Sunday, February 27, 2011

Toy Story 3: Beyond Infinity

If one were to teleport Irving G. Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer, David O. Selznick, Jack Warner, Harry Cohn, Carl Laemmle, Jr. and Walt Disney himself eighty or so years forward from the Golden Age of Hollywood to present day, perhaps the only film studio they would be sufficiently impressed with would be Pixar, and only Disney wouldn’t be surprised an animation studio would be the poster child for consistency in quality filmmaking. In the sixteen years since Toy Story was unveiled on movie screens—ushering in the age of computer animation—Pixar’s eleven releases have each been of exceptional quality and imagination, causing their films to receive near-universal critical acclaim and massive popularity with the average moviegoer. (To me, Pixar’s only missteps were back to back—2004’s The Incredibles, which was too derivative of Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four for my liking and 2006’s Cars which managed to be surprisingly crass—but this is just one man’s opinion.) To wit—Toy Story 3 is the highest grossing film in the 2010 U.S. box office receipts by a healthy margin. Succinctly put—nobody makes movies better than Pixar, and for crying out loud, they’re cartoons.

The animators at Pixar understand the limitless potential of their medium. Through their films, audiences have seen the world from the perspective of insects, the sights and smells of Paris through the eyes and nose of a rat, the vast expanses of our oceans, and a vision of a post-apocalyptic Earth. Starting with 2007’s Ratatouille—who could forget the ending with the upended critic finding joy in the discovery of something original and new—Pixar’s films have confronted sophisticated adult themes in a form designed to entertain children. Wall•E—which for my money was the best film of 2008—tackled loneliness, environmental responsibility and satirized the notion that human beings were becoming slaves to technology. The Best Picture-nominated Up confronted grief. In Toy Story 3, the toy characters are used as tools in which the filmmakers explore confronting death and obsolescence, and the character of Andy is used to demonstrate the changes a boy must make when becoming a man. These are the themes of Greek drama and Shakespearean tragedy; the very foundation upon which classic literature is built. Such thematic depth is anathema to the vast majority of modern day filmmakers and the corporate studios that bankroll them. And animated films would seem like the least likely source to uphold classic storytelling tradition, yet here is Pixar cranking out classic film after classic film at a rate that frankly, the rest of Hollywood should strive to emulate.

Why is Pixar so successful with their films? Quite simply, they get the details right. When they want to animate a school of fish, they go to an aquarium. When they anthropomorphize a car, they look at the real car, and make sure it moves and sounds like an actual car driving on the road. When a world is viewed from a perspective of a small creature, it appears appropriately massive. Finally, the characters are treated for what they are, not stand-ins for human beings or mere symbols. This is where the creators of Woody and Buzz Lightyear (voiced, of course, by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen) really excel. While the characters talk, move, and act like people—at their core these are only toys. Woody is never going to have to pay taxes. Buzz will never need to file for unemployment. The toys themselves will never physically age. Their existence is entirely co-dependent on their owner, Andy, and the central question of the film becomes this: What happens to a toy when its owner has outgrown playing with them?

From this question, the creators of Toy Story 3 have a solid foundation upon which to establish character and build an emotionally engrossing narrative. Andy is now seventeen and about to leave for college. His mother has tasked him with cleaning out his bedroom, and to separate his keepsakes—to be stowed away in the attic—from the junk which will be thrown away. Andy, in true teenage fashion, calls his toys “junk”, which unleashes a wave of agita amongst his plastic playmates. Some of the wiser toys—Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Hamm the piggy bank, Slinky Dog—have no qualms about being stashed away in the attic. Others, like Rex, the neurotic and emotionally needy Tyrannosaur (Wallace Shawn, whinier than ever)—who rejoices when Andy incidentally touches him—behave utterly irrationally. Also in the irrational camp—though not to the extent of the dinosaur—is Jessie the cowgirl (Joan Cusack), who has never forgotten (and never really gotten over) her previous owner abandoning her (Jessie’s backstory, revealed in Toy Story 2, is for my money, the most emotionally devastating sequence in Pixar’s films). As for our heroes, Woody and Buzz, they engage in a bit of role reversal. Buzz, usually the toy in the Toy Story films that must deal with an existential crisis, has settled comfortably into a leadership position amongst the toys. Buzz does so because Woody, as Andy’s most cherished toy, will accompany his owner to college. Yet Buzz and the other toys—especially the caustic Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles, still full of piss and vinegar) and the sarcastic Hamm (Pixar stalwart John Ratzenberger, channeling his Cheers role as Cliff Clavin)—feel that Woody may just be in denial about his future. Is a seventeen-year-old teenager really going to bring a pull-string cowboy with him to college? One thing is for certain—every toy fears the garbage sack, the only fate in which destruction is a certainty.

