 10 minute prologue so emotionally moving the rest of the film couldn't follow through on it, this has an opening that cleverly misleads you into expecting silliness, only to pull the rug out. The story keeps building and building until pulling the emotional trigger in the final minutes and earning it. There are action excursions to be sure but unlike Up they service the themes and plot that cleverly spoofs so many different genres of film and contains so many in-jokes you'd have to be constantly paying attention at the risk of missing anything. The rendering of Sunnyside as some kind of evil dictatorship for toys is clever, as we're a witness to many memorable scenes, such as a late night poker game and Buzz being interrogated under the hot lights. And it's worth repeating just how creepy looking that giant baby is (we're talking Child's Play kind of creepy). All the toys are embodied with distinctive characteristics and personalities by the voice actors and while Hanks and Allen are perfect as usual as our two heroes, the legendary Ned Beatty projects a certain grandfatherly warmth in the voice of Lotso that makes his villainous nature harder to comprehend, giving greater thematic weight to his actions. Helping further is the script containing a flashback sequence for this character so well thought out it could easily compete with most live action dramas in its storytelling reach.
Those who call this the best film of the year just need to wait until that feeling passes and it'll probably pass quickly, as it has with just about every other one of Pixar's past efforts. But I am curious how it'll hold up down the road and whether my admiration will dwindle as steadily. It really goes for the jugular in those final act as the story moves dangerously close to the "beyond" part of the phrase "To Infinity and Beyond" in a unanticipated way. It's been over ten years since the previous Toy Story sequel and it proves to be worth the wait, with time gap working in the favor of a story that deals entirely with the passage of time and letting go. The toys have aged and so has their owner, both arriving at the inevitable crossroads where they're forced to move on and there's no turning back. Kids who may have felt shut out or bored by the narrative sophistication of Ratatouille and Wall-E will probably have more to cheer about with Toy Story 3, while adults can appreciate acknowledgment of their daily struggle to somehow recapture the same happiness their toys once gave them.