By Richard von Busack
HOW DOES Pixar do what it does with such confidence—and such confidence unmarred by smugness? Most movie executives these days have almost no confidence that an audience of all ages can handle the full force of what cinema does: when cinema melds pity and terror, when it stresses the frailty of the human condition, when it changes angles drastically, from comedy to tragedy and back again.
I don’t want to underrate Toy Story 3 because of its fantasy subject matter or its cartoon medium. It’s merely the latest work by a studio that proves something I wouldn’t have thought was possible. You can still see a movie with a huge budget—a sequel, even!—that will seem clearly hand made by human beings, not the production of a hive-mind of marketers. That even if a movie is a “tent pole,” “a franchise,” you could still go and be absolutely surprised—torn up emotionally, even—at how the story will be told and how far the director will let it go. And Toy Story 3 goes to extremes, straight to the universal qualities of Griffith and Chaplin.
Toy Story 3 begins with an ordinary big-movie grabber: a surreal western with Mr. Potatohead as the villain. He sets up a runaway train to a dynamited trestle, with Cowboy Woody riding to the rescue. The dreamlike sequence ends with a “monkey bomb,” a mushroom cloud composed of a plastic Barrel of Monkeys toys. That mushroom cloud seems a dubious joke, but everything in this film is interconnected. Soon the toys are going to be staring down their own annihilation.
This cowboy-movie fantasy is the young Andy’s playtime, recorded by his mother on video camera. Through a montage of home movies, we turn the clock back to the boy growing up, until he’s ready to go to college. Before he moves out, he has to decide the fate of the chest of toys he’s still kept after all the years.
These toys, as we know from Toy Story (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999) are alive, though they follow the old fairy-tale rule of never letting any human see them move or speak. Woody (Tom Hanks) is the brave leader; the astronaut doll Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) is more the muscle of the group—always as reliably stolid as any astronaut in front of the TV cameras. The rest of the toybox is facing an uncertain fate, with the murmuring bad nerves of an office waiting for the layoff notices.
Because of the age of the vocal cast, they act out this abandonment with some resignation. They’ve seen it coming; they’ve heard what happens to discarded toys. Mr. Potatohead is voiced by the 86-year-old Don Rickles; Estelle Harris’ Mrs. Potatohead is 78; Wallace Shawn, as the dithering dinosaur figure Rex, is 67—he anticipates trouble nervously, like the fussy overgrown child that he is. Andy means to take Woody, his favorite toy, off to the university. Circumstances get the cowboy doll tangled in the cardboard box with the rest of the toys.
After escaping a near-fatal brush with the garbage truck, the toys end up carried off to Sunnyside Day Care center, which appears to be a place for happy kids. The toys are welcomed by a kindly if grubby old fruit-scented stuffed bear called Lotso Hugs, voiced by Ned Beatty, and it’s one of this able character actor’s finest, most ambiguous performances. The bear jollies the cast along, as if they were tahe newest arrivals at the nursing home: “You’ll find that donation was the best thing that ever happened to you.”
Also at the day-care center is a lurching, strangely malevolent baby doll with one bad eye, as well as the fey fashion-plate Ken (Michael Keaton), united at last with the Toy Story gang’s Barbie. Barbie’s uncontrollable sobbing after being dumped by Andy earns one of the film’s hardest laughs. (We knew it, she’s a doormat.)
Woody, steadfast as always, makes a daring escape to get back to the home he knows. On the way, he’s intercepted by Bonnie, a little girl who takes him to her house. Woody isn’t there on the toys’ first real work day: the gang is mauled halfway to death by a pack of toddlers.
The true nature of the day-care center is revealed—as a clown doll that was an ex-inmate there explains, “Sunnyside Day Care Center is a place of ruin and despair, ruled by a bear that smells like strawberries.” Buzz Lightyear, reprogrammed—the reprogramming is staged like an action-movie’s torture scene—is on the side of the captors.
I write for nonfamily newspapers, and what I want to stress doesn’t affect the family-film spirit of Toy Story 3. I can’t imagine a child, whether shrinkingly gentle or loud and bloody-minded—that wouldn’t be enthralled by this movie.
It’s just that Toy Story 3 is also loaded with interest for older viewers, as well as for the former children who grew up with the series. It’s a cliché to point out how much the world has changed since 1995, but this particular fantasy has matured with it. Director Lee Unkrich absolutely sends the cast to hell. You don’t expect these kinds of extremes—that brutality intruding on the fantasy, the final pay-off of the monkey-mushroom cloud in the red-hot frightfulness of the climax. The ordinary conveyor-belt-of-doom finale is made into a genuine threat, taking the cast way beyond the point of a brisk slapstick finale.
Certainly Toy Story 3 has lightness. The balanced yet carnivalish colors are a visual relief from digital intermediaries of live-action films that color-grade everything into a narrow palette. The choreography is sublime, especially when Buzz is accidentally reprogrammed into a Spanish version, a dashing action figure that sweeps cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) off her feet.