A third fate is presented. Andy’s sister, Molly, will be moving into the bedroom vacated by Andy, and she is also tasked with disposing of the playthings she has long since ignored. Her mother tells her to throw anything she doesn’t want into a box to be donated to Sunnyside Daycare. In goes Barbie. (In an astute twist, the creators show that the sister is far less sentimental about her toys than her brother; I would say that the same is true for most girls, who mature at an earlier age.) There is an inevitable mix-up; the Andy puts his toys in a Hefty bag meant for the attic, but the mother mistakes for garbage. When the toys, sans Woody, realize they’ve been deposited curbside, they make a mad dash for the Sunnyside box. The uncertain fate awaiting them at the daycare is preferred to the certain destruction the garbage truck signifies. Woody, who knows of the true intention of the toys’ fate, tags along in an attempt to make the other toys return home.

When the toys arrive at Sunnyside, it appears to be a utopia. Pixar’s animators clearly did their research, as the place looks as if a camera documented an actual daycare instead of it being created on a hard drive. The walls are brightly colored and cluttered with toddler’s finger paintings. Tiny, kid-sized table and chair sets (gargantuan, of course, to the toys) furnish the vast playrooms. Mismatched sets of blocks and broken crayons accompany the motley crew of donated toys the daycare has accumulated over the years. There is a “Butterfly Room”, for the elementary aged boys and girls, and the “Caterpillar Room” for the toddlers. Sunnyside looks like every daycare center in America (and when you have young children, you notice they all do really look alike). They are greeted by a kindly, wizened pink stuffed Lots-O’-Huggin Bear—Lotso for short—who still carries the faint scent of strawberries (the rich burr of Ned Beatty—recalling Burl Ives—voices the character to life). Lotso describes Sunnyside as a paradise where toys are forever played with, for as the kids age, younger children replace them. At Sunnyside, the toys are promised an eternal playtime. Barbie finds a Ken (Michael Keaton, in a bravura role). Even Woody—steadfastly loyal to Andy as always—admits he is impressed by the daycare, saying it would be far preferable to the attic.

Sure enough, the promise of paradise proves to be empty. Andy’s toys—minus Woody, who begins to make his way home—are assigned to the Caterpillar Room, where they eagerly await being played with. The actions of the toys veteran to the caterpillar room—hiding under baskets and in the shadows of shelves—go largely unheeded. The toddlers treat the toys nightmarishly. Buzz is used as a hammer, Rex has his limbs ripped off, the Potato Heads find their parts strewn about the room, and Jessie’s hair is used as a paintbrush. The Pixar animators again score big here, as anyone who has seen a toddler play with toys knows just how chaotic and destructive they can inadvertently be. From the toys perspective, it is like they have survived the wrath of an F5 tornado. When they see the docile manner the toys in the Butterfly Room are being played with, it comes clear that the benign bear that seemed so kind is really running a totalitarian dictatorship, where the new toys are used as fodder for the rampaging toddlers.

The metaphor here is clear. As the whole film is a rumination on aging and death, Sunnyside becomes a metaphor for old folks homes. With the situation of unwanted toys being donated to a daycare, Toy Story 3 becomes critical of those who would deposit their loved ones into the care or strangers in places whose names seem harmless (there’s probably thousands of retirement homes that use the word “sunny” in their name). The insightful script by Michael Arndt also knows that evil often disguises itself in the most innocent of guises. When Buzz voices that he and the rest of Andy’s toys would be more appropriately placed in the Butterfly Room, Lotso and his goons turn nasty, reprogramming Buzz (the poor toy can’t go a whole movie without some sort of existential crisis) and turning the Caterpillar Room into a prison. The film grows noticeably darker here, though leavened with clever parodies of such prison films as The Great Escape and Cool Hand Luke (in a nod to the late Paul Newman, whose voice-over work was easily the best thing about Cars).

Eventually, Woody learns what Sunnyside is really like, and the sad origins of Lotso. Lotso was a beloved toy whose owner lost him. Upon making a long journey home, he finds he has been callously replaced by another, exactly similar Lots-O’-Huggin Bear and has grown bitter toward children ever since (the message here—take better care of things precious to you). Woody leads a successful escape, though the toys find themselves scooped up by a garbage truck and taken to the dump. Again, Pixar’s research in bringing the garbage facility to life is incredible; the setting provides a perilous stage for the climax of the film, which is as exciting as any major set piece in a major action flick. The toys are helpless to escape the machinery that leads all of the garbage toward the furnace. In an incredible scene, the toys accept their fate and link hands as they surge inexorably toward the flames. Here, the filmmakers are saying that if death becomes inevitable, it is better faced in the company of true friends. For a film whose audience is comprised of large percentages of young children, this is an incredibly bold statement to make.

