“They… mean a lot to me.”
The most impressive thing about “Toy Story 3” – and this is a movie with many impressive things – is how familiar it feels. The film arrives eleven years after “Toy Story 2,” and in that time, Pixar has, for lack of a better term, grown up. The animation studio’s first three features were impressive indeed, yet their next seven showed the company maturing beyond even its most loyal fans’ expectations. They started the decade with “Monsters, Inc.” and ended it with “Up.” Both are modern classics in every way, but the latter is far more rich in its artistic ambitions. It’s like watching the Beatles go from “Eight Days a Week” to “A Day in the Life.”
And yet “Toy Story 3” doesn’t come across as out of place with the previous adventures of Woody and Buzz. There’s no awkward disconnect that comes with, say, seeing John McClane saddle up after a lengthy absence, no mismatched tone that leaves the newcomer as a franchise odd man out. Yes, this sequel is made with the wisdom and storytelling bravery that fueled “WALL-E” and “Up,” and yes, this sequel reveals a completely different and completely better Pixar than we saw in the late 1990s. But this is a film made by people so in tune with the characters and their world that it doesn’t skip a single beat; it feels like it could just as well have been released just a few months after “Toy Story 2.” Walking into “Toy Story 3” feels like an overdue reunion with an old friend. It’s comfortable, it’s warm, it’s wonderful.
Pixar’s team here – director Lee Unkrich and screenwriter Michael Arndt, with story credit to Unkrich, John Lasseter, and Andrew Stanton – embrace the eleven-year gap, not only to provide them with a plot, but to turn the very notion of growing up into its theme. The story finds Andy (voiced by John Morris, who, in a nice touch, also voiced Andy in the previous “Toy Story” films, one of several young actors reprising their childhood roles) heading off to college, fueling a screenplay filled with characters who must learn to let go of the past.
Warning: spoilers throughout rest of review.
One of the earliest online reactions from viewers was a collective admission of guilt over “abandoning” their childhood toys. But that ultimately goes against the point: Andy struggles with the idea of leaving his toys behind and only finds real peace once he gives them away – all of them, including his beloved Woody. The film makes a point out of Andy’s reluctance; sometimes it’s obvious (he flinches, almost like a child yelling “mine!”, when young Bonnie first reaches for the cowboy), sometimes it’s less so (he defensively calls his toys “junk” yet remains bothered at the thought of his sister even touching them).
The script is specific in making the final decision Andy’s alone. He needs to give them away. Not shove them in the attic, not take them to college, not have them accidentally hauled off to day care and nearly destroyed at the landfill. Woody (Tom Hanks) calls his fellow toys “selfish” when they decide to stay at Sunnyside Day Care instead of journey back home where they can wait in the attic, patiently, for Andy to someday decide he needs them again. But Andy keeping them would also be selfish, especially when there are sweet, imaginative children eager to offer them a new place to play.
Other characters refuse to let go. Andy’s mom (Laurie Metcalf) can’t believe her son’s shipping off to college. Buzz (Tim Allen) and the gang struggle to remain relevant, fearing a life in the attic. The villainous Lotso (Ned Beatty) still rages over what he’s convinced himself to be a tragic abandonment. Through it all, the film teaches us to cherish the past, but don’t hold on with an iron grip. Accept what comes next.
Which leads, of course, to the movie’s finest moment – arguably the finest to date in Pixar’s history. The incinerator scene, in which the toys face what is surely inescapable doom and decide to simply hold hands, one last minute together as they await their fate, is a masterpiece in every regard, but most importantly, it sums up the film’s themes just as beautifully as the final scene where Andy says goodbye (and Bonnie says hello). From Buzz to Jessie (Joan Cusack) and then out to all the others, the toys reach out, grab hands, and wait, and accept.
OK, so that sounds much, much bleaker than it should, and the film’s growing-up ideas aren’t nearly as somber. But you get the point. The script uses a crackerjack cliffhanger to underline its central premise.
It also uses it to push a great story even farther than we could’ve expected. This is Pixar showing us why they are Pixar, the finest storytellers of our age. “Toy Story 3” builds to a string of what could surely serve as spot-on climaxes for their plot – just about every other studio would’ve ended things when Lotso gets tossed in the Dumpster. But these fine folks at Pixar want to give the story a few more shoves, so it leads us into the landfill, and then the incinerator (side note: the animators’ use of color here – the bright toys popping out against the dingy trash – is one of a million examples in this film of why the studio isn’t just the best in story, but in visuals, too), where the writers go about as far as I’ve ever seen in tossing our heroes into a most certainly certain doom. The pacing of this scene is indescribably perfect. I can’t remember ever before seeing a cliffhanger sequence this tightly wound, this emotionally overwhelming.
And then: the claw! Of course! We saw the Little Green Men disappear toward it, but we can be forgiven for not remembering, what with the certain doom and all. And with two words of dialogue – a leftover punchline from two movies ago – the entire weight of that cliffhanger is lifted. Absolutely, astonishingly beautiful.
Working backwards plot-wise, we can discuss how the screenplay ingeniously toys with prison escape clichés, and how it devilishly tinkers with a child’s view of the safe haven of day care/preschool, and how delicately and honestly it deals with children as real characters, and how carefully it balances its darker sequences with moments of pure hilarity.
Pixar has been funny, of course, but they haven’t been this funny in a while, and it’s good to see them recharge their silliness. And they’re not content with the easy gags; anyone can pull laughs out of a Ken doll (Michael Keaton) being outdated and unhip, but this crew digs for laughs in, say, the clumsy way his dream house’s elevator moves.
Then they turn Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) into a tortilla. Because they can.
They’re also smart enough to work in references, both verbal and visual, to the previous films, allowing the whole thing to gel as a solid trilogy. And what a great trilogy it is: funny, thrilling, heartbreaking, brilliant. It’s a trilogy that’s grown up without losing its soul, ending with a chapter that’s taught us how to grow up ourselves – even those who thought grew up already.
Welcome back and bon voyage, Woody and Buzz. You’ll always have a friend in us.