Review: Toy Story 3, 2010, dir. Lee Unkrich

Now THAT’S how you close out a series.

Or not. Animation giant Pixar’s requisite annual release, Toy Story 3, ends with a final sequence that potentially gives the company the option of producing a fourth entry in their flagship franchise– let’s face it, no characters in the Pixar family are more iconic and immediately recognized as Pixar creations than Buzz and Woody– but I’m optimistic enough to believe that Toy Story 3 closes the book on the series for good. (Some may call that naivety.) Just as Andy, the revered owner of our favorite gang of sentient play-things, moves on from the phase of his life where playing with action figures is acceptable behavior so too does Pixar seem to be closing the door on their beloved series.

And for a story about growing up and learning to let go, that feels appropriate. In this installment, the toys face their own obsolescence as Andy prepares to head off to college; through a series of misinterpretations they end up relocating to Sunnyside Daycare, which seems like a paradise until they learn that their new home is run, Strothers Martin style, by a large, plush, huggy bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty) who has a sadistic streak in him a mile wide.

If you ever were curious to know what would come from fusing together  animated children’s entertainment and Cool Hand Luke, Toy Story 3 provides all the answers you could possibly ask for.

Toy Story 3 works. Toy Story 3 plays. And it does both in the face of a script that feels under-cooked. In this regard, Toy Story 3 may be the Pixar movie that is most emblematic of their storytelling wizardry and animation superiority; the most dramatic decision a character makes in the entire movie feels like a foregone conclusion rather than an actual choice, and the theme of letting go feels muddled in places, but none of that ever matters by virtue of the rapturous and magical experience of watching the film. Pixar’s behind the wheel, they know how to steer and where to take us. It’s that simple. There’s a lot about Toy Story 3‘s writing that should hamstring the story and make it fall on its face. That it never does, and that it took me close to a week after seeing it to really think about the film’s central flaws, speaks volumes to the raw talent behind Pixar’s artistry.

Primarily the film’s success can be attributed to the sheer emotional weight thrown behind the plot; being the third film in the series we’re already attached to these characters, so maybe Pixar is able to cheat a little bit here, but there’s no denying the moving nature of their shared narrative. Over the course of two preceding films, we’ve grown to know and love Andy’s toys almost as much as he loves them, and when they confront their mortality (so to speak– playing, specifically being played with, seems to have so much value to the toys in the Toy Story world that existing without it seems equitable with death) we grieve for them in their plight.

Primarily, this is a film about loss; every single character in the movie has suffered loss of some kind, from Woody, Buzz and the others losing their relationship with Andy to Lotso, whose back story renders him a more robust character than his sadistic behavior suggests. The theme is keenly felt from the beginning, where we’re re-introduced to Andy’s toys and find that a large number of them are gone, having been thrown out or donated. More than the audience, the toys recognize this; the film grants them a moment to reflect on losing their close friends over the years as Andy has grown up and moved on. And the sense of loss feeds into the central theme of purpose that runs through the entire series; if toys aren’t being played with, then they lose their raison d’etre. Like the toys, we all knew that eventually the day would come where they’d outlive their usefulness to a boy turned into a young adult; Toy Story 3 brings that existential crisis to a crescendo and forces our protagonists to face their circumstances head on.

Maybe this sounds particularly heavy for a children’s movie (though if you’ve read this blog for very long you’re familiar with my opinion that children are much more perceptive than many adults will freely admit), but the film never quite goes far enough with any of these themes. The surface, it is scratched, but never more than just that; as a result, Toy Story 3 feels like a strong entry in Pixar’s oeuvre, but it needed more time and attention to stand with their true masterpieces. More troubling to youngsters than the film’s inherent existentialist bent will be the extreme dangers the toys are placed in, and of course the devious villainy of Lotso, who might be scarier as a character than creations designed more obviously to be freaky (there’s a monkey toy in here that for many– adult and child alike– will range from “unsettling” to “nightmare factory”).

But none of this, ultimately, matters. Toy Story 3‘s magic supersedes the messiness of the script, resulting in a stunningly moving piece of entertainment brimming with excitement and wonder. While the movie takes its time setting itself up, the payoff to all of that building is spectacular even outside of the consideration of summer 2010’s mediocrity. In a way the prison break moments feel like the sole reason for making the movie, as though everything else is present to justify the last act. Of course, that wouldn’t constitute terribly compelling filmmaking and suggesting that this is the case insults the rest of the picture (even if the best stuff of the film does occur once the truth of the daycare center comes out). If Toy Story 3 isn’t as thought out as it could be, then the technical mastery more than compensates for the incongruities and inconsistencies of the film’s narrative.


6 thoughts on “Review: Toy Story 3, 2010, dir. Lee Unkrich

  1. I don’t think Pixar are really a movie studio. I think they manufacture magic, and just distribute it on film. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

  2. Was so happy that the trilogy ended on a high-note.

    I was thinking that the vibe during the monkey scene was like a SAW movie. And Lotso… that bear is really despicable bastard.

    • Castor– thanks! I agree with you, for the most part; I still think 1 is the best, and 2 and 3 are just about neck and neck. If this is how the franchise ends, I’ll be satisfied.

      Darren– you’re probably right. I like to imagine that Pixar is a movie studio on the outside and something close to Hogwarts on the inside, with animators decked out in wizard’s robes as they weave their spellcraft and transplant magical storytelling straight onto celluloid.

      Fitz– ditto on the trilogy ending on a high note, and yeah, that monkey is seriously freaky on every level. Even at the end when he’s not an evil monkey.

      Lotso is so perfectly evil, but what’s so great about him is that he’s not bad because that’s just the way he is. He’s got pathos, if such a thing could be said of a giant purple stuffed bear.

  3. People are wondering why the huge excitement over it?

    For once some actual closure to not just two okay films, but two films that are beloved in the land of animation, and to live up to that while also creating a new and evolved story instead of falling prey to repeating the same jokes, and storylines was such a breath of fresh air.

    You really hit all the main goods and bads about the film, but all in all it was simply a wonderful way to end a story about characters and magic that many of us movie fans simply adored.

    • I think you’ve got the right of it, Heather. This is (ostensibly) a series-closing entry in a truly beloved trilogy that lives up to its predecessors and ends things on a satisfactory note. It doesn’t surpass the first two films but then, it probably doesn’t need to– it just needs to honor them, which I think it does.

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