This post contains spoilers.
With the release of the near-universally praised Toy Story 3, the latest offering from Pixar, has come the inevitable backlash from dissenters. Ignoring two of the most high profile reviewers, who just seem to be aiming their contrarian rhetoric at those of us misguided enough to provide their sites with more traffic, let me instead zero in on writer (and friend and reader of Cinema Viewfinder) Ryan Kelly's well argued piece at his blog Medfly Quarantine, which honestly seems motivated from a desire to be objective about this box office phenom. You should read it for yourself, of course, but the general gist can be found in the post's second paragraph, which reads:
All Pixar is wrought with compromise, and the latest installment in the Toy Story franchise is no different. What I find so frustrating about Pixar is that all their films contain hints of what they are capable of if they weren't forced to create art with hundreds of millions of people's expectations in mind, and if ever a film illustrated the folly of giving the people what they want (or what men in suits think they want), Toy Story 3 is it.Now while it'd be foolish to disagree with the premise here, that is that Pixar is often restricted by an adherence to formula, what is at issue is whether that is ultimately a bad thing. Sure, the final outcome of Toy Story 3 is never really a question. Anyone who would think a children's movie, a sequel in a beloved franchise owned by Disney, would ever kill off its main characters is not just idealistic. They're borderline delusional. And just to be clear, Kelly never really seems shocked that this didn't occur. He simply admits to fantasizing, What if it did? But I've never really been much for critiquing a film based on hypotheticals. I always endeavor to look at what is on the screen.
And what Toy Story 3 covers is fairly straightforward, following Woody (Tom Hanks) and the rest of the gang as they become separated while their owner Andy is packing up for his first semester at college. Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), and the others end up at Sunnyside Daycare Center where they are forced by the veteran toy residents to dwell in the room often occupied by the terrible two-year-olds. Meanwhile, Woody ends up in a young girl's home where he meets her happy toys. From there he resolves to help his friends commit a jailbreak, while contending with opposition from the daycare's "warden," Lotso Huggs Bear (Ned Beatty), and his band of bullies.
After their escape, there is an important scene which Kelly's piece hones in on, involving Woody, Buzz and the gang facing an apocalyptic end (foreshadowed in the film's opening setpiece) in an incinerator. This is the scene almost everyone on both sides of the argument singles out for high praise. Why? Because it addresses mortality, a theme rarely examined so directly in children's films except through characters in the periphery of the story, i.e. Bambi's mom, not Bambi himself; or the titular spider in Charlotte's Web (1973), who is actually a supporting character to the porcine protagonist, Wilbur. No, Toy Story 3 explores the end of life through its main characters.
The crux of the argument is whether Pixar holds back considerably by allowing the group of toys to survive certain doom. Kelly says:
... a literal Deus Ex Machina comes in to save the day, morphing the sequence from an examination of mortality and family into just another cheap thrill in literally the blink of an eye. Coming from someone who grew up with these films (I was 7 when the first came out), it's impossible to deny this sequence's effect, but it's devoid of any real consequence because it's not even a remote possibility that Pixar will kill the toys, even though that's probably the most fitting ending imaginable.For years, this has been one argument against pre-Seventies American films, which often were accused of compromising their artistic ambitions to satisfy the constraints of working under the studio system. For instance, the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) satisfied its box office aims by recasting the central role of Blanche Dubois, played so effectively by Jessica Tandy on Broadway, with the more popular Vivien Leigh who was accused of being too glamorous for the part because Tandy had less drawing power. Hitchcock had to avoid nudity and gore in the shower slashing sequence in Psycho (1960), because of the era's censorship restrictions. But as one knows from these examples and many others, restrictions can challenge artists to find innovative ways to tell their story.
Toy Story 3 succeeds in this regard because it fulfills its primary aim of being a children's movie, while secondarily imparting its resonant themes of mortality on a subtextual level. In fact, upon rexamination, the open-ended conclusion of the film bears a strong resemblance to the misunderstood ending of Spielberg's A.I.- Artificial Intelligence (2001), promising a somewhat darker outcome than mere death for the film's toys. Freeing themselves from Sunnyside, Woody finds a way for all of them to end up at the young girl's house, where presumably they will go through the same cycle of ownership they did with Andy. That is to say, in a decade or so, when she outgrows her use for them, won't they go through all of this again with the possibility of their destruction being even more likely? In it's bittersweet way, isn't Toy Story 3 sweetly (and subtly) arguing that its characters have only delayed the inevitable?