Thursday, June 24, 2010

Toy Story 3 (2010, Lee Unkrich)

In the interest of avoiding any long dry spells like I had between the Muriels and the White Elephant this year, I recently decided to post a few thoughts on every movie I see. Which is a great idea in theory, but sometimes it’s hard to think of anything insightful to add to the conversation. I’ve found myself in this situation with two new releases, Toy Story 3 and Please Give (or as I like to call it, Please Give the Vultures What They Want So They’ll Stop Hovering Already). In the case of Please Give, etc., I think that Craig Kennedy over at Living in Cinema has said it pretty well, and all that’s left for me to add is that despite my misgivings about the movie, it did satisfy my Rebecca Hall thing, so it was worth it for that anyway. Rating: 5 out of 10.

With Toy Story 3, it’s a little trickier, since my inability to think of something insightful to write has less to do with my thoughts neatly dovetailing with those of other (better-known) critics than the fact that it more or less scratches the itches the other two Toy Story movies scratch. Even more than most successful third installments, Toy Story 3 traffics in the viewers’ nostalgia for- and familiarity with- the previous films, to the point where in the opening scene I got a smile on my face when I heard the line, “I’ve got my dog, with a built-in force field!”, knowing exactly what would happen next. Like everything Pixar does, this reaction is completely intentional, since Toy Story 3 is about re-familiarizing us with the world of Andy and his beloved toys, all the better to ponder what’s going to happen when this world falls apart. Yes folks, Toy Story 3 is about moving on- saying goodbye, accepting one’s fate, and finally starting anew.

One of the most notable elements of the third (and, it would seem, final) Toy Story adventure is how much more Andy there is in the story. In the first two films, we caught glimpses of Andy and his relationship with the toys, but for the most part the toys were defined by their actions when he was absent- they established their own personalities and had their own adventures, but aside from Woody’s brief flirtation with museum-based immortality, they never acted in a way that ran contrary to their loyalty to their owner. So it’s a little startling to discover in Toy Story 3 that Andy becomes an active character in the story. Oh sure, most of the film is about Buzz and Woody and the gang and their trials and tribulations, but it’s also about Andy and how he has to come to terms with his feelings about the toys as he stands on the cusp of adulthood. As Andy grows up, is there still room for his old best pals?

What makes Toy Story 3 so effective from an emotional standpoint is that way it contrasts the trajectory of a human life (Andy’s, to be specific) with that of the toys. Whereas Andy grows up over the course of eighteen years and must then find his way in the world, a toy is more or less born to its appointed purpose. But once it’s fulfilled this purpose, what then? Toy Story 3 presents four options- going into storage until Andy “needs them again,” being donated to a day care where they’ll be played with but never belong to anyone, getting thrown away and eventually incinerated, and finally being given to another young child to be loved similarly to the way they were before. It’s a credit to the movie that it presents all four options with a surprising amount of emotional complexity, without ever feeling like Pixar is sacrificing entertainment value.

Considering how well thought out all four of these options happen to be, it’s almost disappointing that Unkrich and his team feel the need to introduce a villain into the story in the form of Lots ‘o’ Huggin’ Bear (voiced by Ned Beatty). Part of me wondered whether it might have been possible to follow the characters through these different potential fates without throwing a bad guy into the mix. However, these thoughts didn’t occur until well after the film was over. As I sat in that darkened theatre, all I could think of was how well I’d gotten to know- and like- these characters over the years. Most of all, I was grateful at getting the chance to spend a little more time with them. And in the end, it seems that Andy himself was grateful too.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Final thought: What’s the deal with Ken? Unless the story requires it, the Toy Story movies have generally kept mum on the origins of the toys. But I can’t help but wonder how Ken got to the point at which we meet him. After all, here’s a Ken doll who, by his own admission, has never met a Barbie before. And while that’s certainly not impossible, it doesn’t seem likely. For one thing, the Sunnyside day care seems to depend on donations for its supply of toys. Which makes me wonder what kind of kid would have a Ken doll with a dream house and a full closet full of clothes but no Barbie. Ken can protest all he wants that he’s “not a girls’ toy,” but let’s face it- have you ever known someone to have a Ken independently of Barbie? What is Ken if not Barbie’s ultimate accessory, a hunky himbo to be dressed up while providing Barbie a male companion, all the better to reinforce the marriage fantasy that’s drummed into little girls’ heads from the cradle?

… Sorry about that. But it does make you think a bit, I suppose. I mean, it’s not like Ken has forgotten. He’s not a Buzz Lightyear, whose memory can be wiped clear with the touch of a cleverly hidden button. A much more likely scenario is that Ken came into the world at Sunnyside. For most characters in the Toy Story universe, life begins when their boxes are opened. Look at the way Buzz sprang to life in the first film only after Andy has ripped the package open and stood him on the bed. Similarly, in TS2 New Buzz comes “out of hypersleep” once the original Buzz opened up his box in an attempt to steal his tool belt. So while Ken has no doubt been on a shelf next to Barbie at some point, he wouldn’t have been aware of it until the box was actually opened. Which leads me to believe that rather than being bought and taken home and played with as part of the Barbie world, he was given directly to Sunnyside, clothes and dream house and all, probably due to a toy store having to get rid of excess Ken stuff.

Of course, the Prospector complicates matters. If the story of Stinky Pete’s box never having been opened (at least, not from the outside) is true, then that shoots a hole in the box-opening theory right there and it’s back to the drawing board for me. Still, it’s possible that his box was opened at some point for some reason or other, especially if he’s been around and harboring seething resentments for space toys for nearly half a century. And besides, aside from The Velveteen Rabbit’s concept of Nursery Magic, can you think of a better explanation?

I know, I know- I’ve thought entirely too much about this issue. And normally, I’d say that I’ve done more thinking about it than the filmmakers have. But this is Pixar, where everything is planned and thought through, and somebody along the line must have thrown out the question of how exactly Ken could have gone through several decades (according to IMDb he’s a mid-eighties model) without having encountered a Barbie. Even if they don’t come out and explain it in the movie, I’m sure they didn’t throw the idea out there without thinking it through. And isn’t it a testament to how much fun the film is, and how well thought out the Toy Story world has been so far, that I’m entertaining these thoughts at all?

Now, to figure out what’s up with the Potato Heads. I mean, their parts can operate independently, and Mr. Potato Head is about to walk around by using, at various point, a flour tortilla and a cucumber for a body. Are they Voltron-esque beings who are able to combine autonomous components to create a greater whole? And what happens when their parts get mixed up, as they’re bound to be at some point, with Mr.’s arms and/or eyes ending up on Mrs., and vice versa? Hey, there’s a gag for Toy Story 4

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