Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Toy Story 3

There's a flashback midway through Toy Story 2 in which Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl recalls life with her former owner, Emily, who abandoned her under the bed only to rediscover her just in time to send her away in a goodwill donation box. It's heartbreaking, and the new sequel, Toy Story 3, functions as a feature-length, ensemble retelling of this vignette. 11 years after the previous film came out and 15 after the first, Pixar has kept the franchise timeline in sync with our own: our heroic toys are stuck in a box and their owner, Andy, is going away for college. They haven't been played with for years.

The toys end up donated to Sunnyside Daycare, a development that only Woody believes to be a mistake. Everyone else thinks their time has come and looks to the unknown (read: scary) future of drooling toddlers and teethers. Woody must convince his toy compatriots to bust out with him, but if they do, even their existence back home with(out) Andy remains a question mark.

The options presented to the toys are The Attic, The Trash or The Daycare — where they risk getting abused and torn apart. It's heaven, hell or purgatory, and the heavenly option — wherein they earn a special spot on high reserved for special toys — also comes with dust, neglect and sorrow. Andy is never going to be a kid again.

There are religious connotations to the story, though more accurately it’s a spiritual, existential question that drives the toys' plight. The motley band of brothers defines their existence through the love of a human child (their very personalities have grown from the roles foisted upon them by Andy's imagination during playtime), so what happens to their identities when Andy doesn't love them the way he used to? (The film will play with that question in several different ways, from a reorganization of Mr. Potato Head's face to Buzz Lightyear's getting reset en espaƱol.)

What's more, the film never questions the main toys' raison d'etre. Several supporting characters do — the leader of the “inmates” at the daycare facility, an aged, strawberry-smelling teddy named Lotso (as in "Lots-o-Huggin' Bear"), remarks during the initial daycare tour that "no owners means no heartbreak." In some ways this retreads the themes covered in Toy Story 2, wherein Woody makes the choice to stay with Andy even though their time together is finite. The villain in that film, Stinky Pete, has the foresight to ask Woody if he thinks Andy is going to bring him along to college.

Toy Story 3 presents Andy's move as the catalyst to the lesson that even though our time here is limited, there are rules that govern our existence and rites of passage that make us stronger for living through them. If we define ourselves by the people we love, we risk losing our very selves when those relationships end. But Toy Story 3 says that's still the only way to live a fulfilled life. It's never preachy, and the spiritual journey the toys undergo is a perfectly-executed crisis of faith and renewal of the self.

And it gets dark. Like, really dark. From the prison-break escape from daycare right on through to the final frame, Toy Story 3 becomes harder and harder to watch. It contains one of the most terrifying sequences I've seen in ages (nice to be reminded, after the doldrums of ostensible "horror" like the schlock Human Centipede or the earnest failure Shutter Island that I'm not actually desensitized to onscreen terror) and I have to question whether the MPAA even watched the thing before they slapped it with a G rating. Even Up got a PG, presumably for the hint of blood.

Two Pixar first-timers helm the film: Lee Unkrich, co-director on Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo, makes his debut as lead director while the script comes courtesy of Michael Arndt, who signed up after winning his Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine. That film's mixture of slapstick and brooding shows up again in Toy Story 3 (which is, by the way, hilarious in equal measure to everything else I've discussed), but in the Pixar collective Arndt has found a team of collaborators to help balance out his wilder demons. While the collection of misfits that made up the family at the center of Little Miss Sunshine came across as a bit contrived, the quirks and idiosyncrasies that seem to be Arndt's stock-in-trade work a lot better when applied to a dinosaur, a potato and an astronaut.

Arndt and Unkrich, together with the rest of their team at Pixar, pull out all the stops. In a multiplex flooded with computer animation imitators repackaging and remarketing the lowest common denominator (as it sinks ever lower), Pixar Animation continues upping the stakes, putting its heroes in real danger and making movies not just for children or movies for children of all ages, but movies for people who think and feel. Toy Story 3 is neither as tight as Up nor as ambitious as WALL•E, but it adheres to the emotional core and relentlessly evades painless solutions or easy answers, making it both an immediate classic and a devastating punch in the gut. I don't know the last time I was affected by a movie like this.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

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