Monday, June 21, 2010

Movie Review: Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 ****
Directed by:
Lee Unkrich.
Written By: Michael Arndt & John Lasseter & Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich.
Starring: Tom Hanks (Woody), Tim Allen (Buzz Lightyear), Joan Cusack (Jessie), Ned Beatty (Lotso), Don Rickles (Mr. Potato Head), Michael Keaton (Ken), Wallace Shawn (Rex), John Ratzenberger (Hamm), Estelle Harris (Mrs. Potato Head), John Morris (Andy), Jodi Benson (Barbie), Emily Hahn (Bonnie), Laurie Metcalf (Andy's Mom), Blake Clark (Slinky Dog), Javier Fernandez Pena (Spanish Buzz), Timothy Dalton (Mr. Pricklepants), Jeff Garlin (Buttercup), Bonnie Hunt (Dolly), Jeff Pidgeon (Aliens), Whoopi Goldberg (Stretch), Richard Kind (Bookworm).

I think the reason why most sequels fail to live up to the movies that came before them is that most filmmakers are lazy. They do not try anything new in the sequels – they simply recycle what worked in the first movie, add a new character or two, and throw the result onto the screen. Iron Man 2 is a perfect example of this. Yes, it is a fine movie and an entertaining one, but it lacks the freshness of the first movie – we are no longer surprised by how good Robert Downey Jr. is as Tony Stark, and as such the movie has a slightly warmed over feel to it. The best sequels in history – like The Godfather Part II – takes characters that we know and love, but push them farther into unknown territory. The Godfather Part II would not be as good as it is if Michael had simply become a clone of his father – something most filmmaker would have done. Because Coppola and company pushed his story further, into unchartered territory, the movie is a masterpiece.

The same thing can be said about Pixar’s Toy Story 3. This is not a lazy sequel that simply repeats what happened in the first two installments. This is a film that moves the characters we have grown to love in the past 15 years, and pushes them forward, into much darker terrain. As a result, Toy Story 3 immediately joins the ranks of the best sequels ever made – and perhaps the best final installment of a trilogy I have ever seen. If that sounds like hyperbole, think back to all the third installments in a series’ history and tell me if any of them can match this one. I don’t think there is one.

In this film, Andy is about to head off to college at the end of the week. His once beloved toys are stuck in a toy box in his room that he never goes into. They haven’t been played with in years – and their numbers are dwindling thanks to various yard sales in the intervening years. His little sister, who has also outgrown toys for the most part, will be moving into his room and his mom tells him that he has to either pack everything for college, put them in boxes in the attic, or thrown them out altogether. He decides to put the few toys he has left up in the attic – with the exception of Woody, his beloved cowboy action figure given to him by his father. He will go to college with Andy, most likely to sit on a shelf and be ignored. The toys aren’t happy about going to the attic, but they have resigned themselves to the inevitability that it will happen. And perhaps one day, Andy will have kids and they’ll be played with again.

But then things go wrong, and instead of the attic, the toys end up being donated to a daycare – with Woody in tow as well. When they arrive, they are greeted by a big, purple teddy bear named Lotso Hugs (voice of Ned Beatty), who tells them that they will love it there. They get played with all day every day – everything a toy could want. And best of all, when these kids grow up and move on, another group takes their place. Woody wants to head back to Andy’s, but the rest of the toys don’t relish the idea of going to the attic and staying there for years on end, and decide to stay. Woody gets out, but ends up somewhere else with another group of toys – toys who know the truth about the daycare center, and just how much danger Woody’s friends are in.

I won’t reveal more of the plot, except to say that Lotso is perhaps the most evil teddy bear in history, and that as the film moves along, it actually takes on some rather serious issues. The toys are in essence a family, and at first they have to deal with being abandoned by a loved one, and eventually they even have to face death head on. While I don’t agree with the critic who thought the entire movie was an allegory about the Holocaust, I at least understand why they thought so. The film gets dark and intense in its final act – much darker than either of the two previous stories, and perhaps darker than any previous Pixar entry. Based on the cheers of joy coming from all the kids in the theater when I saw it however, I don’t think kids, except for the smallest ones, are going to be that effected by the movie’s serious themes though – to them it will be another exciting adventure with their favorite toys. Their parents however maybe surprised by how much they care for these toys. For the third summer in a row – following Wall-E in 2008 and Up in 2009, Pixar has succeeded is making me cry at a movie aimed at children.

Please don’t make the mistake in thinking that Pixar has somehow gone completely dark in this third installment. This one is still just as funny and charming as the original two movies were. Tom Hanks is still perfect as Woody – in fact, I would say that Woody has become perhaps the best role of Hanks’ career – Tim Allen is still gloriously clueless as Buzz Lightyear, and the rest of the series regular lovabale characters – mu favorites always being Wallace Shawn’s insecure T-Rex, and John Ratzenberger’s cynical piggy bank Hamm – are still a joy. The new characters are all a welcome addition. I quite enjoyed Timothy Dalton as Mr. Pricklepants, a stuffed porcupine that is what I would call a “Method Toy”, who takes his job as seriously as Robert DeNiro. Michael Keaton is easily the most fun of the new characters as Ken, who takes an immediate shine to Barbie, and is glad that finally someone at the daycare cares about fashion. But far and away the best is Ned Beatty as Lotso. Beatty has quite a range in his voice, coming across at first like a genial old grandfather type – kind and thoughtful. But when you cross him, he gets an edge in his voice and he becomes downright scary. As good as the villains in the first two movies were – especially Kelsey Grammar as Prospector Pete in the second movie – Beatty outdoes them both and becomes the series’ best villain.

I have to admit that when I heard that Pixar was making Toy Story 3 this year, I was a little disappointed (especially because next year’s Pixar movies is Cars 2). They have hit at a consistently high level almost all decade – the lone exception being Cars, which would be a triumph for any other animation studio, but for Pixar was a little disappointing. After the triumphs of originality that were Wall-E and Up in the past two years, I wanted them to continue to push forward with new movies, and new characters. But I should have known better than to doubt them. Pixar has been the most consistent creative force in American movies for the past 15 years. The key to their success is that they spend as much as time writing their stories as they do at making the movies themselves. The films still look better than any other animation studio in the world – and that is true in 3-D this time, which for my money is the best use of 3-D in an animated film since Coraline – but what makes them special is how seriously they take their movies, how much trust they put into children to follow them to darker, more troubling places that most studios wouldn’t dream of pushing them into. Toy Story 3 is a sequel, but it is just as original as anything Pixar has done in the few years – and just as brilliant. This is quite simply one of the best films of the year.

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