It’s been such a disappointing movie year so far, seemingly all sequels and reboots and remakes and even ostensibly original stories with no originality, no heart, no soul, no class, no distinction, no nuthin’. And so it seemed like a good thing not to get one’s hopes up too much for Toy Story 3, because how long can Pixar’s streak of genius and spirit and wonder last? I’d like to think forever, of course. But could they pull it off not once, not twice, but three times with the contents of Andy’s toybox, even after the lovely, trenchant brilliance of such films as Up, Wall-E, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles? Because, too, the disillusionment of Cars is forever in the back of my mind, a reminder that even Pixar isn’t perfect.
And, you know, I hate to say it, but there is a little niggling feeling humming around the periphery of Toy Story 3 that we’ve encountered more than a few of these situations before. (Buzz thinks he’s a real space ranger? Really? Again? Yeah, it’s still funny, but… really?) The journey home to Andy after a disastrous separation has been the center now of all three of the films, and I forgive myself for wondering, early on in this latest outing, whether there would be an actually necessary reason for, basically, covering the same ground. Again.
There is a good reason. And it’s the best reason: it’s the reason that thematically ties the entire series together into one larger story, that makes this not merely another episode in The Adventures Of, but the third act, the finale that brings the overarching story to its satisfying conclusion. It’s the conclusion that I felt was required but feared would not be approached, because it seems, for quite a good while here, that it won’t be.
I won’t tell you what that conclusion is, but you probably already feel it in your heart, if the first two Toy Story movies touched you in any meaningful way. What’s happening here is that Andy’s toys, still led by Sheriff Woody (the voice of Tom Hanks: Angels & Demons, The Great Buck Howard) and Buzz Lightyear (the voice of Tim Allen: Redbelt, Wild Hogs), are facing their greatest crisis ever, as the now 17-year-old Andy prepares to depart for college and must clear out his room before he goes. He hasn’t played with the toys in years, which was bad enough, but now the toys are in a paroxysm of uncertainty: will Andy throw them in the garbage? dump them in the attic (which sounds awful, but at least there’s still a possibility that someday, Andy’s own kids might play with them)? or donate them to Sunnyside Day Care?
Sunnyside it is, but for reasons I’ll leave you to discover, Woody is convinced he must get home to Andy (again). So off he goes on an adventure of his own, during which he meets some wonderful new toys and a wonderful new child, the very young Bonnie (the voice of Emily Hahn), whose imagination is at least a match for the young Andy’s… which means being played with by her is a pleasure for toys, and an agreeable detour for Woody. It’s with the Bonnie subplot that Toy Story 3 is at its most charming, its most poignant: it’s a reminder that Woody and Buzz and the rest come alive because of a child’s love and a child’s fantasy. And it’s here that we meet a cadre of new toy-characters that freshly embody that toyish soul, and particularly through the stuffed hedgehog Mr. Pricklepants (the voice of Timothy Dalton: Doctor Who, Hot Fuzz), who has a radically different take on toyishness. This sequence makes the opening gambit, a fantasy playtime starring all of Andy’s toys, achingly bittersweet in retrospect: I roared with laughter at how its bizarre unpredictability so ticklishly captures the freedom of a child’s mind (and so wonderfully counters the dull predictability of how adults often tell stories), but it’s only once that opening sequence if finished that we realize that it’s sort of a flashback. It’s not the kind of play that Andy indulges in anymore, and it’s exactly what his toys have been missing so desperately.
Back at Sunnyside, the rest of the gang are settling in and looking forward to rediscovering precisely that same sort of joy in the hands of new kids who will love them. When Rex (the voice of Wallace Shawn: Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, Happily N’Ever After) burbles, “Oh, I wanna get played with!” my heart near to broke. But things at Sunnyside are not what they seem, however: leader Lotso (the voice of Ned Beatty: Charlie Wilson’s War), a purple teddy bear who smells of strawberries, is not the kindly patriarch he comes across as at first. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the situation at Sunnyside allows the Pixar team to send up genres of film they haven’t touch on in the previous films, including the prison-break, in absolutely delightful fashion that is both wise about a grownup’s love of cinema and smart about how it imbues the children’s playthings at its center with more humanity than most of the other movies this year that feature live-action humans.
Sometimes — not often, but sometimes — there are good creative reasons for sequels, good storytelling reasons. Pixar-vet screenwriters Lee Unkrich (who also directed), John Lasseter, and Andrew Stanton — joined by Little Miss Sunshine’s Michael Arndt, whom I bet was responsible for some of the surprising but totally appropriate bleakness here — find all those good reasons, and put them to use in a way that gets to an ending that it’s even better than I hoped it would be, and far more touching than I was expecting, even given Pixar’s track record. (Did I say “touching”? I bawled my eyes out.) That said, though, I hope the Pixar guys take a cue from their own story here and let it go. The Toy Story movies were a glorious era of cinema, but that moment has passed, has been taken to a perfect conclusion. Let it stay perfect by leaving it be after this.
Oscars Best Animated Feature 2010