Jessie is unambiguously straight here, though some of the girls probably wondered about that, after her Sarah McLachlan number in Toy Story 2. Happily for those of us who prefer gender-bending in the movies, Ken is very light in the loafers; there’s one tension-breaking guffaw about some high-heeled shoes here that’s worthy of Some Like It Hot.
And wild elements of horror impart seasoning to Toy Story 3, such as a real Night of the Hunter moment: the dreadful baby doll sitting by itself on a swing set at night, taking its orders from the full moon.
The security at the day car center is run by everybody’s favorite uncanny toy, the cymbal-playing windup monkey.
Woody’s climbing escape, his race out using a discarded kite as a hang glider, is like something from Pinocchio, but there’s more peril in this kind of adventure.
This edition of Toy Story has jokes that the surrealists couldn’t have improved upon: note the Dali-esque adventures of Mr. Potatohead—whose intelligence turns out to be all contained in his plastic eyes, mouth and ears—transforming himself into a floppy tortilla man to escape under the door of Sunnyside.
Many couldn’t care less about baby-boomer worries, nor do they want to see the Softest Generation gazing into its navel once more: the subtext is clear in this one, the fears of obsolescence for aging people, for whom the doors to the old-folks home gape wide. As for the film’s subject about the inability to leave the pleasures of youth behind—what’s the use of growing old, when the dump is all that waits for you?
Toy Story 3 has as its undertone a folk-tale’s knowledge of how brutal life can be: a brutality mitigated by some chance of magic, such as might be found in a Hans Christian Andersen story.
Waiting to be teased out, by someone with the religious inclination to do so, is a deeper theme. Toy Story 3’s sense of faith might resound with anyone who feels that they’re looked after and cared for by something divine. (I’m not one of those people. Still, what is Andy to his toys, if not God himself?) “Where is your Andy now?” the folksy bear taunts the cast, when they’re on the edge of extinction.
However, this is a movie that doesn’t patronize us by connecting to the sacred in any really overt narrative way. All of this is just underpinnings, the reason why the movie is so strong, so dense, yet so flexible; it has built-in integrity to mull over in between the light and color, the astounding animation and the incidents of flabbergastingly deft humor.
Toy Story 3’s composition and rhythms, its brief, brilliantly crafted flashbacks and its Freudian use of the theme of abandonment, don’t extend to the suburban vistas. They’re a little bland. The people here are affluent Northern Californians, dwelling in the half-million-dollar 1,500-square-foot bungalows of Sunnyvale or Palo Alto I suppose anyone of a certain age would want, with a nice setback from the sidewalk. Andy’s family isn’t really rich, and space must be at a premium at the split-level house—there’s a line about his sister Molly getting Andy’s room when he goes off to college.
When Andy gives the cast a final bow, we’re meant to weep, and I didn’t really, mostly because Andy himself is grown into a neutral indistinct figure. The self-consciousness of parting could have used a little restraint. Longtime fans of the series can anticipate where Randy Newman will go with the music in this scene: big, full throated, mawkish.
In any case, Bonnie, the little girl who finds Woody (voiced by newcomer Emily Hahn) is much more captivating than Andy: the animation of this shy child is as good as animation of humans get. Of course Bonnie is so much more alive than the adults.
However, this, like all Pixar films, is immune to the supposed charms of a pack of children, which boisterous, badly done kids’ films insist upon. There are exceptions, naturally—the cascade of babies in Wall-E, rounded up by the nigh-legless human couple.
But go over Pixar’s stories quickly: the short Tin Toy (1988), about the anxieties of a worried little tin figure hiding from a gargantuan, drooling baby. One Man Band (2006) has two flashy yet bogus performers contending for the attention of one skeptical little girl.
Since the beginning, Pixar has faced the question of how to entertain children. Radically, it decided against looking at the audience like “children,” treating the audience instead as if each member of it were both adult and child, no matter what their age. And this film climbs over a pack of monstro rugrats, all grabby, sticky fingers and lolling tongues, to get to that one solitary, gentle, imaginative kid. This is a movie that uses “toddler-fodder” as an insult—it’s what the bad bear calls our heroes when they’re under a dog pile of grabby, violent urchins.
Pixar’s films never address children as if they were part of a pack, or one little element of a demographic wave. How do they do it? How do they get away with it?
Speaking of shorts, Night and Day, the opener here, revives the 1950s-style round-nosed bulging humanoids just like Daniel Clowes did in his new book, Wilson. It’s allegorical in the good sturdy UPA fashion (and the dialogue is composed of sound effects like UPA’s Gerald McBoing-Boing cartoons). The story of warring opposites, resolved by yin-yang compromise, resists easy cracking until the human potential movementist Dr. Wayne Dyer turns up on the soundtrack. The humanist message, regarding terror of the unknown, of facing and overcoming fear of polarities, goes without saying. Still, I’m glad someone said it.