In most corners of filmdom, a blockbuster hit followed by a blockbuster sequel leads to an inevitable conclusion: There WILL be a second sequel.
“‘Brand X’ companies will push some third film out in a series just to see how much money they can make and they won’t pay much attention to their script,” says actor John Ratzenberger. “But Pixar never does that.”
Pixar, as the actor and pretty much anybody who watches animated films knows, isn’t just any Hollywood studio. And the fact that “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” were hits didn’t guarantee that they’d try to further cash in on the film franchise that launched the studio. It was too important, says director Lee Unkrich, who co-directed “Toy Story 2,” “Finding Nemo” and “Monsters, Inc.” “These aren’t characters. They’re real, to us. They’re family.”
So before Unkrich, 42, would agree to helm a third “Toy Story” film, he did some soul searching and some film searching.
“I looked long and hard at third films in series to see if there were any good ones that I could learn from. And there weren’t any that hadn’t just gone off the train tracks by their third film. UNTIL that is, I got to the third ‘Lord of the Rings’ film.
“I thought, ‘That’s not fair. That’s part of a longer story, the conclusion to a trilogy.’
“And I had an epiphany. ‘That’s how we need to think of “Toy Story 3,” as the concluding part of a trilogy, a piece of a larger story.’ Once we settled on that, it came together.”
Unkrich and his Pixar team took four years to bring the third and final chapter in the “Toy Story” saga to the screen, 15 years after “Toy Story” made Pixar a brand name in feature animation and 11 years after “Toy Story 2.” That distance, Unkrich says, let them get away with the film’s boldest touches, in story and in tone.
“We made fundamental decisions — to set the film at a time when the little boy who owns the toys, Andy, is going off to college. He’s outgrown the toys.”
That took the story, says Unkrich who’s one of the writers credited on the script, into those abandonment issues only hinted at in “Toy Story 2.”
“Try to think of what the worst fear of a toy might be. That led us to creating a situation that put the toys in that ultimate peril. Toys often get lost, and then can be found. They get broken, but they can be fixed. But if the child that loved you has outgrown you, you’re thrown away. A toy faced with that ultimate option is going to take his life into his own hands. That drove our story.”
In the third film, in 3-D and in theaters Friday, the toys are faced with storage in the attic for eternity, donation to a daycare center or a trip to the landfill. They opt for daycare and soon rue that decision.
“It is shocking how much a daycare center is like a prison,” Unkrich says, laughing at the film’s central conceit. “They both have security cameras, with walled exercise yards. Prisons are permanent daycares for people permanently in time-out — convicts.”
He watched “every prison-escape movie ever made, American and foreign” and made sure to work “The Great Escape” and “Cool Hand Luke” jokes into the finished film. But in wrapping up the trilogy, he wanted “this story to not pull its punches,” to stare into the oblivion that faces human and toy alike. It makes for some of the most intense and emotional moments ever to grace a Pixar film.
“I was stunned, in tears,” says veteran Disney voice actress Jodi Benson, Barbie in “Toy Story 3.”
“Very intense and I’m not ashamed to say, I got a little moist in the eyes, too,” says Ratzenberger, Hamm the piggybank in these films and a veteran of every Pixar movie ever made. “You don’t know, recording your bits of dialog, how these things will turn out. But this one really had me on the edge of my seat.”
“Sophisticated,” Variety adds. “Emotionally satisfying,” echoes The Hollywood Reporter.
Unkrich’s “Monsters, Inc.” toyed with the idea of childhood fears, and his “Finding Nemo” wasn’t shy about throwing a couple of real scares into the mix. He’s unapologetic about upping the emotional ante for this, the final “Toy Story” movie ever.
“I don’t think of it as dark. But the film does get emotionally intense. Parents are going to walk away from this film with a very different experience than that of the kids who are sitting with them in the theater. When you go to the movies, you should feel something. That’s what we were going for here.”
And if we’re all more than a little sad to be saying goodbye to Woody, Buzz, Hamm and the rest, “that just means we did our jobs,” Unkrich says.