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Toy Story 3

dir: Lee Unkrich
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Yeah, I know, it’s hardly brand new fodder worthy of reflection and critique. But Pixar flicks are the pinnacle of the animated heap: every release is an event, they make more money than Jesus, and nobody does it better.

And I love their flicks with a passion, the kind of passion most other people reserve for quaint garden gnome collections or pointless sports results. Thus, reviewing their latest gift to us, the luddite, barely computer-literate, unwashed masses, is less of a necessity than an obligation.

Toy Story 3 is as great as any of the other flicks in the series. Ranking them is pointless. You could point out that yet again the technical expertise envelope has been pushed even further out, with computer-generated animation second to none, but that misses the point. These movies are beloved not because of the quality of the graphics, but because of the quality of the story-telling, and the deep nostalgia they inspire in adults.

Oh, yeah, and kids probably love them too. My three-year-old thought it was wonderful, but she’s just three, with a limited appreciation of the long history of cinematic animation and she barely knows anything of the seminal work of obscure Belgian animators from the 1930s who put together their cartoons with parchment, tallow candles and shadow puppets constructed from sheep stomachs and bandaged scabs.

My daughter just knows what she likes, and she likes these Toy Story movies. And she loved this third one possibly a bit more than the others, but to me they’re all part of a joyous continuum.

This instalment opens slightly in the past, as Andy, the owner of the toys relevant to these stories, plays his loopy games using all these well-known toys. It then jumps forward to a time when Andy is grown, and the toys are pathetically trying to trick him into playing with them again. I felt so sad for them: their gambit with the mobile phone was so painfully desperate that I felt embarrassed by what they were doing.

Andy’s love affair with his toys is over, though, and that’s never going to change. He’s outgrown them, and is ready for college, where the only toys he’ll be playing with are hacky-sacks, frisbees and girls who can’t hold their liquor very well. And whilst they might not be as infinitely flexible, washable or easy to find, they are certainly more age appropriate.

His toys, with the exception of Woody, will be relegated to the attic, where they can look forward only to the slender hope of one day maybe being played with by Andy’s progeny. Woody it seems has been tapped for coming along to college, where doubtless he’ll help Andy pick up whenever a hot girl comes into his dorm room, and wonders why the pale, flabby geek has toys in his room instead of posters praising the medical benefits or just general awesomeness of dope, breasts or Che Guevara’s ubiquitous head.

Woody and the other toys are at a crossroads, where not only their actual existence is threatened, but they risk also, even if they don’t end up in the trash, losing their sense of purpose. Their only reason for existing, by their estimation, is to be played with by Andy. If Andy no longer wants them in any way, then why continue existing? For most of the toys, they can see the potential of deriving meaning from someone, somewhere else, where they can stay together and also be played with by kids.

Woody, however, is trapped in the throes of co-dependence. He can’t imagine a world where they’re not Andy’s toys, and even argues with them that if it be Andy’s will that they end up in the attic or the garbage, then it is Andy’s will. They live or die on Andy’s say so. That’s not a healthy relationship, or a healthy way to view relationships: it makes Andy either a cruel, uncaring god, or a mafia don, which is pretty much the same thing. But most of all it makes Andy’s high priest Woody a monster.

The other toys accidentally end up at Sunnyside Day Care, where the possibility at least of finding a new level of meaning in their lives exists, even if it’s only for a brief, shining moment that this prospect flickers before it dwindles. When they are introduced to the other toys, and the two rooms in which the toys can exist, being the Caterpillar Room and the Butterfly Room, they learn that even within this Animal Farm / Toy Farm, where all the toys are equal, some toys are more equal than others.

The benevolent patriarch Lotso (voiced by Ned Betty), a cuddly teddy bear who smells of strawberries, is modelled on the corrupt Southern politicians (think Huey Long / Willy Stark of All the King’s Men), with a hint of the warden from Cool Hand Luke, and we know his veneer of folksy charm will have its limits. The toys, Andy’s toys, our toys, find out that they are but pawns in Lotso’s game, in his cruel jailhouse jungle played with gulag rules. And he does rule, with surveillance and ruthless enforcers doing his bidding, ensuring that one room for the new toys is a Hieronymus Bosch hell, and the other is a paradise, but only for the privileged few.

