It’s hard to believe fifteen years have passed since the release of the original Toy Story. I was four when it came out, and all I remember from that first screening is being absolutely terrified by some of the damaged toys. Of course, now that film is more remembered for introducing the public to the style of animation that now dominates the weekly box office and to the studio that so defines that style that their releases have become yearly national events: Pixar. No studio has ever had a role like that, and now, fifteen years and eleven films later, Pixar has looked back to its beginnings to craft its greatest work to date, Toy Story 3. Now, to be perfectly honest, Pixar’s great track record aside, I was worried that this would be another cheap cash-in sequel from Disney, and while it doesn’t cover much ground that they haven’t hit before, it covers it better in almost every way. Toy Story 3 is funnier and more moving than anything Disney has ever released, and in terms of animation, it probably falls just short of the magnificent Wall-E, but is still near the top of the Pixar cannon.
This second sequel takes place ten years after the end of 1999’s Toy Story 2, with Andy on his way to college and Woody, Buzz and the rest of the toys facing a crossroads. Only the core group from the first two remains, with the rest having been broken or given away over time, and while Andy wants to take Woody with him, he decides to leave the rest of his toys behind in the attic (which is probably for the best, I can’t imagine someone with that many toys in his dorm doing too well in college), but a misunderstanding almost leads them to the dump and, angry with Andy for nearly throwing them away, Buzz, Jessie, the Potatoheads, Slink, Rex, Hamm, Bullseye and Barbie decide to donate themselves to a day care center. Woody follows and tries to convince them otherwise, but once they arrive, the group is convinced to stay by the leaders of the toys there, Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear and Ken (Ned Beaty and Michael Keaton respectively). Woody tries to go home, but the others stay behind and discover that the leaders are sacrificing them to be played with by the youngest children there, who have a shocking ability to cruelly break everything. Once Woody discovers the truth, he has to rescue his friends and get back to Andy before college.
Now, if you’ve seen the first two, this plot should sound at least vaguely familiar, but, as I said, that’s not really the point. Sure the admittedly predictable plot can be a bit annoying and there have been other animated films that deal with growing up and moving on with life, but none have done it with such humor and emotion. After Up, which I found to be incredibly unfunny, I was worried that this type of humor wouldn’t appeal to me anymore, but no, the jokes just had to be funny. A much higher percentage of the humor in Toy Story 3 is aimed at the adults in the audience than the children, and I really think that this film will have the most appeal to people like me who saw the first film as a child. The smaller cast allows for much more character development, especially of the human characters, which has never been Pixar’s strength. Thankfully, the characters they kept are all voiced by very funny actors (with a possible exception for Joan Cusack’s Jessie, who I’ve always found to be somewhat grating), and the writing has matured over time, so the one-liners can just flow from all over the screen. Unlike Toy Story 2, where many of the new characters didn’t really work, the latest additions to the toy line, especially Ken, are all quite humorous, and the new cast members fit in perfectly. Aside from Beatty and Keaton, who are both fantastic, Timothy Dalton, Jeff Garlin, Whoppi Goldberg and Richard Kind all join the cast in smaller roles. The smaller cast also allows it to reach a greater emotional depth, especially during the film’s final moments, which are easily the most moving scenes in any Pixar film. For the first time that I can recall in a Disney release, there is an actual sense of danger and excitement, and even though you know everyone is going to be OK in the end, there will be moments where you’re so lost in the story that you just can’t be sure. I would also like to point out that the requisite short film attached to the beginning, “Day and Night,” is the strongest Pixar short that I can recall, both in terms of story and animation, and that alone makes the 3-D upgrade nearly worth it. Thankfully, unlike Disney’s last 3D release, the dreadful Alice In Wonderland, Toy Story 3 was meant to be seen with that extra dimension, and the upgrade is handled with much class and subtlety. Nothing pops at you, but the greater amount of depth to the story is reflected by the greater amount of depth and detail on screen.
It was obvious from the trailers that this film would be less risky than the last three from the studio—Ratatouille’s basic premise seemed like it would turn off some viewers, people though Wall-E’s silent first half and anti-consumerist environmental message would anger much of the audience and Up’s more mature subject matter, dealing with death, made it seem less likely to succeed with children—and I’m worried that some will see this as a regression for the studio. So now I think it’s time to remind everyone that you can’t look at a studio in terms of Auteurism. I know I can be guilty of it, but, high artistic ambition aside, Pixar is a business above all else, albeit an extremely successful one. This is the first film Lee Unkrich has ever directed (he edited the previous two in the series), and he can’t be judged according to the studio’s prior releases, even if their worst film (Cars) is still noticeably better than anything rival Dreamworks Animation has ever released. Even with the core group of John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird and Pete Docter involved somehow in every project, every director brings their own stamp to the work. In Unkrich’s case, it’s an evolved focus on a sort of realism, with more natural colors and many shots showing just how small the toys are in the world, a perspective that was missing from the last two. On the other hand, it’s probably for the best that we treat some sort of animation that way. Until American audiences can accept animation as a legitimate medium and not something just meant for kids and so-called “family” movies, the best stuff will continue to come from Japan and other countries that are using it correctly (I would consider Richard Linklater’s two great rotoscoped films to be their own in-between medium). So no, Toy Story 3 isn’t quite as great as Hayao Miyazaki’s masterworks, but it is the closest I’ve ever seen an American animated film get to that level.
Toy Story 3 is rated G.
The film opens everywhere, including Imax, on June 18th.
Directed by Lee Unkrich; written by Lee Unkrich, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Michael Arndt; original music by Randy Newman; directing animator, Michael Stocker; produced by Darla K. Anderson and John Lasseter; distributed by Walt Disney Studios. Running time: 1 Hour 49 minutes.
With: Tom Hanks (Woody), Tim Allen (Buzz), Joan Cusack (Jessie), Ned Beaty (Lost-O’-Huggin’ Bear), Don Rickles (Mr. Potato Head), Michael Keaton (Ken), Estelle Harris (Mrs. Potato Head), Wallace Shawn (Rex), John Ratzenberger (Hamm) and John Morris (Andy).