[24 June 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Though it’s barely two months old, it is time to declare a best scene of Summer 2010. It certainly comes from one of the year’s best films (though at least three Rotten Tomatoes registered critics disagree with that assessment) and while it may seem to soon to suggest it, there’s no doubting few will match it come July and/or August. Instead of offering an in-depth review of Toy Story 3 (suffice it to say - it’s great!) let’s instead focus on a seminal sequence in the stellar Pixar trequel, a moment that will have many in tears and have more than a few covering their faces in fear. We are talking, of course, about the SPOILER ALERT incinerator showdown, a moment which finds Buzz, Woody, and the gang relying on the wrong plaything to aid in their escape, a massive machine hurtling them ever closer to their doom, and a single moment of resolve that stands as one of the most emotional and heartfelt finales ever in the history of film - live action or animated.
First, a little plot perspective. Toy Story 3 begins several years after the first sequel. Andy is now a 17 year old college bound teen, and his collection of playthings are feeling the sting of neglect and possible disposal. Pushed to do something with the trinkets remaining, Andy decides to put them in the attic. Instead, his bag is mistaken for trash, and our plastic heroes avoid the landfill by hiding out in another box intended for a local daycare. There, they discover a surreal situational pecking order.
Leader toy Lotso Hugs the Bear (Ned Beatty) runs the place like a prison, putting the new “recruits” in the Caterpillar Room along with the rambunctious, destructive toddlers. If you survive, and aren’t eventually thrown out, you might get to live out your days in the serene fun of the older kids’ Butterfly area. Desperate to break out, our familiar friends escape through the only available way out - the garbage chute. Before long, they find themselves in the very same dangerous dilemma they were hoping to avoid in the first place.
Thus we come to our major SPOILER warning. Again, instead of reviewing the film itself, which requires the acknowledged repetition of sentiments expressed endlessly over the last few days, we will focus on a single sequence—again, call it the “incinerator stand-off”—and use it as a means of explaining Pixar’s enduring power within the artform. With their record currently at 11 - 0, the company has yet to create a certified bomb and, for many, have only made masterpieces (both minor and major). In the case of the last act realization that they might end up inside a fiery inferno, the action of the titular toys is so moving, so incredibly simple that it shows how effective less can be at expressing the most important of emotions.
As with many action sequences, the last minute getaway seems imminent. While Woody flails about manically, trying to uncover the possible exit, the rest of his companions are less certain. Eventually, they realize the hopelessness of their cause and commit an act so selfless, so instinctual of what we’ve felt for these characters, that is stops your heart beat, if only for a moment.
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 sacrifice, 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. Last year, 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.
Toy Story 3 is perhaps the pinnacle of this thought process. The entire movie is a love letter to the travails of youth, a literal envisioning of the classic Bible line about “putting away childish things” as one matures. Andy’s dilemma is not so much one of nostalgia as temporal causation. As he ages, his toys remain forever locked in his life from the past. The characters recognize this over and over again, arguing against what they see as the inevitable providence for their kind—the dump, or in this case, the bowels of a blazing furnace. That after all the bickering, back stabbing and bratling abuse, they choose to go out like heroes is the kind of emotional epiphany the series has been known for—like Jessie’s Part 2 lament taken to its logical ends.
Of course, this really isn’t the end for the beloved playthings. SPOILER warning again—they get out of the jam only to face the final decision: how to endure a life in Andy’s attic, waiting for the off chance that, someday, their former owner will have children of his own and will seek out these symbols of his formative years for their amusement. That this gets resolved in a way that is both wholly satisfying yet tinged with sadness again argues for what Pixar does better than all others. In a genre that keeps demanding a higher level of performance each time, that doesn’t want to rest on its laurels so much as reinvent them in a way that makes more and more money, the efforts of a company more concerned with creativity than the bottom line is beyond refreshing. While something may surpass it, the incinerator sequence is a work of art all its own. The results is as powerful as anything you’ll see all year—as is Toy Story 3.