It is rare for any children’s programming to approach issues of mortality, but the animators at Pixar know that the actions Andy’s toys take remain true to their characters. Besides, this storytelling choice reveals the ultimate secret to Pixar’s success—they have faith in the intelligence and sophistication of their audience, especially children. They are storytellers who never condescend, and as such they have built trust and rapport with their audiences. Imagine that—an audience that can trust a major Hollywood studio to deliver quality entertainment. For a minute there they even had me thinking that the toys were going to bite the dust, and I have rarely been more invested in the fate of any characters in a film, animated or otherwise. Of course, with the G rating, the fate of the toys is never really in doubt, but the storytelling wizardry on display here completely transports the audience.

Toy Story 3 closes with a resonant coda that many grown men have admitted bawling to (for the record, I did not cry, but I will admit the final moments of the film were very touching and honestly emotional). Andy decides that the attic is no place for his toys; they are too beloved to merely collect dust. He gives them to a young girl, Bonnie, with whom he is familiar. In observing Bonnie, Andy sees a kindred spirit; he knows this little girl plays with her toys just as imaginatively as Andy played with his when he was a young boy. (Coincidentally, Bonnie is already familiar with Woody, as he is waylaid at her house after his first escape from Sunnyside.) Though he appears reluctant to do so, Andy donates all of his toys to Bonnie, and he plays with Bonnie with his toys for a final time. The scene is incredibly poignant (and one of the keys to its poignancy is that Pixar used John Morris, who voiced Andy as a child in the first two films—knowing that the same actor has grown with the role only makes the entire performance more real), as Andy subconsciously knows that part of growing into a man requires letting go of some of the things that meant the world to you as a boy. Andy lets go in the most meaningful way possible, knowing that the joy he had in playing with his toys is best experienced by a child with an imagination stretching, in the motto of Buzz Lightyear, to infinity and beyond.

I don’t remember—as I suspect many adults do—many specifics of my childhood. The details of my rituals are lost to me. Instead, many portions of my childhood are remembered as a period of infinite innocence, and I remember as a child that growing into an adult seemed like it would happen at a point forever in the future. For a child, adulthood is the place beyond infinity. For an adult, what lies beyond infinity is obsolescence (call it retirement if you must). In obsolescence, beyond infinity lies only death. Toy Story 3 is a miraculous film that explores what happens as we inevitably change, grow older, and die. The filmmakers at Pixar know that they can bravely approach such a deep and resonant theme because their imaginations aren’t strictly limited to recreating a world through the eyes of a toy. They have enough creative verve to know that the haunting questions human beings have about their own fates, their own natures fall squarely within the realm of limitless imagination.

Sadly, Toy Story 3 has probably zero chance of winning the Best Picture Oscar. The Academy has taken strides to recognize the brilliant work done in the field of animation by all animators. Animated films undoubtedly benefit from the decision to extend the field of Best Picture nominees to ten. Like science fiction films, animation is a medium which is still not taken seriously by most of the voting members of the Academy. This is one instance where the filmgoing masses are clearly far more progressive than the Oscar voters. Were the fans to decide, I suspect Toy Story 3 would walk away with the Oscar—I doubt that the voting would be close—and Pixar would probably already have a collection of trophies to display. Alas, this is not the year. I suspect though, as times change and if Pixar maintains the level of quality established with their body of work—and there is no reason to think the quality of their films will diminish—the Best Picture Oscar they so richly deserve will find a worthy owner.


Toy Story 3 (2010)

Director: Lee Unkrich

Starring (the vocal talents of): Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton, John Morris

Studio: Pixar (Walt Disney Pictures)

Total Oscar Nominations: 5 (Best Picture—Darla K. Anderson; Best Adapted Screenplay—Michael Arndt, Best Animated Feature—Lee Unkrich; Best Original Song—“We Belong Together” by Randy Newman; Best Sound Editing—Tom Myers and Michael Silvers)

1 comment:

  1. I think that the screenplays for the Pixar movies are always a wonderful combination of the childlike and adult that makes them so wildly successful for all generations, however I think this 3rd installment was more entertaining for adults and not as funny as past editions. Perhaps the lack of new comedic characters to introduce (other than Ken who was hilarious) and the serious nature of the movie put a damper on things. It was difficult to see in the 3D version too but I was happy to see it again since I could see better when I rented it from I let my kids pick their movies there because there are over 3,000 titles to choose from and some of them are free.