The question was never going to be, “Is Toy Story 3 any good?” Based on Pixar Animation Studios track record, the film was always going to be incredible. The question could only be, “To what degree does Toy Story 3 make you wish you could grab a hold of the wonder that is life and squeeze it as if it were a teddy bear?” The answer is: an awful lot. At this point, we must assume that the geniuses behind Pixar have made some sort of unspeakable blood pact with the demonic ruler of a hell-dimension, entrusting to them otherworldly filmmaking talents in exchange for a small cut of the profits from all that Cars merchandise. Yes, Toy Story 3 is the best animated film since Up, and the best animated sequel since Toy Story 2. The awe it inspires and the joy it radiates is comparable only to the sight of a mighty unicorn galloping across the treetops of Pandora, ridden by a shirtless Jon Hamm.
Phew! In case you didn’t realise, I was getting all that hyperbole out of my system before really getting down to reviewing Lee Unkrich’s Toy Story 3. I have been accused on more than one occasion of being a Pixar fanboy (although I argue that watching a Pixar film instantly transforms you into a fanatic) and I want to be level-headed when I take this film on. That’s not to say that all of the above isn’t true – Toy Story 3 does indeed elicit such a heart-swelling reaction. But, it does not reach the masterful heights of Pixar’s last three films (Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up). Should that matter? If Pixar can dish out classy, peerless sequels like Toy Story 3, do they really need to keep producing boundary-pushing features like their earlier films? Is Toy Story 3 worth it? Well, let’s find out.
Toy Story 3 arrives eleven years after Toy Story 2, and fifteen years after Pixar broke ground with the first Toy Story film. Has it really been that long? For what it’s worth, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and the rest of the gang don’t look like they’ve aged a day. The same cannot be said for their once-devoted owner Andy (John Morris), no longer a precocious playful prepubescent but instead a young man on the eve of moving out of home and heading to college. His toys eagerly waited for the day that he would play with them once more, only for it never to arrive. As the decade passed them by, many of their spirits were broken, and more than a couple found their way to the bottom of a trash bag. (Yes, this is another one of those Pixar films that will likely have you crying in the first 10 minutes.)
Andy’s mum (Laurie Metcalf) forces her son to decide what he wants to take with him to college, what he wants stored in the attic, and what he wants to throw away for good. Not quite able to surrender his childhood completely, Andy grabs Woody and sets him aside for his big college adventure. Buzz, Jessie (Joan Cusack), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger) and Barbie (Jodi Benson) are to be sent to the attic for storage. But, after a slight mix-up by Andy’s mum (gah, she always does this!), the toys find themselves donated to the Sunnyside Daycare Center. They are crestfallen, but hey, at least the revolving-door system of a daycare means there will always be kids who want to play with them. That’s got to be better than being in the trash! Oh, how wrong they are. Sunnyside is in fact something of a hell-scape. There are over-head shots of the toys being massacred by tenacious toddlers that evoke Apocalypse Now. To continue the metaphor, they discover that the toys of Sunnyside are presided over by a Colonel Kurtz of their own: a strawberry-scented teddy bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty). His devoted lieutenants include Ken (Michael Keaton) – indeed a Ken-doll circa 1979 – and a Big Baby which is basically a big baby.
You might be surprised to discover that I have only surmised the first 25-30 minutes of Toy Story 3, a film that is densely plotted, even though it never feels as such. Screenwriter Michael Arndt is well equipped to pen an ensemble piece, having previously written the Oscar-winning screenplay for the similarly affecting and soulful Little Miss Sunshine. Arndt and director Unkrich (who co-directed Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo) skilfully balance dozens of characters, short-changing no-one (even Andy’s mum gets a beautifully touching character moment). They work in a climax that is both the scariest sequence to ever escape the Pixar wheelhouse, as well as one of the most hauntingly beautiful. No, there might not be more ‘human’ filmmakers than the dream-weavers at Pixar, who forge a memorable meditation on death, friendship and the meaning of one’s life in this fable about lost toys and the owners who love them.
The problem with Toy Story 3 (if it can even be called a “problem”) is that it just feels so inessential. The issues weighing down Woody and co. were all dealt with expertly in Toy Story 2 (particularly the whole “dealing with death” thing). As a result, there doesn’t feel like any character development here (particularly for Buzz and Jessie). Only Andy, the gangly teenager whom we see through the toys’ eyes, undergoes any emotional transition. Toy Story 3 is, in essence, a step-sideways for Pixar after a solid decade of great leaps forward. It is still miles ahead of pretty much any other animated film/live-action film out there (and solidifies the Toy Story saga as one of the best in cinema history). It truly is a great movie. I just hope that we do not one day look back on Toy Story 3 as the beginning of the end.
Pixar are currently developing sequels for both Monsters, Inc. and Cars, with only one original film slated for release in 2012. I do not want Pixar to be a studio that simply churns out sequels until the audience has dried up a’la DreamWorks. I do not want to have to wait another three or four years for the next WALL-E. If it’s unreasonable for me to hope that every new Pixar film be a game-changer, it’s only because they’ve conditioned me this way. Feel free to write-off such a frenzied, feverish nightmare as the unwarranted concerns of a self-confessed fanboy. The end of Pixar is hardly nigh. Toy Story 3 proves it. The “problem” is not that they make gorgeous, touching, funny sequels – it is that Pixar have taken us beyond infinity, and I’m not ready to fall back to Earth.
*The film is preceded by the short Night and Day, which is such a lovely surprise of a film I won’t describe it here. Needless to say, it is the best short that Pixar have ever done.