I was 8 years old when my parents took me to see Toy Story in a tiny theater in suburban Atlanta and it completely blew my mind. Since then, I’ve pretty much grown up with Pixar. When I was younger, “A Bug’s Life” and “Toy Story 2” fed my love of movies. As a teenager, “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles” aligned with my growing, more sophisticated sensibilities. And now, as a full-blown and fully grown cinephile, “WALL-E” and “Up” have served as the sole shining beacons of ambition, reflecting exactly what I want big budget Hollywood film to be. Do I love Pixar movies because I’m a movie buff, or am I a movie buff because I love Pixar?
Still, I understand why there’s a comparative dearth of enthusiasm for “Toy Story 3.” The run from “Ratatouille” through “WALL-E” to “Up” has easily been Pixar’s best, infusing their work with a scope that can claim a kindred spirit with everyone from Arthur C. Clarke to Werner Herzog. Those weren’t just “kids films” they were films that literally everyone could relate to in some way. They were also insanely risky for a studio that has never produced a flop and it is not just a coincidence that, with the long lead time on animated films, “Toy Story 3” was probably put into production right around the time the advertising cycle on “Ratatouille” started. Can Pixar retain their high creative standards while releasing a movie that, at least superficially, appears to be a “Shrek” style cash grab. The answer is mostly yes. If not a home run, “Toy Story 3” is at least a solid double that extends Pixar’s streak of good movies to 11.
Set well after the first two films, “Toy Story 3” finds our favorite group of toys collecting dust in a chest in their owner Andy’s room. Andy has outgrown playing with his toys and is getting ready to head off to college. While most of the toys see the writing on the wall, Woody (voiced again by Tom Hanks) still feels the connection between them and their owner and wants the toys to be there for their rapidly aging owner. Through a couple of mix-ups, the gang ends up in a day care, on the promise that they will always be played with and spared the heartbreak of being abandoned again. However, the day care is more Shawshank than Shangri-La and the toys quickly realize that they need to get out of there and get back home as soon as possible.
Anyone who wants to know how far Pixar has come in the 15 years since their debut feature needs to only compare the first five minutes of “Toy Story” to the opener in this film. Both depict the same action (a boy playing with his toys) but this film actually takes you inside his imagination, making for an eye-popping reintroduction to the world. From there, however, the film drags for a little while as it gets stuck in the threequel rut, running through renditions of story beats that feel a little too familiar. The toys turn on Woody, Buzz thinks he’s a real space ranger, and so on. One character even gets a tragic backstory, but one that feels too rushed to provide the same emotional gut-punch that the tragic history of Jessie, Woody’s cowgirl friend voiced by Joan Cusack, did in “Toy Story 2.”
Like that film, “Toy Story 3’” big theme is abandonment, but unlike there, abandonment is no longer some distant abstraction. It is very real and it has already happened, which breathes new immediacy into the film. That immediacy really starts to pick up during the manic escape plan (even The A-Team would be jealous) and subsequent action sequences. It’s a theme that may have some immediacy for Pixar as well. Keeping in mind that this movie started production before their recent run, it is hard not to read some of Pixar’s real-life predicament into the story. They find themselves in an odd position. On the one hand, they have to please a generation of fans who have grown up and are now outside the traditional wheelhouse of animation. At the same time, a child who was born when “Toy Story” was released is now 15 years old, so Pixar has to reintroduce itself to a completely new generation of children (rereleasing “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” to theaters last October was as much about familiarizing a younger audience with these characters as it was about showing off the new 3-D hotness). Pixar has become its characters, worried about being forgotten by the older generation and ignored by the younger one.
That said, the audience I saw it with was made up mostly of 20-somethings, not young children, who had also grown up watching these movies. They laughed along with inside jokes, cried at the story beats and, most of all, reacted with fear to any signs of peril for these characters. The woman next to me reacted with such visceral fear to one particularly dire circumstance – a scene that seemed so committed to torturing its audience of devoted fans that I wondered if Lars Von Trier didn’t happen to stop by and guest direct it. Personally, I had forgotten how invested I was in these characters and how much I flat-out liked them.
I saw “Toy Story 3” in IMAX 3-D, which was a little troublesome for me since I cannot really see 3-D too well. About 75% of the time its visible, but the other 25% the movie looks blurry and out of focus to me, presumably because of my prescription glasses. Still, aside from the visually stunning opener, I didn’t feel the 3-D was particularly necessary. I also didn’t hate it though, which I guess is an improvement (and while the 3-D process still problematically dulls a lot of the color, it was less of a problem than it was with “Up”). That said, the short that played before the film – “Night and Day” – was incredible in 3-D and suggested the kinds of things that would be possible for 3-D cartoons. To call it the best 3-D to date is a little backhanded, but “Night and Day” was certainly very impressive.
Ultimately, “Toy Story 3” is neither a disappointment or a step back, even if it’s also not the revelatory step forward that Pixar’s recent work has been. It is, like those early movies, a zippy, funny, moving, and engaging family film that can be enjoyed by all. All that stress is for nothing, as long as Pixar continues making movies this good, there will always be an audience for them.
Jonah’s Score: 69
TUIW Grade: B