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Non-Review Review: Toy Story 3

At this stage of my life, I’ve figured out that Pixar are like an old friend you see but once a year. You almost take them for granted until you meet up with them – and they’re filled with amazing stories of adventure, fun and whimsy. Somehow they always have the most exciting tales and wonderful way of spinning their yarns, but they’re also strangely intimate – perhaps it’s because you feel almost like you’ve grown up with them. And then they make you cry. Possibly like a little girl. Who am I to judge, my eyes are still red. And you leave knowing that you’ll see them again around about the same time next year, to share more wonderful fantasies and stories – but you can never hear the same story twice.

Yes Ken Do...

Toy Story has a special place in Pixar’s impressive filmography. Sure, it might lack the sophistication of Wall-E or the emotional heart of Up, but Toy Story is their oldest franchise – their oldest story – and so it packs a bit of punch. Sure, they’ve taken us to the ocean floor, to worlds of monsters, deep space and inside the day-to-lives of superheroes, but that was always where it began. And so Toy Story 3 has a bit of an extra emotion punch behind it. As if the guys from Pixar needed it.

From the outset, the third movie feels like the closing chapter in a trilogy. The original film was a journey home shared between the two lead characters – essentially a road movie with a cowboy and a space ranger. The sequel was a rescue mission, behind enemy lines. It would seem wrong for Pixar to add too much depth to this final installment, or to tamper with the formula. So it does what the other two films did, somewhat fittingly: it offers a standard movie formula, with a twist. This time we get a prison movie reflected through Pixar’s uniquely wonderful and fantastic mindset.

What’s remarkable is how much the film feels like revisiting old friend – how economically the movie deals with emotion. We get a snazzy and showy epic opening scene (constructed to mirror the somewhat less grandiose introduction to the original – right down to the “force field dog”) that introduces us to each of the leads, but the movie continues on with the presumption that we are already familiar with Woody and Buzz and the gang. After all, there’s no point introducing us, since we all know that this actually goodbye. There are touching little moments and references to the glory days – a single fleeting line and a sad glance for Woody fill us in on Bo-Peep’s fate, for example, or Jesse observes that she’s been abandoned by her child before.

The plot sees Woody and the gang dealing with Andy’s departure to college. It seems to be a recurring theme I’ve noticed in films and television this year: what if our dreams no longer needed us? What is a toy if not to be played with? They protect us and guide us through childhood, but what happens when the end comes. “We all knew this day was coming,” Woody suggests, but doesn’t bother pointing out that none of us dared to give it any thought. The ‘lucky’ toys go to the attic, forgotten about. The unlucky toys… well, I’d tell you, but I don’t want to give you nightmares about trash compactors.

Toys in the Hood...

My better half described the film as “bit-y”, and she’s right. The film is essential divided into thirds. The first is an exploration of what a toy is without a child. The second feels like a nod to the earlier films, and offers the familiar adventure, humour and warmth that Pixar do in their sleep – and it’s executed perfectly. And then there’s the ending. I may have cried like a little girl. And when I say “may have”, I mean “did”.

The tendency in reviews and discussion of the film has been to focus on the two thirds at either end, with a cursory acknowledgement of the middle segment. I certainly won’t pretend that either end of the film deserves every ounce of praise heaped upon, but I loved the middle segment, just because it felt “right”, for lack of a better world. Pixar could easily have lumped on the raw harnessed emotion that they seem to have stashed in a backroom somewhere (I don’t dare think how they harvest it), but that wouldn’t have been fair. When I think of Toy Story, more than any of the other Pixar stories, I think of adventure, and fun – wonderful comedic chemistry from an ensemble that has ballooned from Woody and Buzz to a point where the light green guys (“the claw!”) can steal a huge moment without it feeling awkward or inappropriate; Tim Allen’s Shatner-esque capacity to steal every scene he’s in; Tom Hanks as the more-heroic-than-he-thinks cow boy; familiar riffs on iconic scenes (including a wonderful fashion montage here – “la freak, c’est chic!”). It’s these little moments which add up to make it specifically a Toy Story movie, and they are all here.

