Friday, June 18, 2010

Toy Story 3: Once Too Often To The Well

I wish I could say that Pixar’s Toy Story 3 is up to the high standards of most of their previous films. But it’s not and it also suggests something of a continuing slippage in quality control in the company’s output.

I’m actually not sure why the folks at Pixar felt the need to revisit Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the gang of toys, after the previous two excellent movies in the series, released in 1995 and 1999, respectively. Did Disney, which owns Pixar, pressure them to go with something familiar for Pixar’s second foray into 3-D, after Up? (Toy Story 3 is also being released in 2-D.) That’s possible because the film simply doesn’t do much that’s fresh with its likable and diverse characters and the film’s 3-D effects, fine as they are, seem to be driving the story instead of serving the needs of the screenplay, which was written by four writers, Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, who also directed the film.(Four writers on one film is two writers too many.)

That frantic screenplay has the toys, who come to life when there are no adults and kids around, thrown into one Perils of Pauline adventure after another. It’s wearying, what with the group, including Woody, the cowboy character (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear, the astronaut / action figure (Tim Allen) who looks a lot like former Canadian Prime Minster Brian Mulroney, Jessie, the Calamity Jane like-heroine (Joan Cusack), Rex, the nervous dinosaur (Wallace Shawn) and Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), facing constant danger from evil toys, rambunctious children, and a junkyard incinerator, among other threats. The movie rarely stops to catch its breath, which is the exact opposite tack to that taken in the leisurely and (mostly) quietly played out story-lines that bolstered the first two films in the series.

The movie’s plot is set in motion when Andy (John Morris), the toys’ owner, now grown up and headed off to college, fails to notice that his possessions, except for Woody, have been thrown in the trash instead of being packed away in the attic, as he intended. (Andy planned to take Woody, his first toy, off to school with him.) Woody tries to rescue his friends and in the process they all end up at Sunnyside, a ‘bucolic’ day care centre, which is not all it seems to be.

Much of Toy Story 3 revolves around toys who have been forgotten, abandoned and rejected by their owners - the Toy Story gang are convinced they were deliberately thrown out by Andy - a theme of betrayal that leaves scars on their psyches (SPOILER ALERT follows), most notably on smooth talking Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear. Called Lotso for short, he is a Teddy Bear gone bad -- ably voiced by Ned Beatty -- and the main villain of the piece. But that theme of rejection was addressed already in Toy Story 2, in the movie’s best song, Sarah McLachlan’s "When She Loved Me," sung by Jessie about the girl who outgrew her. (Mercifully, there are only two saccharine Randy Newman songs in all of Toy Story 3, and one of those is over the end credits.) And while Sunnyside, the daycare centre cum prison camp is a clever conceit, its tropes are also too reminiscent of Nick Park’s animated children’s classic Chicken Run (2000).

That leaves one arresting new character, Lotso, some good pop culture jokes, (which in Pixar movies pleasingly tend towards the subtle and timeless), and an interesting but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to graft the dull duo of Barbie (Jodi Benson) and Ken (Michael Keaton) onto the colourful Pixar universe. The portrait of Ken as a somewhat ‘fey’ doll, referred to derisively as a ‘girl’s toy’, is more adult than expected but something the kids won’t get. It’s also refreshing to see a modern children’s movie dedicated to the idea of nurturing toys, instead of promoting video games or computers, and playing up the power of the imagination, an almost quaint notion in today’s fast paced, technology laden children’s universe.

However, after, Pixar’s last movie Up, whose middle section was impersonal and soulless, and this weak sequel, I am getting concerned about a creeping factory line feel to the company’s films. Taken in tandem, Up and Toy Story 3 display more of a Hollywood formulaic approach to filmmaking and less of the loose, imaginative and utterly inspired vision that created the Toy Story films, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and Wall*E, to name the best of the Pixar movies. So I have to ask a question that I never thought I’d be posing about a successive series of movies that, over the last fifteen years, have come to exemplify as close to a guarantee of quality as exists in Hollywood. Is the Pixar brand beginning to lose its lustre?

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.


  1. Umm - some fact checking would help, Up was the first Pixar film in 3D...

  2. Thanks, I forgot that Up was also in 3-D.