For years I avoided animated movies like the plague. I can’t explain why I had a block against them, but there was no part of me that had any interest in seeing feature length cartoons. A couple years back I forced myself to start watching them again after some friends of mine had to practically strap me down and force me to watch Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Well of course I fell in love with it (thank you Lisa and Erik) and I began to think about all the wonderful animated movies I remembered from my youth like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Dumbo,and Pinocchio and decided to stop turning up my nose at all the current ones, especially those that people had been raving about. I’m glad I had this change of heart because if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have gone to see Toy Story 3.
I didn’t even see the first two until very recently. I liked the first, really liked the second, but the third is the best of the batch. This is one of those rare movie series that gets better as they go on. Toy Story 3 is one of the year’s best movies. It is emotionally satisfying without being empty-headed. It has a tight plot, sympathetic characters, and a well-thought out point of view.
We revisit Andy’s bedroom, but now all the toys are locked away in a chest. Andy is 17 and getting ready to leave home for college. He has outgrown his toys. In fact, many have already been donated or thrown away, most notably Bo Peep. But the core group remains: Woody, Buzz, Rex, Hamm, Jessie, Bullseye, the Potato Heads, and Slinky Dog. They are preparing themselves for an uncertain future: either a life of limbo in the attic or disposal in the trash. At the prompting of his mother Andy packs up his old toys in a garbage bag, but saves Woody and puts him in a box for things he will take to college. He intends to store the others in the attic, but through a mix up they end up on the street with the garbage. Woody saves them, but they don’t believe Andy didn’t mean for them to be thrown away and, against Woody’s objections stow away in a box of toys belonging to Andy’s sister headed for donation at a local daycare. Woody tries to convince them not to go, but he gets shut up with all the others and, along with a depressed Barbie, they make their way to their new home for cast-off toys.
Woody vows to get back to Andy but the others are mesmerized by the daycare. Barbie is won over by a Ken doll and the charismatic and fatherly leader of the daycare toys Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear dazzles the rest with promises of a lifetime of love and play without being outgrown or being thrown away. (If they are broken the other toys will pitch in and repair them.) Woody wants none of it and escapes the building to get back to Andy. Lotso assigns the other toys to the Caterpillar Room where they discover life with the littlest ones isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be; they are abused and drooled on. When they want to leave the Caterpillar Room they discover that Lotso isn’t as benevolent as he first appeared.
Toy Story 3 is formulaic, but it uses the formula so well we don’t even care. It reminds us why formulas became formulas and, if they are utilized thoughtfully, can still make fantastic movies. What I love about this picture is screenwriters Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich have thought about what it would really be like for toys if they had consciousness. They’ve thought about what their relationships would be with each other, with their owner, and his family. This is true of the first two movies as well, but in the third installment they have carefully considered what becomes of toys once their owners outgrow them. What would their fears about the future be? What happens to forgotten toys? This is a question they visited in the second film, but in this one they fully explore how forgotten toys might try to retain relevance and avoid the dreaded garbage bins.
I remember Everett and I having a disagreement after we saw Avatar. I didn’t care for the movie because the story was recycled, the characters were cardboard cutouts, and the dialogue was silly. I asked why, if a studio is going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make a movie, why they can’t be bothered to even try and write an intelligent script. Everett told me they don’t have to and in the end I guess he’s right. They didn’t have to. People lined up and gobbled it up the way the studio hoped they would without much of a script. But my point is why spend millions to make it look great and not have a story to match up with the visual effects? How much more could it have cost? (I’m sure James Cameron thought his script was A-OK, but, like Titanic, it really, truly wasn’t.) Pixar has a great reputation of not privileging effects over story. Even the Pixar movies I didn’t enjoy, like Wall-E, had a well-rounded(-ish) story. Pixar and Disney could have slapped together a third Toy Story movie without much thought to the script and still had a success, but Toy Story 3 is a great example of how filmmakers (and I include live-action directors in this) should spend as much time on the script as they do on their CGI effects. I believe Toy Story 3 (and the first two films as well) will survive the test of time, while Avatar will be looked back on as an expendable piece of nostalgia, like other past epics with bloated budgets and thin scripts (Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, King Vidor’s War and Peace, and those tiresome Biblical epics of Cecil B. DeMille come to mind).
This is meant to be the final film of the series and I hope it is. The end of the movie is incredibly moving that I was pushing back some tears. (Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern wrote that the end “took his breath away”) The wrap up is so satisfying that I want to imagine the future for Woody, Buzz and the others without that imagined future being interrupted by another narrative that might taint the progression of the series. It’s a treat when anyone can make a movie that is well made and popular. Normally the chasm between quality and popularity is wider than most filmmakers are able or willing to bridge, but director Lee Unkrich straddles the two successfully and has created a modern classic. Whenever anyone complains to me about how corrupt or shallow Hollywood is I always disagree. Yes, most of Hollywood is corrupt and shallow, but as long as something of intelligence and true feeling gets made, it can’t all be hopeless. If Hollywood could make movies like The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, Vertigo, and E.T. then the town hasn’t been a wasteland. And if Toy Story 3 can be made today then there is still hope.