It helps that the film does what it does particularly well. Granted, the finale had had two earlier films to load it with emotional whallop, but none of the sequences in the film pack the emotional punch of Wall-E’s courtship of Eve or Ellie and Carl’s life in montage. Instead, it executes every moment with matinee-skill. The climax of the film was one of the most terrifying moments on film this year – and this is a family film! Similarly, the film’s antagonist – as unlikely as he is – becomes as sinister as any dog-skinning old witch or toon-killing old judge with bug eyes (but maybe not quite as downright evil as a manipulative jealous lion).

The cast is fantastic, as ever. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen have their usual comedic chemistry – though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit disappointed that they didn’t get to spend as much time together this time around. The supporting players are as engaging as ever. Ned Beatty is wonderful as the fluffy bear Lotso, and Michael Keaton is… Michael Keaton as Ken. Seriously, he earned that “trying stuff on” montage. My better half is currently trying to talk me out of an ascot. A battle she intends to win. And then there’s Timothy Dalton – hamming it up to eleven as a host of an improvisational troupe of toys (“Sssh! I’m trying to stay in character!”). Which is why love him. The casting guys deserve some kind of award.

As an aside, I have to confess I didn’t really notice the 3D – it certainly didn’t seem essential, though that may mean it was unobtrosive. In fairness, the opening short film (Night & Day) – possibly the best Pixar have produced, made great use of 3D, perhaps because it played with perspective. It’s a great short film anyway, and another reason I can’t wait for the blu-ray.

In short, Toy Story 3 is a fitting end to a wonderful dynasty. I’ll be solidly disappointed if people don’t start talking about the Toy Story trilogy in the same way that they talk about the Indiana Jones trilogy. Part of me wonders to myself if Pixar will be to our children what classic Disney was to us – will they look back on films like Finding Nemo the way that we look back at Dumbo or 101 Dalmations. They’ve certainly earned the right to be discussed in such a manner, at least in my opinion. Maybe this film has just put me in a retrospective mood.

I can’t wait to get my hands on the boxset that will inevitably be released on blu-ray some time in autumn, and have a little marathon. Because, like toys in the attic, good films never die – they just pass from one generation to the next.

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14 Responses

  1. This is such a lovely review, even though I can’t reciprocate the feelings since I feel no innate connection to Toy Story (or Pixar)/

    • Thanks. I’ve actually never met anyone who has been immune to all of Pixar’s charms – there’s generally one film in there that they can’t resist. In fairness, I’ve been locked out of many an autre’s body of work – different strokes for different folks.

  2. I was disappointed that Woody and Buzz had less time together on screen. I also cried buckets as well and I’m not even ashamed of it

    • Yep. But they were happy tears – like the moment in Up when he turns the page and it’s “have your own adventure”.

      What? There was something in my eye.

  3. Nicely done mate. You echo an awful lot of the same sentiments that I had in my own review. It really is a fitting conclusion.

    Your other half is spot on with the bittiness. It really did feel like 3 separate chapters, but all lovingly bound and packaged.

    • Yep, I wonder what kids who see this first will make of it, without the emotional attachment to the characters (though hopefully they checked out the re-releases). Still, it’s cool that it was clearly aimed at “people like us”, who grew up with the film.

  4. I like your analogy of Pixar as an old friend you see but once a year, that’s a good one! I was a basket case at the end of TS3, but it was tears of joy. Glad you mentioned Dalton’s casting, if only they used more of him than just a few lines.

  5. I love your blog, I too take movie watching as a job, and these kinds of sites are my favorites. I recently added Pixar’s collection of short films to my Netflix Queue, and I can’t wait to see what I’m sure will be a really impressive compilation. If you haven’t checked it out already, you should!

    • Thank you very much. And the short films are great – some are stronger than others, though. I love Presto. And Night & Day, but that’s just out with Toy Story 3.

  6. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m curious to see how funny Mr Pricklepants is.

    That’s all I have to say for the moment…

  7. A lovely movie and certainly a tribute to Pixar’s consistency in churning out above-average animations one after the other. I don’t think enough can be said of the voicing which was really brilliant and of the highest quality. Nice review!

    • Thanks! I think that’s what’s great about Pixar – there’s no middle ground – they do EVERYTHING perfect. Effects, casting and writing.

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