Friday, June 18, 2010

The Long Goodbye: TOY STORY 3

Toy Story 3 is a film so rich with emotion and humor, so full of suspense yet big-hearted, and ultimately so dazzlingly satisfying as both a film and a finale to a series, began two films and 15 years ago, that it feels almost unnecessary to comment further. Go. See. Enjoy.

Once you've seen it, you can appreciate its scope, its generosity, and its thematic brilliance. These plastic toys, now so iconic, first came to us in a film of simple charms, primal emotion and unending energy. They were deepened into startling emotional power in a second film. Now, with this third and final film, these toys have become a metaphor for childhood, for memory, for mortality. We now have an epic three part tale of friendship and trust, love and loss, imagination and creation, aging, remembrance, and, yes, even the circle of life. This is the stuff of classics, the stuff of modern day legend. And we see all this, we see ourselves, reflected in our disposable commercialization, in the soulful plastic eyes of our toys.

And through it all, the film remains a total crowd pleaser, a total delight. It's fast and funny, sweet and thoughtful. The story moves with purpose and thoughtfulness, once again an example of Pixar's storytelling prowess. It takes these characters, imbued not only with humanity and personality, but who also are tied up in the nostalgia of my generation and in our shared cultural memory, and treats them not as icons or products, but with the care and respect they deserve as characters.

The film finds – if you’re like me, you know them by heart – Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Bull’s-eye, Hamm, Rex, the Potato Heads, and Slinky Dog saddened by years of neglect, yearning to be played with, to be touched, just one more time. Andy, who was once just a little boy is now grown and heading to college. He decides to keep the toys, but his mom, through a packaging related mistake, donates them to a daycare. This sets up all the central conflicts for the film, giving our returning cast of friends plenty new characters and situations to play off of and chances for new and varied thematic elements that also feed into a deepening sense of empathy and connection.

It’s great to see all the old characters up to new tricks. To see them alive on the screen and to hear the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Estelle Harris, and John Ratzenberger, among others, feels wonderful. (The sense of continuity is so strong that even the little boy who voiced Andy is back). In some ways it feels like a reunion with childhood friends. The new characters are worthy additions, only adding to the rich tapestry that has become this world. There’s Lotso Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty), who gets an origin story that plays like a heartbreaking alternate take on the plot and themes of the original Toy Story, and a Ken doll (Michael Keaton) is a chance for a variety of humor, but also a subtle look at gender politics. Sure, some of the new characters are sight gags, at least at first, but it never feels cheap, and there always exists the quick, indelibly identifiable, human emotion that flashes through the faces of the toys.

The creative team at Pixar, from writer-director Lee Unkrich, to screenwriters Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, and Andrew Stanton, to the entire technical staff, deserves the credit for resisting the urge to churn out a cheap sequel, capitalizing on our love for these characters in an easy or lazy way. Instead, they rewarded our love, cherished our passion, and made a film that is worthy of its predecessors in every way. As far as masterpieces go, Pixar's done it again. This is the rare children’s film that takes time to develop setting, threats and humor alike. This is the rare modern film that knows the value of a pause, of taking a beat to allow the characters to think, to react. This is the kind of movie where the characters truly love each other, who want to help each other. They may be toys, but they sure feel human in their interactions, in their fears, in their emotional pain and angst. After all, here is a film in which our main characters confront their mortality.

Expectedly, the film features gorgeous animation. Light and detail are pitch perfect, as are the astonishingly expressive faces and body language of the toys. The first film was Pixar’s first. The animation was simple and clean. The characters and story were well drawn, and efficiently simple. It’s a film with no wasted space. Woody and Buzz must get back to Andy, a connection, a usefulness that is primal. The toys’ loyalty to him is as great, or greater, than the total love of childhood. By Toy Story 2, the animation is more detailed, the story dealing with emotions a little more complex. The sequel has that sequence that never fails to make me cry, when Jesse the Cowgirl explains the pain of being abandoned by a growing child. The characters have to confront the end of childhood and realize that it is in their future. With Toy Story 3, that future is now, presented in animation that is faithful to the original styles, but adds a complexity to the shots and detail to the textures that would have been unfathomable even ten years ago.

With the end of childhood, though, is a realization that childhood memories linger, and that the beautiful thing about life is that, though children grow, there will always be children. And so this is a film about preservation of love and memories and about renewal of purpose. This is a film about the inevitability of growing up. This is a film that puts these beloved characters up against real danger and deep emotional trauma and lets it sit. Reassurance does not come quickly or easily. By the time we've reached the film's powerful coda, an emotional send-off to these characters, there is the feeling of great sadness, energy, and hope, of well-earned completion that only comes from the greatest of films. The film is engaging, smart, and charming, genuinely funny and moving, with scenes that had me loudly laughing, quietly crying, and, even at one point, nearly shaking from suspense in a moment of sheer, painful terror as certain doom approaches for cherished characters. This is a film, now, with its predecessors, a triptych, for the ages, to be passed down and enjoyed for generations to come. This sequel to beloved films deserves to be just as beloved.

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