Saturday, August 7, 2010

Adventures in Cinema #2: Toy Story 3

When I was eight years old, Pixar Animation Studios released Toy Story, the first in a series of popular films that defied the laws of success: eleven features that collectively grossed somewhere north of eleventy billion dollars* and, with minimal exceptions, met with universal critical approval.  Fifteen years on it seems safe to say that, while not every production may be a masterpiece, Pixar is just not capable of doing bad work.  Artists are rarely perfect, especially when one's definition of "artist" is wide enough to include an entire film studio, but betting against a Pixar film would be perversely unwise.

*Adjusted for inflation.

But back in 1995, Pixar wasn't a surefire hit-maker.  Toy Story arrived in theaters with the Walt Disney logo prominently displayed, allowing the larger corporation to take a large share of the credit for its success (to say nothing of royalties).  It's difficult for me to say how much Walt's people had to do with the making of the film, but the relationship seemed like the right fit: Toy Story shared all the best traits of Disney Animation's best work.  It was beautifully animated, technically ambitious, intelligently sentimental, and delightfully musical; but most of all it was the kind of consummate children's film that celebrated the best things about childhood.  It was the sort of movie that made eight-year-olds feel great about being eight.

And then there's Toy Story 3, a movie that seems to have been written, produced, and released with the intent to make those very same eight-year-olds deeply sorry that they ever grew up, went to school, and forgot even one bit of the stories they told themselves when they were small.  A studio with craft like Pixar's makes movies that appeal to people of any generation, but I would argue that it speaks loudest to one generation in particular, and that generation is the audience of grade schoolers who saw the first one all those years ago.

The basic premise of Toy Story is that toys are not only living, willful beings, but that they have powerful emotional bonds with the children who play with them.  This fantasy works, and works marvelously well, because it is a metaphor for the bonds that children have with the worlds of their own imagination, and with the miniature figures that bring their imaginations into the physical realm.  Woody the cowboy doll loves Andy the child because Andy loves him, and Andy's love for his toys is the supreme motivation for everything that happens in the Toy Story series.  If Andy didn't love his toys then their story would be meaningless; they probably wouldn't even bother to move around on their own if Andy never moved them himself.

For all of the praise Toy Story 3 has received, it is not quite perfect.  A few plot turns are eye-rollingly obvious, some jokes are needlessly recycled, and a certain amount of second-sequel inertia has creeped into the writing.  The primary antagonist bears more than a slight resemblance in character to the Prospector of Toy Story 2, but is still different enough to warrant a pass.  The main action of the plot is a relatively standard series of events with typical kid's movie tropes, but I feel I must stress this again: Pixar isn't capable of bad work, and this one is always entertaining and never insulting to the intelligence.

In the bulk of the movie we get a satisfying sequel with appropriate character development.  Woody, who previously doubted Andy's affections to the point of jealousy and despair, has grown more confident and selfless in spite of being chronically neglected.  The deluded space toy Buzz has adjusted to his artificial nature (and increasingly willing to explore his romantic side).  The rest of the cast has been consciously pared down to a handful of the more integral secondary characters, who grow just enough to make their actions believable, but not enough to crowd the action or weight the story down.  Everything is lean and well-calculated to hit all the right notes.

And then in the final act, the movie turns its attention to the task of total emotional devastation.  First comes fear, as the toys come face to face with their own annihilation (I'm not usually one to overstate the scariness of a kid's movie, but some of these scenes are a bit much).  Having stood up to the possibility of death with resolve, the story takes an unprecedented turn and allows us to see the world from Andy's point of view for an extended period.  The formerly hyperactive boy has reached the cusp of adulthood, but for all his outward signs of maturity and independence he cannot help but remember his toys, and seems to recognize on some subconscious level that their devotion is an exact match for his.

In Toy Story 3's final moments, Andy manages to strike a balance between the requirements of adulthood and the needs of his childhood in a scene of such emotional power that grown men have confessed to crying over it.  Such confessions are by now a clichĂ©, so I don't feel obligated to make any here, but I would propose that the scene makes for a definitive test of one's lacrimal fortitude: the sort of test one might pass with training and effort, but certainly not one to be taken lightly.

Once the emotional kill shot is passed the whole movie is retrospectively enhanced, along with the previous two installments. If it had been clumsily handled the entire affair could easily have become an unmitigated disaster: a perfectly good story ruined by its ending, a treasured series tarnished by a sour finale.  But fear not, grown children.  The artists at Pixar are as deft and mature as they've ever been, and the Toy Story trilogy comes to an end that will satisfy just about anybody hoping to see the saga end beautifully.

I neglected to mention the movie's visual prowess, because praising a Pixar film for its visual beauty is a lot like praising the sky for its blueness.  At some point, we can take things like that as given.  I did, however, want to mention the 3D.  Friends and acquaintances may know that I do not see many films in theaters, and they may also know that I am intensely skeptical of the recent fad of objects flying out of the screen.  I have not even seen Avatar, a movie which I refer privately to as "Titanic for Nerds."  In spite of my trepidation I found the 3D effects in Toy Story 3 to be not only tastefully restrained, but effectively and artistically utilized.  At its best, it gently emphasized the depth of a scene's composition in a way which genuinely complemented traditional 2D design, and not once did an object come hurtling toward my face to break the spell.  Massive kudos to high-tech filmmakers who still know how to make good-looking films.

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