Thus the plot hinges on not only will the toys survive, but will they find meaning without Andy? The prospect of living without him seems even less existentially possible when the alternative is so harsh until the rule of Lotso, which might eventually result in their annihilation. But even then, their continued relationship with Andy is utterly untenable. So what’s the solution, Woody, tell us, from the depths of your co-dependant wisdom?

Apart from the high-energy prison break, the non-stop action, the romantic Spanish mode Buzz Lightyear, the film ultimately becomes that most standard of standard things: a kid’s movie that’s about Something. And the something that it’s about, is an adult message, painted less with an eye towards teaching kids something useful, and more something for grown-up benefit. Kids aren’t the beneficiaries of a message telling them to let go of diminished or unhealthy relationships: we are, and it’s for us that the tears are shed. I can’t imagine kids themselves being moved to tears by the culmination of the story, and of the three flicks, at that moment when all of the toys, through happenstance, face the final curtain in the form of a fiery furnace. It felt genuinely horrible, even knowing that such an end would be highly unlikely, watching the horror on the faces of the toys turn to acceptance, and finally, comfort garnered through facing oblivion together.

Pixar have been crafting these emotionally satisfying and dramatically compelling (and of course visually whizz-bang) animated movies for long enough that it should no longer be a surprise when they get it so right, so completely right. Rather, it makes the times when they don’t stick out more like dog’s balls (thanks for nothing, Cars). They craft these flicks well enough for the unavoidable sentimentality at film’s end to feel earned, rather than cheap or obligatory. It’s thoroughly earned, and they find a strong way to cap off the series in a way that would have to leave kids and adults, and kid-brained adults like me, satisfied. I can’t imagine what more they could have done, and even as I know that these flicks do little more than arise from meetings between executives and marketing geniuses and seem to just be extended commercials for merchandising opportunities, there’s no denying the heart and genius involved.

And there are plenty of genius moments: Mr Potato Head turning himself into a malleable version of himself; one of the newly seen toys seen being Totoro from Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (which surprised and warmed the liquid nitrogen-temperatured sub-cockles of my heart); the Giant Baby with the slightly wonky eye that makes him look monstrous; the hedgehog imitating Sir Ian McKellen; the sexually ambiguous peregrinations of Barbie’s constructed consort Ken; Barbie’s political philosophies regarding the derivations of authority (!), and just the way that everything hangs together.

It’s a sublime experience that I’m so glad I got to share with my kid. Just a word of warning: depending on the age of your kid, asking your kid whether they’ll be okay with giving their toys to orphans one day, or throwing all their toys away one day is not a good idea at any time, but especially during the end credits of this flick. It’s a mistake many a veteran or rookie parent could make, but one I strongly urge anyone to avoid. If anything, the broadest point the flick makes is that there’s a natural time to say goodbye, and that, I’d argue, that time is not at the end of Toy Story 3, when emotions will still be a tad raw.

I still think that it’s a pretty harrowing ride, whether from a kid’s perspective or not. It’s not a question of whether the threat of annihilation actually plays out; it’s just that the climax at the recycling plant felt… almost too much like an acknowledgement of mortality, that even if this isn’t the end, that there will be an end one day. Messages of that strength are ones that I am reluctant to expose my kid to at this stage, because it’s, in my estimation, one of those childhood-ending moments/accumulations that I want to long avoid.

Sure, it’s one of the most positively reviewed and well-loved flicks of the year, for which a review is superfluous. But I don’t review movies because I’m paid to, or because I have to, but because I love them, and I want to. And I did enjoy this flick. If it didn’t have the awful sounds of Randy Newman wafting through it like a bad curry apocalypse, it’d be utterly perfect. As such, it deserves a score I’m more comfortable with. It’s a keeper.

9 times I had a nightmare about that goddamn evil baby out of 10.

“Sunnyside is a place of ruin and despair, ruled by an evil bear who smells of strawberries!” – at least they didn’t end up on the Island of Lost Toys – Toy Story 3.

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