Toy Story 3: The Mounting Case Against 3D?

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I hope you’ll pardon the lack of clarity in this post. I’m halfway through processing a reaction – on my way towards forming a cohesive thesis; All I have right now is a contradiction, that I’m trying to work out.

Here’s the basic setup: I always hated 3D effects – right up until Avatar. And it was there that I found myself immersed in a mesmerizing sensory experience unlike anything I had ever encountered. Avatar truly showed all of us what was possible, in molding a fully-realized, immersive 3D spectacle. I was taken into a world; my opinions about 3D shattered. (More at Techland: Read our analysis of Avatar’s 3D).

Well, about a week ago I was plunged into my second-best 3D experience ever, with Toy Story 3. The 3D plane was subtle, the immersion was profound and seamless. I barely noticed the integration. The 3D worked without rupturing the experience.

And yet repeatedly during the film, I took my 3D glasses off. I was infuriated by the darkness of the picture. For the second time now, Up included, I was missing the Pixar colors, burning into my face. I wanted to get lost in the pastels and textures, to lean into the faces and the body language that result in Pixar creating far more authentic works than their animated competitors. (More at Techland: We rank the best of the best Pixar movies)

In Toy Story 3D, the 3D process works flawlessly, and yet what I ultimately came to feel is that it added very little. It brought me into the space, but then shut me out of the other sensory information. All of which is why I think that, in many ways, Toy Story 3 is the most devastating evidence yet that 3D doesn’t make much sense for the majority of movies. Well, beyond carefully-authored 3D experiences that use the technique to dramatically heighten our immersion in the universe.

Avatar wanted me to feel all the dimensionality of Pandora – the heights and the depths and the space around things. And James Cameron made it work. Much the same will probably be true for Tron, which has been created with 3D in mind, using the technique to give us a sense of distance, depth and weight in a virtual world.

But still, I’ve never understood how 3D benefits, say, a romance or a drama. I’m confused about how 3D was necessary for Alice in Wonderland or Clash of the Titans, where the story plays out in rather linear form. Or why it matters with a film like Toy Story 3, which is such a rich narrative that the special effects play a distant second fiddle to the pacing, plot, and personalities. (More at Techland: Meet all the new Toy Story heroes)

I’m not really sure where this leaves my line of thinking. I’ve seen 3D used to stunning effect. And then 3D that seemed utterly superfluous. Is it possible that 3D only works in a special effects-heavy creation?

We all admit that Avatar wasn’t the best story, but had great visuals. Is that the place for 3D, as super-sophisticated wallpaper? Is it possible that the very best stories do indeed lose something with all the visual tricks, and darkened tint?

Like I said, I don’t really know what I’m saying. I believe now more than ever before in the potential of 3D to elevate movies to a new, never-before-considered plateau. But I also know that I’ve just seen a brilliant movie that used the 3D process seamlessly, which didn’t gain a single thing from its usage.

How am I to reconcile that contradiction? When does 3D work and when doesn’t it? No, wait, I think that’s the wrong question. When does effective 3D enhance the experience, and when is it just unneeded extra icing on a perfectly delectable cake? More to the point: When does the packaging take away from the fun of the toy?

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