Saturday, June 19, 2010

review: Toy Story 3

This review contains all kinds of SPOILERS. Read on at your own risk.

"Death by monkeys."
This is a good start. Woody and Buzz struggle against the forces of evil under the hand of Andy once again. There's an attack-dog with force-field, a force-field-dog eating dinosaur. We hear Randy Newman singing: "... our friendship will never die."
And then sudden silence, with only the word die still ringing in our ears. So Toy Story 3 sets the tone for what will be a darker story, though, of course, not without its moments of light.

The darkness envelops us immediately as we see the toys again for the first time. We recall the droves of toys of the first film as we're faced here with the dozen or so who are left--a terrible fact that Woody acknowledges quickly. These characters have lived into a new and very different age than that we have seen in the previous films. Andy is going to college, and most of his toys, their friends and loves, are long gone. Molly has grown up into a typical pre-/early teen, with her iPod and silly magazines. This isn't a particularly dark world, but for a community of old, dusty toys, it is a lonely place.
Woody is a light in this dark, as faithful as ever to Andy. There was a moment of real jubilation when you saw that Woody was going to go to college. But, of course, that light was counterbalanced by the darkness of the attic for our other heros. It all serves to create some really interesting dynamics between the toys for the rest of the film.
The villains are an interesting bunch. I loved the monkey. Ken is... well, not surprisingly, very shallow. But dynamic, which was a surprised. Lotso adds to the darkness. He isn't merely a bad kid or a greedy collector; he's a toy who was hurt and then turned his back on all companionship, all goodness. He's so corrupt as to spurn all gratitude. His minions turn out to be not so bad, at the film's end, but Lotso is actually a character beyond redemption. This fact is only lightened by the fact that's he's a teddy bear who smells of strawberries.

All of these converge to tell an engaging, layered story. Old familiar characters only make you want to listen more. And it's funny. Monkeys are well-handled throughout the film, which is, of course, the mark of good comedy. It is also, as my roommate noted afterwards, simply not a kid's film. Pixar's strength is that they make adult films in the trappings of kids' entertainment. Just because the characters are Mr. Potato Heads and action figures doesn't mean that this isn't a dramatic and thoughtful tale.

But the movie does have some weaknesses.
I don't think the writers knew what to do with Buzz in this one. His best moments in the film are all moments where we gets an out-of-character Buzz: factory default Buzz, Spanish Buzz. It's all good fun, but the familiar character is too-often absent, and when he does finally return to the screen, he's nearly written out again by the romance with Jesse. We just don't see much of Woody's pal, the brave and devoted former Space Ranger.
The deus ex machina near the film's end is rather overblown, in my mind. Just in the knick of time, just as the fire was approaching. I was almost expected to be roused from a dream sequence at that point: they had just written themselves into the peril too deep for any satisfactory resolution.
That situation was the culmination of what I found to be another hole wearing through the films knees by the end: it just didn't stop. Like a lot of action-adventure movies these days, Toy Story 3 couldn't really afford to slow down for a moment. Perhaps the closest we came to a breather was the dawning realization on our heros that death was eminent, that there was nothing to do now but hold hands and face it together--but even this moment was colored by the fire pit before them, the long flight that had just deposited them here, a flight that Woody, only seconds before had finally given up on. This wasn't so much a reflective pause as the momentarily slower plunge to death and a chance to bait the audience before another daring escape.
Now, Toy Story 3 certainly does not suffer from this particular illness to the extent that other adventure films do. There isn't a clear need in this film to have a constant array for explosions and running and sex and explosions, with no rest for the weary. But there were hints. The film-makers capitulated a bit. No longer do we get Woody and Buzz, sitting through a long, painful night, awaiting Sid's violence in the morning, reflecting on their lives and characters, changing before our very eyes.

All of this, however, is finally but a slight blemish on the face of a excellent film.
The last moments are more heart-wrenching than anything in the beginning of Up, and without any sort of manipulation of the film's part. We are witness to one of the most unique of life's painful and natural transitions. Andy knows it and we know it with him. And Bonnie, our new child, is wonderful. Pixar has created a little girl as cute as any you will encounter in life... which is something between impressive and creepy. She's precious, though, and you leave the film hurt but so, so happy for this deserving little child.

All in all, Toy Story 3 is probably far and away the best thing in theaters right now. And it will probably win the Oscar for best animated film next year. It's fun, moving, and just good. But, for me at least, it wasn't Toy Story. The second film I've only seen a time or two, and it's pretty dimly felt. Enjoyable, but not something I know. Toy Story, however, I know, and this third installment is not quite as charming, not quite as touching, and not so fresh (unavoidably so) as its progenitor. That is not to say, however, that Toy Story 3 isn't a worthy entry into a wonderful franchise. I cannot say 'thank you' enough to Pixar for giving us another delightful film that upholds the good name of the Story. Whatever it was lacking, this final episode has a distinctive power, and it gives us, one more time, just a few more hours with some old friends, and of those I'll take all that I can get.


danieldumas said...

Nice review. I felt like Spanish Buzz was kind of a gimmick the writers came up with during a meeting to get a few cheap laughs (which worked according to the amount of laughter from the woman behind me). I truly thought that Ken's character was one of the best new introductions to the series because he made most of the scenes light hearted and playful (as toys should be).

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

My review: Pixar hits another home run! And makes us all choke up at the end (again). So good.