Thursday, July 1, 2010

Dusting off the Old Toys

I don't think I was the only one who cringed upon hearing that a third Toy Story was in production. Especially concerning were the early stages of this film's life; there was a time when Disney had decided to produce the film without the involvement of its creators at Pixar. Thankfully, fate intervened and allowed Pixar to regain full control of the film. While I still worried that making a sequel to a sequel set a bad precedent for such an talented studio, I was sure it would be of high quality.

I wasn't wrong. Pixar isn't capable of making a bad movie; even making a mediocre one would be a big stretch for them. Yet they seem to be stretching a bit with Toy Story 3. There is very little that's wrong with this film but, goddamn it, I can't sit back and dub it another masterpiece. This is nothing more than a solid sequel and, while that would be a victory for just about anyone else, it's a concerning development for The Studio That Can Do No Wrong.

A bit more than ten years have passed since the release of Toy Story 2, and roughly that much time has passed within the movie's world. Andy, the owner of the eponymous toys, is going to college soon, and will likely leave the toys behind. This has left Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and the others desperate. They engineer complex plans, making vain attempts to trick their owner into playing with them. Nevertheless, the day arrives when Andy's mother forces him to clean out his room. The teenager opts to put most of his toys into the attic but, through a misunderstanding, all of them end up being donated to Sunnyside Daycare Center. Initially optimistic about all of the new attention they are bound to receive, the toys get a harsh surprise when they find Sunnyside is ruled by a despotic teddy bear named Lotso. Now they must navigate some tense toy politics, not to mention a few dozen insane toddlers.

While Toy Story 3 focuses on the relatively lighthearted events at Sunnyside, the story is framed by some fairly touching themes involving loss and abandonment. I was eight years old when the original film came out, so a brief scene showing home video footage of a young Andy playing with his toys, complete with the indelible "You've Got a Friend in Me" playing in the background, is enough to overwhelm me with a sense of nostalgia. Woody's character arcs nicely, too, as he learns to abandon his unwavering devotion to Andy for something a bit more realistic. None of this quite reaches the emotional heights of WALL-E or Up, but it's still pretty meaty stuff for a movie about toys.

Yet far too much of this film is removed from these themes. The scenes at Sunnyside are consistently entertaining and often funny (especially those with Barbie's boyfriend, Ken), but their relationship with Woody and company's larger plight is not particularly organic. WALL-E led a lonely, repetitive life, so a wild space adventure filled with memorable characters is exactly what he needed. The toys in Toy Story already have each other, so throwing them into a setting with dozens of other characters doesn't have the same resonance. None of the toys (other than Woody) have much importance, either; even Buzz fails to do much beyond adhering to his usual schtick, albeit occasionally en español. While Lotso's history ultimately adds some relevance, this revelation comes too late; much of the time spent at Sunnyside still seems inconsequential – fun, but inconsequential.

Also, the screenplay relies on the same central plot device that the first two movies did: Woody and the toys are taken from Andy's home and must find their way back. Pixar may have grown by leaps and bounds in the past fifteen years, but this film's story doesn't represent that growth as well as it should. On the bright side, it doesn't look like there will be another sequel (unless corporate restructuring rears its ugly head again).

Visually, the film fares a bit better. Director, Lee Unkrich, resists the urge to abandon the original films' visual style, so this may not be the most eye-popping Pixar film in recent years, but anything else would have betrayed the Toy Story universe. The toys still feature excellent animation, moving just enough to convey emotion but being defined by their endearing limitations: Woody's arms flop around behind him when he runs; Barbie and Ken cannot move their fingers; and Lotso's cane sticks to his paw. This movie does sport that troublesome third dimension that wasn't so popular back in 1995, but Unkrich makes the subtlest use of the technology I've seen yet, solely employing it to convey depth of field. The director uses some relatively modern flourishes in the lighting department, too – especially when Lotso's schemes get dirty. Some of these moments feel too cinematic, though, looking so evocative that they uncomfortably hover between parody and earnest drama.

The voice acting, on the other hand, is unequivocally good. Hanks and Allen slip back into their roles easily, as do most of the supporting characters. Michael Keaton and Jodi Benson are hilarious as Ken and Barbie, respectively. There are fun cameos from the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Timothy Dalton, Jeff Garlin and others. (Although my favorite cameo is a mute Totoro doll.)

Honestly, I think that I've documented here every conceivable complaint one could level against Toy Story 3. This is not a bad film by any measure, but it is neither particularly well-conceived nor audacious. While it does give a beloved series a fond farewell, it does not elevate it to new heights or provide any new perspective on the characters; it's trivial.

It's also a harbinger of movies to come. Sequels to Cars and Monsters, Inc. are in the works at Pixar. I love both of those films, but I never saw any need to continue their stories. This suggests that the future holds more decent fare like Toy Story 3 than it does masterpieces like WALL-E. Only an alarmist would say that Pixar is falling from grace, but maybe they've finally plateaued.

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