30 July 2010

Pixar’s ‘Toy Story 3’

Death be not plastic: The anxiety begins.

In life, the process of maturation, a theme that runs through most Pixar movies, leads inexorably to death, a phenomenon that’s concerned some of these films, too, most notably Finding Nemo, in which the hero’s mother and all his siblings are killed in the first five minutes of the picture. Yet somehow, despite the Toy Story movies’ frequent suggestions that the toys’ owner, young Andy, would some day grow up, and throughout the narrow escapes that Woody and his friends enacted, I hadn’t really contemplated the mortality of these particular characters. They seemed more concerned with friendship — and love — than with death; the worst fate they ever risked, it seemed, was getting sent to a museum, where no child like Andy would play with them anymore.*

But even in a successful movie franchise, toys aren’t merely outgrown. They get worn and thrown out with the trash, or forgotten and left behind. They break and are destroyed. Just like people. And the toys in Toy Story have always been more real than any of the humans around them. So I shouldn’t have been surprised that, in this final installment of the trilogy, the question of mortality would loom large and very real, beginning in the opening scenes.

Just as Finding Nemo discouraged a generation of kids from flushing unwanted fish down the toilet, so Toy Story 3 may launch a boom in donations of used toys to needy children.

In that wonderful sequence, we see what Andy imagines as he plays, including a trainload of orphans speeding over a cliff, and a dazzling “death by monkeys.” Flash-forward to the next scene, eleven years later, when college-bound Andy has parted with most of his old toys: the gang is reduced to a handful of survivors, and the Potato Heads espe­cial­ly are worse for the wear.

Death hovers over the rest of the movie (which we are conscious is the last in the series), and the threat culminates in a stunning climax in a junkyard. The minute the gang arrives, three characters are run over by a truck — bam, they’re gone. The rest manage another series of spec­tacular escapes, until they realize that this time, there’s no way out.

Playtime is over.

The folks who make Pixar movies typically earn the emotional points they score; that, as much as the technical assurance and wit they bring to each project, is what sets them apart from the vast majority of popular entertainments today. So when Woody and his friends confront death, the moment is profound and powerful. The courage shown by the characters is matched (at least) by that of the filmmakers, who prolong the scene past the point of suspense, until a strangely peaceful accept­ance falls over us all. You find yourself thinking, “I hope I go like that: with dignity and a last gesture of affection, a sense that I have not been alone.”

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but in thinking about that scene, I remember the death of Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I wasn’t a hardcore Spock fan (McCoy was my hero), but the scene tapped into a deep well of feeling, the accumulation of years of following these characters, being entertained and sometimes enlightened by them, playing with their toys and dreaming up new adventures for them. And suddenly the Enterprise looked more like real life than fantasy: with Spock’s death, we understood that the “five-year mission” was really a part of our personal journey, too.

You’ve got a friend in me.

The original Star Trek TV series had been off the air for 13 years when that movie was made; Toy Story 3 arrived in theaters 15 years after the first Toy Story had its premiere. Its first audiences were even younger than I was when I discovered Star Trek; they have grown up with Woody and Buzz, and they are at least as invested in their fates as I was in Kirk and Spock’s. I expect that that scene in the junkyard in Toy Story 3 is going to speak to at least a couple of generations of movie­goers with the same kind of force. As was the case with its predeces­sors, Toy Story 3 signals from the outset that it’s a classic.

First-graders may not know a pasodoble from Play-Doh,
but “Buzz Español” is funny, no matter how old you are.

Another way that the Toy Story movies have differed from most other recent “family films” is that, when playing to the grownups in the audience, they don’t wink (much) or talk over the children’s heads (often). The movies aren’t snarky: they’re witty. The jokes are solidly constructed, grounded in character and emotionally honest. Even the material targeted to children feels real and (usually) important. It’s no accident that most of the Toy Story characters sport retro designs: adults remember playing with toys that looked like these. If you’re the right age, when you first saw Buzz Lightyear, you thought of a sort of deluxe Major Matt Mason** — a toy that hasn’t been made since the 1970s, long before today’s kids were born. Thus our nostalgic emotions have been engaged from the start; the excellence of the writing and the filmmaking do the rest.

This is perhaps an overlong justification for the tears that filled my eyes a couple of times in the course of watching Toy Story 3, another popular entertainment that aspires to a higher kind of art. I celebrate its creators’ achievement, and I urge you to see the movie. (That is, if you haven’t seen it already.)

Prelude to a holocaust: Arriving at the prison camp.

*NOTE: The other dire fate faced by our heroes would be a trip next-door, where a child like Sid would play with them. Reportedly, Sid makes a return appearance as a garbage man in Toy Story 3, but I honestly didn’t recognize him. Another excuse to see the picture again!

**According to that irrefutable source, Wikipedia, Tom Hanks is a Matt Mason fan since his own boyhood, who hopes to make a movie about the character.

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