Monday, June 21, 2010

Toy Story 3: A Review


One of my Golden Rules of Film-Making is: Part III is either a disaster or the harbinger of a greater disaster.

As evidence for the first, I present Spider-Man III, X-Men III: The Last Stand, The Godfather, Part III. As evidence for the second, I give you Batman & Robin, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls. One could argue that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King broke with this rule, but I'd argue that since it was the third part of a larger story, the rule doesn't apply.

I think that the reason third parts fail is because the creative team take the characters and break apart whatever made us love/care about them in the first place.

Now we have Toy Story 3. It not only had to compete against The Curse of The Third, but had to go against the first two films which are masterpieces.

How could you take the stories and hit one out of the ball park one more time? You do it the way Toy Story 3 did: keeping what worked in the first two and letting the situation create the drama.

Andy (John Morris) is not a child anymore. He is a man, one going off to college. College men don't play with toys. Now the group we've come to know and love is facing this dilemma: they may be Andy's toys, but Andy has outgrown them. This smaller group faces a future of being placed in the attic (basically a sad but comfortable and safe retirement), being donated to a day care (a form of forced banishment) or being thrown into the trash (death).

Andy opts to take one toy with him to college: Woody (Tom Hanks) his most loyal cowboy doll. All the others: astronaut Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark), Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Rex the Dinosaur (Wallace Shawn), Hamm the Piggy Bank (John Ratzenberger), are all to stay behind, including the three aliens the Potato Heads have adopted and Bullseye, Woody's loyal horse.

Through a series of mishaps they are first thrown out with the trash then they (except for Woody) decide to go to Sunnyside Day Care with Barbie (Jodi Benson) who was the only one originally sent there.

Sunnyside seems like paradise at first. The toys there welcome them eagerly, and their leader, a plush strawberry-scented bear named Lot's O'Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty) or Lotso for short, is a gentle soul who tells them they'll never run out of children to play with. It's Nirvana--to all but Woody, who is determined to stay with Andy because they are Andy's toys.

He leaves without them, but in the process gets taken by Bonnie (Emily Hahn) to her home. Here Woody discovers Lotso's secret, and the rest of the toys discover Sunnyside is really a police state. Now Woody and the rest of Andy's toys have to break out of Sunnyside and return home. Of course, Lotso and his sidekick Ken (Michael Keaton) aren't about to let that happen.

Toy Story 3 works on many levels. First, it works in that you don't have to know the story from the first two films. We get quick introductions to all the characters so those who don't know the story won't be left out. Second, we get something that has been missing from many recent Hollywood films: actual character development. The returning characters, although all toys, are given remarkably human emotions that are done frighteningly well.

The sense of loss and abandonment, even rejection, that Andy's toys go through is extremely deep for an animated film (especially when Americans are absolutely dead-set to think of animation as purely a children's genre...have your kids sit through Grave of the Fireflies and see what happens). Woody has his own issues: to stay in comfort and security in a new home or risk his very existence for the sake of his friends.

The new figures are also given the complexity of emotion that has become anathema in live-action films. Lotso has the charm of a Southern grandfather, but even within his wickedness (and he get a heaping helping of it) he's far more complex than a cartoon villain (pun intended). His backstory (though unfortunately similar but not as heartbreaking as Jessie's from Toy Story 2) makes him an almost tragic figure. The same goes for Ken: a toy who wants to be one of the guys and side with Lotso and his henchtoys but who also has found love with Barbie and who struggles to not be seen as a girl's toy (in spite of his passion for fashion).

The performances from all the voice actors are still amazing. Hanks has never lost his moral certainty and leadership abilities (or burdens) as Woody, who is determined to keep everyone safe. Allen still makes his Buzz Lightyear amazingly cocky but equal to the challenge of risk taking. I confess I started out writing "Buzz still has...", which is a sign of just how intelligent all three Toy Story films are and just how strong both the animation and our acceptance of the characters are. A great film will not only make you believe the situation on the screen, but make you actively participate and care about what is going on. Toy Story 3 in that regard is no different from its predecessors.

The animation is also a stand-out. Each Toy Story film has benefited from advances in computer imagery, and in Toy Story 3 there were moments when it looked absolutely real to the where one can't be blamed for thinking director Lee Unkrich had slipped live-action into the film. From the light at Andy's house to the dark halls and yard of Sunnyside to a literal fiery furnace, the visuals in the film give it not only the emotional impact but a true beauty.

Side note: when our characters were facing an extremely perilous situation, I confess to getting a slight lump in my throat.  That is how much the Toy Story series has grown, each one simply moving in ways I didn't expect.

If I have some complaints, they would be as follows. First, the script by Unkrich, Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, and Andrew Stanton was a bit of a repeat from Toy Story 2. You had the seemingly benevolent character being the villain, and you even had the villain meet a parallel end to that of Stinky Pete (not exactly but similar in tone).

You had a clear homage (or rip-off depending on your point of view) in Toy Story 3 to that of the end of Return of the Jedi--I was expecting lightning to burst out from the film. It was a little bit long and some of the fashion show as well as how the toys got to Sunnyside could have been cut.

My strangest complaint would be the lack of songs. Toy Story had the iconic You've Got A Friend In Me and Toy Story 2 had two songs memorable: the sweet and charming Woody's Roundup (I'm a big fan of Riders in the Sky) and the heartbreaking and beautiful When She Loved Me (a song I still can't get through without getting something in my eye).  With Toy Story 3, I can't remember a single number.

However, these are tiny issues to the overall brilliance of Toy Story 3. It's a bit like saying The Elgin Marbles or The Mona Lisa aren't very good because they are smaller than what you'd imagine.

Toy Story is the Citizen Kane of CGI animated films (let's face it: every computer-animated feature is compared to it). Toy Story 2 is The Godfather Part II of CGI animated films (a sequel that matches or even excels the original). Now, Toy Story 3 is the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade of CGI animated films (a third part that equaled the first).

I'd like to conclude with this Spanish lesson (seeing that a subplot involves Buzz now getting a new voice courtesy of Javier Fernandez Peña). The word "maloso" means "a bad/wicked person". If you split the word in half, the words "mal oso" translates to "bad bear". Coincidence? I think not.


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