The existential crises run deep in the Toy Story universe, ensuring that not only are these some of the most breezy, and beautiful, animated films ever conceived – but also some of the most philosophically challenging.
Am I being too heavy here? Maybe, but follow through the themes with me. The first Toy Story – in ironic fashion, given the fact that it was the first fully-CG feature film – contrasted the old-school with the new-age. Woody was the outdated cowboy; Buzz Lightyear was the hot new thing. The film’s makers insisted on asking: What role does analog play, in an all-digital world? What’s been lost, in all that’s been gained?
In the equally brilliant Toy Story 2, in marched the toy collector, who valued toys highly – for all the wrong reasons. It was a commentary on commercialism, and art itself: Is art meant to be “appreciated” or enjoyed? Is a toy to be celebrated as artifact or amusement?
And now in Toy Story 3, with surprising bluntness and maturity, we come full circle to the biggest question of all: What does it mean not to feel outdated, or misunderstood, but truly useless? To feel as if one’s era has of passed, and to know that the tides of time are already washing you out to sea? What is a toy to do, when there’s no one left to play with you?
It’s Waiting For Godot at Lego scale. (More at Techland: Check out the Toy Story family album)
Not that Pixar ever makes it feel that heavy. This movie studio has shown a striking ability to create stories that are simultaneously breezy on the surface and turbulent underneath. Just think back to how remarkable Ratatouille was, making us tear up over that rat in the kitchen, and the impossible dream. Or how the humanless Earth made WALL-E’s human characteristics seem that much more tragic. Or how the heartbreaking opening five minutes of Up layered the comedy to come in a sense of profound tragedy.
Pixar understands that in any fable, the good must co-exist with the bad – whether we’re talking hope and despair, love and hate, friend and enemy, death and rebirth. And this is one of the few studios to make family entertainment that is honest about the breadth of this emotional spectrum. Which is why they consistently make one of the best films of each and every year.
Toy Story 3 is not the exception, but the rule. It has memorable, infectious characters, a shrewd sense of humor, a keen feel for timing, an eye for visual wonders, and the brain cells that lead us to ask a couple hefty questions not just about these hunks of plastic but about the value of our own existence. The entire movie – the entire franchise, really – builds to a virtuoso sequence in a garbage dump that finds our heroes sliding down a giant conveyer, towards an incinerator. Having exhausted all their possible escapes, we watch Buzz and Woody, and their dozens of friends, finally confront the void. And it’s what they do in this flaming climax that defines the whole enterprise.
You won’t find many family films asking kids to ponder the prospect of death, but Toy Story 3 takes a big gamble, and threads the needle. (More at Techland: Our interview with the Toy Story 3 director)
The plot is rather simple this time around: Andy has grown up, and is preparing to leave for college. Which leaves him with the tricky task of deciding how to reconcile his childhood memories. His mom gives him a cardboard box and a garbage bag – decide, she says, what things you’re going to toss, which you’re going to donate, and which you’re going to store in the attic. He looks at his toys, decides to take one favorite to college, and then sets the rest aside for the attic. But communication lines get crossed and the toys end up being donated to the area daycare.
It’s here where Woody and Buzz meet Lotso – a stuffed bear with, we quickly learn, a very different emotional connection to human owners. Way back when, Lotso was left behind by his owner, and then replaced, leaving him to wander this Earth alone. He’s convinced that kids don’t truly care about their toys, and so he’s appointed himself as something of a Godfather in this day care, presiding over an army of toys – from Barbie’s boyfriend Ken to a purple octopus and an oversized baby, who serves as Lotso’s henchman – to ensure that he will always live the comfortable life in the hands of older children.
When Woody and Buzz arrive, Lotso locks them in the room with the toddlers – the little kids who stick Mr. Potato Head’s eyes up their nose – turning this play area into a prison of sorts. And what ensues is a Mission Impossible-like jail break, as Woody frantically tries to get back to Andy, dreaming of better days ahead in a college dorm. And yet throughout their elaborate mission, hanging over this gang of toys like a fog, is their naivety; Woody’s hopes seem misplaced and misguided, as if he’s groping through history for a relationship that can no longer be. Andy has outgrown his toys, as so many of us have, and the more this cadre plastic heroes scrambles to get back home, the more that home seems like an attic-bound death sentence.
But such heavy revelations are handled deftly, and sweetly. Toy Story 3 is funny. Very funny. Lotso, with his southern drawl and polite manners, is a hilarious little crime kingpin. Big Baby is just about the most unlikely jail warden imaginable. Ken, with his Dream House and walk-in closet – at one point even wearing high heels – might be as humorous (and sexually-confused) a big-screen toy creation as we have seen in the entire franchise. The various action sequences, as the toys try to get to Andy’s attic, escape the day care, and navigate their way out of the garbage dump, are intricately choreographed and richly textured.
And yet while we giggle at the familiar toys – including a Fisher Price rolling phone who functions as something of the daycare snitch – and swoon over our favorite Toy Story heroes – from the Potato Head marriage to the chipper Hamm and the nervous Rex– what’s unmistakable is that this story is reaching well beyond the stuff of sandboxes and toy chests. Toy Story 3, to me at least, seems preoccupied with the larger issues of living life after one’s prime, about struggling to find the next chapter in our story. Once we lose our sense of purpose, it asks, what are we to do with our time and energy?
And the Pixar masters have come up with an answer that seems perfectly reasoned to me: Be true to yourselves, spread the love, and never stop believing in the power of imagination. It’s as earnest a moral as it is simple, as entertaining as it is sincere – and always acutely aware of the cycles of life playing out all around us. Children grow up, new ones are born. New toys overshadow the old ones, but fads die quickly. Movies cross new technological thresholds, but it’s the old-time values of characters and storytelling that make the Pixar catalogue the envy of the industry.
Toy Story is an apt culmination of the trilogy – for its characters, its themes, and its studio. This is the ending Buzz and Woody deserved – a life-affirming epilogue that will lodge itself in the heart of parents, and parents to be, everywhere.
More at Techland: 10 terrible movies adapted from video games