Jul 21, 2010

Film Review: Toy Story 3

DIR: Lee Unkrich
CAST: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack,
Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton, Jodi Benson

The thing that people who dismiss film as unimportant or simply frivolous (and there seem to be a depressingly large amount of them) miss is this; sometimes films are more than just films. Take the Toy Story trilogy. Of course you can see them as nothing more than three children’s films, gentle comedies, each sharing the same basic idea and structure; sentient toys are lost/stolen/accidentally thrown away and must band together to rescue each other and return to their owner, but you’d be missing a lot if you thought like that.

The Toy Story films work on two much deeper levels. First, more than almost any film series, they are the childhood experience, both watching them and living them, of their audience (okay I was a bit old, at 14 when the first film came out, to really be going through these experiences - at least Andy’s experiences - as I saw the films, but if you’re seven to ten years younger than me then it caught you at exactly the right moment). That’s also important to this film, both because it plays on familiarity with the first two films (though not in a way that should exclude newcomers) and because there was a palpable warmth in the cinema as the film unspooled, almost a glow in the audience.

The other thing that hits on a much deeper level with these films is the emotional journey of the characters, and the way Pixar use these toys to tell universal human stories, to explore our fears and our hopes at the same time as making us laugh. Which of us could fail to identify with Jessie’s song in Toy Story 2? Honestly, who isn’t at least a little fearful of the pain of losing what they love? These things are what made the first and second films special, and happily they are strongly felt in this third, and almost certainly final, chapter.

The film opens with an engaging action sequence, which makes affectionate reference to the first two films, with quotes verbal and visual working on both our nostalgia and our funny bones, all while delivering a dynamic and exciting opening few minutes, which includes one of the more spectacular visual moments in the film. Soon though, the laughs begin to give way somewhat to pathos. Andy is now 17, and off to college, and we find Woody (Hanks), Buzz (Allen) and their severely depleted gang have been living for years in a seldom-opened toybox. It is, to some degree, an apt metaphor for the eleven years between Toy Story 2 and this film. It’s here that we begin to find the prevailing theme of the film; aging, retirement and even death hang over this movie, not too heavily, not so much that the tinies will feel it, but it’s an inescapable overtone.

Retirement is supposed to take the form of a journey to the attic in a trash bag, but through a series of mishaps the toys end up at Sunnyside daycare centre, where we meet a host of new characters. There’s Lotso’ Huggin Bear (Beatty); a strawberry scented teddy with an agenda and a sad past, Ken (Keaton); always attempting to convince the others that he’s not a girl’s toy, despite his dream house and extensive wardrobe and then there’s Big Baby; a doll who wears the scribbles on his arms and legs like tattoos and whose comparatively hulking size makes him threatening. Sunnyside, from its name on down, seems initially to be an idyllic retirement community for toys, where they’ll be played with day in, day out, by an ever replenished set of children, of course once the toys begin to settle in they see that this isn’t a retirement home so much as a prison, ruled over by Lotso, and so begins the breakout.

For me, Toy Story 3’s only real misstep comes in the second, Sunnyside set, act. It’s not that the film isn’t funny in these sequences (after all you’ve got Barbie (Benson) and Ken’s relationship, lots of incidental jokes and, best of all, Spanish Buzz (Javier Fernandez Pena)) but the jokes are sometimes drowned out by the prevailing, all encompassing, darkness. Even in the film’s funniest sequence, in which Woody accidentally finds himself taken home by a little girl, only to meet a group of toys (including Timothy Dalton’s hilarious Mr Pricklepants) who treat play as improvisatory theatre, darkness encroaches, in the form of a very sad backstory for Lotso. This does mean that while the film is affecting, the mix of laughs and emotion isn’t quite as deft as in the first two films, and the prevailing mood may see the youngest children get a little fidgety. That said, the second act, with its Great Escape feel and many memorable moments (from the escape itself to the very funny visual of Mr Potato Head (Don Rickles) attaching his part to a piece of felt to an hilarious encounter with a screaming monkey) is highly entertaining.

The film really soars when it leaves Sunnyside, with the last twenty minutes taken up with two of the series greatest and most moving scenes. What’s really important about this last act is that it works because of the relationships we’ve all developed with these characters over the years. That’s why the genuinely perilous last action sequence works, and it’s also why that scene’s gentle, quiet, payoff works. It’s a moment in the great tradition of visual art that cinema is a part of; a series of silent gestures that say more than any words could at that moment. In that moment Toy Story 3 is everything cinema should be, and it just keeps on getting you after that, because the film’s final scene is perhaps the best thing you’ll see on a screen this year. It is at once completely joyous and deeply sad, because you know that what is happening to Andy has also happened to you, that this wonderful reunion with old friends is coming to an end, and that you may not see them again, but that’s okay too, because even as the tears streamed from beneath my 3D glasses I was happy. Happy for these characters, happy that Pixar hadn’t messed this up, happy that Toy Story 3, even if it is the 'weakest' of the trilogy, can stand with its elder siblings as a truly great family film.

On a technical level Toy Story 3 is, plain and simple, a masterpiece. For the very first time I gave no thought to the 3D, the colour timing appears to have been done to take into account the colour loss from the 3D lenses, and for the first time even fast motion is smooth, and free of that smeary quality 3D has had to date. I still question the point of the technique, and I don’t think there’s a single shot in this film that needs to be in 3D (and nor does the story benefit from it one iota) but at the very least it’s not distracting. The animation is quite beautiful, and often funny in itself (look at the way Ken walks, for example) and the adjustments in the character design, the aging of the human characters and of Andy’s dog Buster, for example, is done in a way that makes this a credible updating of the world Pixar created 15 years ago.

The performances are also pitch perfect with everyone from the big stars (Hanks, Allen and Joan Cusack fit right back into their roles; comfortable and fresh as ever) to the odd Pixar animator (Bud Luckey, wonderful as clown doll Chuckles, whose first appearance drew a big laugh) to the newcomers (of whom the aforementioned Timothy Dalton and Michael Keaton’s amusingly highly strung Ken make the biggest impression) hitting every last beat precisely right. Special mention should also go to John Morris, returning to voice the college age Andy, and doing a brilliant job, especially in those affecting final moments.

While it isn’t without (minor) problems, Toy Story 3 is, and will likely remain, one of the best films of 2010. It’s funny, intelligent, and boasts an emotional gut punch that, while never manipulative, will likely wring tears from all but the hardest of hearts. It’s a wonderful, fitting, elegiac way to end one of the great film series of our time… hell of all time, and you should make time to see it if you haven’t already.


  1. Great review Sam.
    I adored the film...and thankfully my little one was on his best behaviour throughout...well almost. He did shout "I got that Woody, I got that Woody" during the opening sequence (thankfully most of the cinemagoers in close proximity to us seemed to find this 'cute' rather than bratty) and he also got a little giddy when he spotted Totoro amongst the new gang of toys (as did I).
    I agree that the 3D aspect added little aside from providing a shield to hide my tear-stained peepers...but it looked marvellous.
    I can't wait to see it again.

  2. Shame I just missed this review before going on holiday but it gave me something to look forward to and I'm pleased to see you agree with both me and all the other Toy Story fans.
    I agree that it doesn't live up to the first two movies in getting the balance of comedy and emotion right, but I actually preferred this to Toy Story 2.
    I think it was brilliant of Pixar to make this as nostalgic as it was and that it was probably more effective if you've grown up loving the characters. Though I love the ending, the best part for me was when they held hands during that climax - it was like a punch to the gut, doubt I'll see a moment as powerful as that in another film this year.