Monday, July 5, 2010

Toy Story 3: It Ain't No Shrek the Third

And Thank God for that. Join me if you will, for a trip down Memory Lane, and an exploration of all things toy. The first Toy Story movie came out in November 1995--fifteen years ago. I was twelve at the time. And I remember being more than a little suspicious of the film at the time. I was just old enough that the subject matter could be experienced in three parts: one part nostalgia, one part "just kid stuff" scoffing, and one part pure enjoyment, because I was still a bit of a kid myself.

But the movie carried a little bit of a stigma, because it was clearly borrowing--if not outright stealing--more than a few plot pages from one of my favorite childhood films, the 1986 Jim Henson film "Christmas Toy." Though I'm sure you all recall, the plot of the latter film is that it's Christmas Eve, and the current favorite toy Rugby the Tiger experiences some existential doubt when he realizes that he's about to be replaced by the new favorite, Meteora, Queen of the Asteroids. So he hides in Meteora's box while Meteora runs rampant, convinced that she is not a toy at all, but a person beset by aliens. There's a more than passing resemblance to Toy Story here, particularly in the original Woody/Buzz dynamic. Toy Story even borrows the "toys freeze in the presence of people" motif, although in the original, it had a more sinister twist: any toy seen moving freezes forever, which as I recall added a lot of suspense to the proceedings.

Thus, I went into the theater with assuming that this would be a rip-off of the other material, replacing classic puppetry with new-fangled computer graphics (I was a very jaded twelve year old.). But the show won me over. Of course it did. With the great acting, the wonderful set pieces like the attempts to get Woody back into the moving van, and the excellent writing that managed the balance between "grown-up" and "kid"--well, what else could I do? Even the Randy Newman songs fit perfectly (though I'm glad they decided to reduce their frequency in later incarnations). Generously, I allowed that there were room for two toy-based films in my personal canon.

Fast forward to Toy Story 2 in 1999. This time, I distinctly remember that going to the film was a family affair--albeit a family composed of two adults, a 17 year old, a fourteen year old, and an eleven year old. We are, in other words, a little past the ideal demographic for the film. But the best thing about the Toy Story franchise--something that puts it head and shoulders above the competition of Shrek, Ice Age, and Madagascar--is that it's always recognized that it caters to multiple age groups. The second movie takes this to extremes, with an extended homage to The Empire Strikes Back, delivered by Emperor Zurg. The core story also has a pretty deep moral choice at its heart, something shared by the other two. In the first, in the first movie, it's Woody's pride versus his love of his owner, and in the third... well, we'll get to it soon. Here in the second, the choice is between returning to Andy's care, knowing full well that Andy's days of playing with toys are nearly over, or staying on display forever in a toy museum, forever viewed, but never again loved. That's another thing I think Toy Story has over its cartoon brethren, something that Pixar in general realized a long time ago: being a kid's movie doesn't mean being a stupid movie. Kids live in the real world, and they can handle movies with themes beyond "and then we were all a family." The Toy Story series has always contained just enough of that beyond to keep things interesting.

I think it's important to note that Toy Story 2 is also one of the rarest Hollywood feats: it's a good sequel. Movie sequels are hard. In comedies, there's the problem of relying on the original too much; since the character plots wrapped up earlier, there's nothing for them to do, so they stand around delivering call-backs to previous films--see the American Pie series. Or in adventure/action movies, there's a need to drive up the stakes, to introduce more and more characters, to make the sequels seem better through sheer accretion of plot--see X-Men 3 and Spider-Man 3. Toy Story 2 does have its callbacks and its new characters, but they never seem excessive, and never detrimental to the story at hand. And adding Wayne Knight and Kelsey Grammer as villains doesn't hurt.

So now, 2010, we have Toy Story 3. I think the distance between the second and third films doesn't hurt the franchise--yes, it means that if you enjoyed the second as a child, you're at least a teenager now, but the series has always been about nostalgia anyway, so a revisiting every few years is appropriate. It also means they can't rely as much on callback gags, and aside from references to Buzz getting "reprogrammed" again--he spends a portion of the movie reset to his Spanish settings--and the triple aliens' obsession with claws, what we mostly get is fresh situations and humor. The plot, if you don't mind the minor (actually, major) spoilers--is that Andy, the toys' owner, is going to college, and he's decided to consign his remaining toys to the attic, except for Woody, whom he wants to take with him to college, creating an immediate schism. Through a series of mishaps, the toys get taken to a daycare center, where they meet Ken, Big Baby, and the daycare leader, Lotso Hugs, a giant teddy bear. Lotso is voiced by Ned Beatty, perhaps best known for his roles in Homicide: Life on the Streets, and Deliverance.

If you think these credits are a bit at odds with a hugsy persona, you'd be right. Embittered by his abandonment at the hands of a former owner, Lotso runs the daycare with an iron plush fist, consigning new toys to the toddler room, and a short life of brutality. What follows is one of the greatest genre mish-mashes I've ever seen as the toys plan a jail break. Again though, at its core, the Toy Story franchise is about real choices, and this time, it's not just Woody making them. Granted, the cowboy has to choose between his friends and his owner, but in one of the more moving moments of the film, Andy also makes a choice regarding the future of his most beloved toys.

One of the books I've read recently include a 90s anthology on design approaches: Discovering Design by Victor Margolin and Richard Buchanan. While the essays range wildly from overly idealistic to outright patronizing, one theme that arises continuously is the importance of designing in such a manner that we encourage consumers to preserve, bond with, and take of their products. In a world of plastic packaging and disposable material, it's an easy message to forget, especially when we've got an economy based on picking up the next new thing. In the third movie, this discussion is front and center, as we are visually presented the consequences of donating second-hand toys and throwing them away. But I'd argue that the Toy Story movies have always been about this sort of conservation. Simply by imagining our toys as more human, we become less likely to toss them out out of hand. Admittedly, there's a danger in ascribing human traits to objects definitely not human. It comes out a lot more with animals: if we think of everything as human, we're basically imposing our stamp on everything that exists, whether it warrants it or not (see also: Genesis 2:20, where Adam names the animals). But I think that's infinitely better than insisting that the environment around us is infinitely disposable and amenable to our will. Granted, there's a definite consumer purchasing blitz behind the Toy Story movies--franchises exist to promote products, and toy franchises exist to sell toys. But the movies themselves deliver a message that, I think, is a little more.
Or, to put it a different way, it still beats the message of the original Shrek movie: it's okay to be different. Unless you're short.

Update: if you'd like a point of view that's a little less gushing sentiment, this blog has some potential objections to the film.

Later Days.

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