Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: Toy Story 3

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Movie Review: Toy Story 3

by Tony Dayoub


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?

11 comments:

kenjfuj said...

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?

It's this realization, actually, that kinda puts me more in Ryan's camp on Toy Story 3 than yours (though I don't have the same suspicion of Pixar in general that Ryan seem to have—I was, one or two reservations notwithstanding, a big fan of Up, for instance). Yes, the toys have absolutely delayed the inevitable...but the filmmakers don't want its audience to think too much about that; they want to send them out on a high note, and I think the tone fully reflects that. In other words, the filmmakers go for the safer route of uplifting its audience rather than daring to unsettle them with this knowledge. It makes me wonder if even the filmmakers understood the bittersweet implications of its ending at all.

There are other small touches in the film that, to my mind, suggest a deliberate softening of a potentially disturbing vision to something more comfortable...but, as you say, Tony, I do concede that this might all be more a case of me wishing the movie was something that it ultimately isn't. Which is fair. I can't deny, though, that such concerns don't nag at me about the film and slightly devalue the whole in my mind.

My hats off to you both, though, for two great pieces of writing!

Ryan Kelly said...

This is great, my friend, and thank you for engaging with my arguments so thoughtfully. And I did indeed try to weigh the film carefully. I didn't hate it by any means, but I found it banal and boring in a lot of stretches, honestly.

For the record, I certainly try to apply your philosophy of "not critiquing based on hypotheticals", but I find that damn near impossible with Pixar because it feels like they can never follow through with their convictions, or what I interpret their convictions as, to put it more diplomatically. I think Ed Howard put it beautifully in his comment on my review over at my place:

I'm always frustrated by the hints of better, more fully realized movies that lurk within each Pixar film, sabotaged by the need to pander, to dilute the seriousness with silliness, to avoid anything too challenging.

And one fascinating point you bring up is comparing the ending of this movie to the ending of Artificial Intelligence. As you may (probably) know that's a favorite of mine, and you certainly have my reconsidering my opinion, though I still feel that, at the very most, Pixar is trying to have it both ways. One thing I've always maintained about A.I's ending is that, regardless of how Spielberg presents it, the film is depicting a future where humans are extinct and a computer is the closest thing to humanity. Your reading of the ending of Toy Story 3 isn't necessarily implicit in the material in the same way it is in the ending of A.I. (not to imply it's invalid in any way).

Again, great stuff, Tony. I'm honored to be an element of the discourse. See, us movie-philes can disagree respectfully!

Greg said...

I can't believe you gave that fraud Ryan Kelly the time of day.

Ryan Kelly said...

This, after you begged me to update!

Tony Dayoub said...

Kenji, welcome to the site. Your comment that "[t]here are other small touches in the film that, to my mind, suggest a deliberate softening of a potentially disturbing vision to something more comfortable" supports what I'm arguing, that Pixar is aware of the dark implications but camouflage it within the uplifting Disney aesthetic.

Now, I will concede this is not a case where they are being forced to make a different movie than what they intended. They simply know the business realities and push the envelope as much as they can within the formula they work under.

Ryan, thanks for agreeing to disagree.

Greg, I was only doing my best to expose him for the fraud he really is. Don't I get some points for that?

Sam Juliano said...

There isn't a minute of banality in this film, and it engages the heart as comprehensively as any other Pixar. For anyone to muster up the kind of deep affection for plastic toys that is at the center of this trilogy finale, well that's the most profound accomplishment here. After experiencing this film twice within the same week in 2D and 3D, I can sit with 98% of the professional critics here without the slightest guilt.

They have it called right, and frankly Tony, so do you, especially when you pose this:

"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."

Why are the Pixar films always chosen for the young bloggers to 'strut their stuff' as discerning critics? Can't we find something else than always ragging on these supreme animation masterpieces that unfailingly engage the mind, artististic sensibilities and emotions on the highest level?

kenjfuj said...

To Sam Juliano:

Dude. "Strut their stuff"? You make it sound as if people like Ryan Kelly who may actually hold an opinion on Pixar films that diverges from majority opinion is just saying so to show off, or hell, maybe just for the sake of getting a rise out of people. Which I sincerely doubt is the case here. So what if he wasn't as moved by Toy Story 3 and other Pixar films as you were? Surely he's allowed, isn't he?

Sam Juliano said...

Geez, kenjfuj: I expected someone would be coming back here. I responded to Ryan at his place. I was NOT referring to him, but at a general critical fraternity that has originally predicted would be opposing the overwhelming majority, who have embraced this film in a spectacular way.

Yes, Ryan is surely entitled to like this film less than others, as you are. Similarly I am also entitled to come here, spurred by intense passion to tell Mr. Dayoub how right he is.

Fair enough?

kenjfuj said...

Yes, of course, Sam, but I'm pretty sure I never implied that you weren't allowed to express your opinion. I have my own issues with Toy Story 3, as the comment starting this thread suggests, and as I expressed on my own blog, but it has nothing to do with merely going against popular opinion, just for the sake of being different. That's what your choice of words re: dissenters "struttign their stuff" suggested to me, and that's what I objected to. That is all. Sorry if I misinterpreted you.

Sam Juliano said...

Kenjfuj:

Fair enough my friend. As I stated elsewhere I was admittedly defensive (and I always get initially when I really love a film) but I wasn't singling out Ryan - who is a very fine young man - but a perceived devil's advocate positioning as a result of the stellar reviews. But all is well here I'm sure.

Movie Mole said...

Great review of a great movie. I was really impressed with what Pixar did with this movie. The third part of a trilogy is always a tough one because so many eyes are on it ready to pounce if it isn't good. Props to Pixar as they once again delivered. Great blog.