Saturday, August 14, 2010

One Last Glimpse and a Heartfelt Goodbye: Toy Story 3 Review


Plot Synopsis (Mild spoiler warning):

We rejoin the toys belonging to a boy named Andy just as he prepares to depart for college and leave most of his secretly sentient childhood playthings behind. The Toys, feeling abandoned and disillusioned with their lives’ purpose as a result, organise to be sent to a children’s daycare for an apparent existence of eternal attention and play. After discovering that the daycare is a far-cry from their initial expectations, the Toys attempt to escape, but are still plagued by the idea of existence without the meaning provided by their owner’s love.


The Toy Story movies, the flagship franchise of current animation kings Pixar studios, have always held a small place in my heart (although some might say that in comparison to the rest of it, this space is relatively gargantuan, but I digress). The first instalment was the first film I ever watched in a theatre, and in what was likely and intentional move by the creators, I and my generation have aged in parallel to the series’ timeline and the character of Andy, with the final instalment arriving roughly fourteen years after main-toys Woody (a cowboy doll) and Buzz Lightyear (a space-ranger action figure) began “falling with style” into our young hearts.

In Pixar’s latest (and in my opinion, greatest) venture into animated storytelling, Andy, the subject of the titular Toys’ existence, is undergoing the transition to adulthood that strikes an all too familiar chord; particularly with my newly-matriculated generation. The experience of leaving one’s childhood behind is made intimately familiar through the excellent first act, which wrenches us from a pulse-pounding full recreation of an imagined playtime scenario (which long-time fans will surely find hilariously familiar), through time and into Andy’s barren pre-adulthood where the Toys, once central to Andy’s life, have gradually come to the realisation that having been outgrown by their child, they now face a sentient toy’s closest approximation to death, and must essentially choose their afterlife in either the deceptively heavenly day-care, or a hiatus in the attic in anticipation of the messianic arrival of Andy’s possible future children.

This theme of mortality and loss of self has always lain subtly beneath the surface of the Toy Story movies. The first film deals with Woody’s fears of replacement by the flashier Buzz Lightyear (who had to come to terms with his own syntheticity as a space ranger), while the second dealt with Woody’s chance at a loveless immortality in opposition to the abandonment that, due to his choice in said movie, faces him and his comrades in this one. This sense of consequence and character development across sequels is rare, especially amongst “kids movies”, but it’s a testament to Pixar’s sincerity and growth in storytelling that one can look at Toy Story 3-Woody’s expression of utter horror at being chosen as the favourite and only toy to accompany Andy to college, and (with no narrative discomfort) identify it as belonging to the same core character as Toy Story 1-Woody (who would probably have jumped at the idea).

Deeper meanings and emotions aside, Toy Story 3’s content is immensely entertaining: Pixar continue to display their mastery of visual comedy in totally unexpected ways, and even manages to slip in some subtle humour that the adults in the audience can chuckle at while their infants, placated by more obvious (but no less hilarious) assaults on our funny-bones drool in oblivious bewilderment. There’s also no shortage of “Grand-Heist-genre” thrills as the Toys face the familiar challenges of getting from point A to B despite their small stature and cardinal rule of not revealing their “non-inanimate-object” status to any humans; challenges that are over come with amusingly childlike ingenuity (further playing into the film’s themes). In terms of visuals, the fact that the characters look so vibrant and expressive but so familiar to their 90’s iterations highlights Pixar’s excellence in character design even then; and the film’s various locations convey their intended sense of mood (whether it be emotional emptiness, innocent contentment or suppressive horror) perfectly.

If anything about Toy Story 3 can be criticised, I would mention that Woody’s female counterpart Jessie the Cowgirl isn’t really given any meaningful development in this instalment, which seems strange considering she practically carried the second, in which her character was revealed to have abandonment issues which should have surfaced more strongly given the Toys’ current predicament. Also, I feel that the motivations of the film’s antagonist, which are revealed to be incredibly deep and interesting when given careful thought, could have been made infinitely more accessible simply through one extra line of dialogue.

Ultimately though, the film is a masterpiece of cinema and storytelling, and the most perfect possible way to end this fantastic trilogy. With deep, funny, memorable characters, great animated visuals living up to the Pixar pedigree and an ending that astoundingly managed to drag out the first shred of genuine emotion I’ve felt in years, Toy Story 3 is almost certainly the best way to spend two hours and sixty bucks that I can think of. I can’t really recommend the film on its own though, since much of its brilliance and emotional weight stems from how it builds on the first two instalments and our long-time attachments to the characters. If you’ve watched the first two films, you should definitely watch this one. If you haven’t watched the first two, you should definitely watch them as soon as humanly possible and then watch this one. The Toy Story trilogy is one that must be experienced, not just because it’ll entertain one’s kids, not just because it looks fantastic, but because unlike most movies it genuinely gives us something: A final glimpse into the magic and tumultuousness of our beloved childhoods, and the best possible way to come to terms with bidding them goodbye.

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