As part of our Father's Day observances today, we got to go see Pixar's latest, Toy Story 3. We've seen every Pixar release in the theater without fail, most of them on opening weekend. It's not as though there are going to be any mad spoilers if we don't get in straight away, but given how merciless the movie industry can be, and how much an individual picture's success or failure seems to reside on those opening weekend gates, it feels good to get out there and vote with our dollars.
Another factor is that Pixar has never failed to delight, amaze or, at the very least, entertain me at every turn. I have loved every film with the exception Cars, which I didn't necessarily dislike, but really had no passion for. As far as worst things one can say about a movie studio, they are batting pretty high.
Despite being a threequel, Toy Story 3 has all the heart, pacing, character and brilliant storytelling of its predecessors, and never seems to feel tired or forced. Even when they re-visit familiar ground, like Buzz Lightyear acting like he's just come out of the box again, they still manage to change it up enough to make it enjoyable and at least a little unpredictable.
Truth be told, there is a lot of familiarity here; the themes of childhood and its passing, loyalty and friendship are all present and accounted for, with the major challenge being that their owner Andy is 17 now and heading off to college. His mother brings in a box for the attic, a bag for the garbage, and tells him everything not going with him needs to go in one or the other. Strangely, you really start to feel things getting ominous when the green army men (led by perennial favourite R. Lee Ermey) declare their mission with Andy completed and let their tiny plastic parachutes carry them away.
When they end up in a utopian daycare environment, with the promise of perpetual play, it is not easy for Woody to convince them that this is not where they should be. In fact, it's impossible.
The new toys introduced at the daycare are great, especially Lots O'Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty) and of course, Barbie's counterpart, Ken, voiced by Michael Keaton. Beatty's bear is a folksy charmer, with a hint of something else beneath the surface, while Keaton's Ken brings a strange mix of vapidness and sincerity to the proceedings at Sunnyside daycare. Tim Allen, Tom Hanks and the rest of the original characters do a marvelous job of voice acting, as they always do, but what I love most is how the Pixar crew have learned to let the characters be quiet and allow their faces to do the talking, a real tribute to the well-deserved confidence the studio has in their animators; 'pixel artists' indeed!
The movie is significantly darker in tone, hitting a lot of the same beats as a gothic horror, like alienation, betrayal, and confinement, without ever becoming horrific or full on terrifying. That said, if you had told me that a Toy Story movie was going to echo a lot of the elements from Dante's Inferno and Stalag 13, I would have found that pretty implausible, but it turns out that is just one more impossible thing the wizards at Pixar have accomplished again.
Due to my mis-reading of the schedule, we ended up seeing TS3 in 2-D, but I honestly think that may have been better. Director Lee Unkrich, who co-directed TS2 with original director John Lasseter, proves a deft hand with the film, although I have to say, he seems to spend more time than Lasseter on the escape and chase sequences, which may be an attempt to max out the 3D appeal. He doesn't do this at the expense of character, and the pacing is still robust enough to tolerate the diversion that these excellent gags and set-pieces provide. I'm really beginning to hanker for a straight up adventure film from this studio, even though The Incredibles came mighty close. Who knows, maybe that will come from Pixar alumnus Andrew Stanton with his adaptation of John Carter of Mars in 2012.
That's probably all I can really say about the story without inadvertently giving something away, and since every little surprise in a film like this is such a gem, I'd like to avoid that and encourage you all to see it so we can talk about it later. The one thing I'd like you to keep an eye open for, when you do go, is whether or not Toy Story 3 has something to say about the rewards of faith; not necessarily spiritual faith, but more than just faith in your friends. Woody never loses his faith in Andy, even though the shape and colour of that faith changes somewhat over the course of the movie. And there's even a little something for the three-eyed aliens and their faith in The Claw which chooses "who will stay and who will go."
As a guy who has always found significant change a little hard to deal with, the theme of this movie struck me even more than those of the first two, but at least there wasn't a childhood's end montage with a Sarah McLachlan song because even on re-watching, that scene destroys me. Seeing how Buzz and Woody and the other toys deal with Andy's maturity and the changes it brings was probably the perfect mix of bitter and sweet, and a great finale for the Toy Story series if they wrap it up here.