Toy Story 3 (Blu-ray)
Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Don Rickles, Michael Keaton, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Estelle Harris
(Disney/Pixar; US DVD: 2 Nov 2010 (General release); UK DVD: 2 Nov 2010 (General release))
They are sacred to us. They function as both a link to the best part of our lives as well as a lasting reminder of often troubled or testing times. They are special and still so fragile, sometimes slipping away when we least expect or want them to. Memories are like that - integral and yet ephemeral, defining and yet indefinite in how long they linger. These small mental pictures, these signposts to personal landmarks are important to who we are, illustrative of the main changes and choices we’ve made. Perhaps that’s why audiences have responded to Pixar’s perfect Toy Story trilogy so strongly. Not only are these wildly entertaining family films crafted with the very best of aesthetic and technological acumen, but they represent how crucial memories are, and reluctant we are to let them go.
In the various playthings that make up the Toy Story character arc (with the massively successful third installment hitting video shelves today) - from old fashioned cowboy Woody to future friend Buzz Lightyear, the silly dinosaur Rex to the cynical Mr. Potato Head - we see all aspects of that most formative of times: childhood. From the endless adventures of a man in space to the more grounded delights of forging a new West frontier, the wonders in Andy’s room signal the infinite possibilities in youth, the greatest of loves and the hugest of losses. As the series progressed, we are introduced to the angry and bitter Jessie (whose story of abandonment centers Part 2) and the equally sour Day Care dictator Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear (Part 3’s potent villain), characters who highlight the pain of forgetting, of moving on without bringing along your most prized of possessions - metaphysically and pragmatically.
This may explain why the Toy Story films resonate so profoundly with its fanbase. Sure, there is no denying the aggressive allure of the eye candy aspect to each of the releases, a jaw-dropping level of imagination and artistry that few in the filmmaking genre can match, and it’s hard to deny the voice work, clever casting bringing otherwise recognizable kiddie icons to life. But there is clearly more to the Toy Story mythos than CG slapstick or well-timed celebrity joking. No, the main reason for their effectiveness is how closely connected these trademarked symbols (or fictional versions thereof) are to the universal experience of growing up. In Part 2, a collector sees dollar signs in a complete set of Woody’s Roundup gang. But the truth is that he can only cash in because someone, somewhere, loves their memories of these characters so much that they are willing to pay for the privilege of experiencing same again.
This is why Toy Story 3 became the most successful animated film of all time this past Summer. The story, centering on Andy going to college and final fate of his beloved chotchkies is like the moment when you realize that the glorious freedom of being a kid is all but fleeting, that the time to grow up is just around the corner and, sadly, there’s no place for ALL of your belongings. The notion of stashing away your toys in the attic is the notion of letting go, of closing the book on one of life’s chapters in preparation for opening the next.
By taking the characters to a detention-like day care, with a preferential pecking order and punishment for stepping out of line, Toy Story 3 suggests that, indeed, there is no going back. In fact, in what is perhaps the single greatest moment in any animated film ever, our heroic figurines are willing to sacrifice themselves as long as they know that they will all go together, not strung along piecemeal for the rest of their value and worth (whatever that is now).
It is indeed a magical moment in a brilliant triptych. As with many well-plotted action sequences, the last minute getaway from Lots-O’-Huggin and his cronies seems less and less likely. Trapped in a junkyard incinerator destined to destroy them, Woody flails about manically, trying to uncover the possible exit. The rest of his companions, however, are less certain. They see a writing on the wall that the entire trilogy has hinted at from the first glimpses of Andy’s bedroom. As the run through the rest of their time as part of their owner’s amusement, as they see the inevitable before them, they all realize the hopelessness of their cause and commit an act so selfless, so instinctual of what we’ve felt for these characters, that it stops your heart beat, if only for a moment.
Amid the fire and smoke…they begin to hold hands.
First Buzz and Jessie (if only accidentally), then Bullseye the horse and the Potato Heads. Eventually, faces serene if still slightly afraid, they look to their ersatz leader, Woody, for the final link in their chain of fate. Seeing their reaction, their brave calm and sense of surrender, the cowboy that started the entire storyline two decades before grabs their mold formed hands, and waits…
It’s a beautiful sequence, another stellar example of the boundaries Pixar keeps pushing. Previously, the brilliant Up offered a silent ten minute montage which followed the romantic life and eventual end of lead misanthrope Carl Fredricksen’s fairytale marriage to childhood sweetheart Ellie. It represented a bold, broad stroke, a security in storytelling (and violation of kid vid tone) that only an amazingly talented entity could pull off. It was the same with Wall-E, where the opening of the film painted a dark, dismal portrait of a planet (Earth) literally choking on its own filth. Ever since Cars, when the company was criticized for being too cartoony and cloying, it appears that John Lasseter and the gang have made a conscious choice to include as much dramatic material as they can, realizing that a solid narrative can tolerate such trepidation.
The Toy Story films follows this mandate to the utmost. Within each plastic fantastic cinematic compendium of sight gags and sentiment, with the combination of the recognizable and the unreal, the company plays with our own reminiscences and retrofits them into a communal experience that’s both illustrative and iconic. We all react to it because we all see ourselves in it - the child lost in his own universe of handheld heroes and villains, where pleasure was just a small dime store trinket (and some viable “pretending”) away.
But more than that, the Toy Story films follow our progression, how we grow more confident and convinced that, at some point, childish things remain in the past. Like our recollections, these characters create indelible marks in who we are, guiding and determining our fate forward. Memories are indeed precious, sacred amongst all that determine who we are. So are the Toy Story films. In this case, luckily, bringing them back is just a remote button push away.