Monday, June 21, 2010

TOY STORY 3: The Summer's Best So Far

TOY STORY 3 Review:

- Toy Story 3 is another fantastic movie from Pixar. With spectacular animation, superb voice work, and surprisingly multilayered and adult themes, this is not only the best Toy Story yet, but the best movie of the summer so far.

First off, a confession: I had never seen either of the first two Toy Story movies until this past weekend. I know, it sounds crazy. But what can I say? I think I was just a year or two too old to be really into the original when it first came out. In 1995, I was 13, and definitely in a phase where I didn't want much to do with kids movies from Disney. I wanted movies with action, aliens, kung-fu, and explosions, and at the time a movie about goofy kids' toys like Mr. Potato Head didn't really appeal to me. It wasn't until much later that I came back around and got onboard the Pixar bandwagon - probably circa 2001 when I saw Monsters, Inc. in the theater and realized that these guys were the real deal. By that time, I'd missed Toy Story 2, and, well, I just never got around to seeing them until now. Even though over the years I've loved Pixar flicks from Ratatouille to Cars to Wall-E, I guess Toy Story still evoked the feelings of indifference I had as a teen. Just looking at the character designs from the movie, they always struck me as more goofy than cool. I mean -- Buzz Lightyear? -- he would have gotten the crap kicked out of him by my He-Man and Ninja Turtle action figures any day of the week.

So watching Toy Story 1 and 2 this weekend in a back-to-back marathon, I finally saw what all the fuss was about. And I will say this: the animation in those films is still spectacular even by today's CGI standards. Pixar films have always had outstanding direction, and those films embody that. And I could definitely appreciate the movies in the same way that I appreciate most Pixar films - on one level, they're really well done kids' movies. On another level, they have some pretty complex emotional depth that goes above and beyond what you'd see in other animated family fare. Still, I couldn't help but think that I'd missed out on the experience of seeing Toy Story as a small kid, seeing Toy Story 2 as a slightly older kid, and then, eventually, seeing Toy Story 3 as someone around the same age as Andy is in the movie. For those people, whose own lives have mirrored Andy's in parallel, I can see Toy Story 3 being more than just a great movie, but a real pop-cultural touchstone.

Even so, I was very quickly drawn into the world of Toy Story 3 to an extent that I hadn't been with the first two. Because, the Toy Story films do seem like they become a bit darker, more complex, and more sophisticated as its audience ages. Toy Story 1 felt like a kids movie. Toy Story 2 a little bit less so. Toy Story 3 feels like a movie that kids will still love, but that adults will appreciate just as much if not more so. In fact, it has some of the darkest and most harrowing moments of any film I've seen in a while.

That said, I don't think Toy Story 3 is a bleak movie. But it takes its characters to the very brink of darkness, to the edge of the abyss, and that really blew me away. Certain scenes in the film are pretty darn horrifying - and that's for me. For a wide-eyed kid, I can only imagine. But Pixar was very wise to push things so far. It makes the emotional payoffs that much more resonant, that much more earned. The sense of danger is real. And, all those toys that I thought were goofy and lame-looking for all those years? Well, I was sitting there in the theater, rooting for them, cheering for them, feeling sadness for them, and bracing along with them as they stared down danger and even death. Not many movies could make you care so deeply about a bunch of toys-come-to-life, but Toy Story 3 does it. And in that way, to me, it transcends the first two films because to me, the characters have never been better or more "human" than in Toy Story 3.

The movie as a whole deals with these overarching themes of aging and death and and letting go of a childhood gone by (heavy stuff, to be sure), but at the same time, there's an incredibly fun plotline at work about the toys being imprisoned in a day care center run by a tyrannical stuffed bear named Lotso and his gang of thugs. Lotso runs the day care like a prison, and this makes for a lot of fun riffs on movies like Cool Hand Luke and The Great Escape. Lotso the bear is a great villain - I loved his tragic "origin" story, and he has some of the best moments of pure villainy you'll see in a movie. I know, it sounds crazy to talk this way about a purple stuffed bear, but there is some really insane Darth Vader / Emperor style stuff going on here that's legitimately pretty epic. The whole prison break motif also lends itself to some absolutely killer action sequences - some of the best directed and best choreographed you'll ever see. Again, Pixar as a studio is so talented in this regard, but I can't overstate just how great some of the action is here. Lots of real Indiana Jones-style chase sequences that are completely absorbing and immersive. I know that a lot of people are weary of 3D, but I saw this one in IMAX 3D and, even though the ticket prices are kinda absurd, the big screen and 3D, I think, definitely added that something extra to the film.

There are also some really funny moments in the film. I loved the introduction of Ken, of Barbie and Ken fame. The fashion-obsessed doll who lives in a dream house is a consistently hilarious supporting character, and not only is he funny, but his slightly sinister ways allow for his counterpart Barbie to have some real kickass, girl-power moments. Meanwhile, there are some awesome visual gags involving a disembodied Mr. Potato Head, and a couple of funny bits involving Buzz Lightyear being reprogrammed into a Latin Lover version of himself. What's more, there are countless little bits and side characters that are just a lot of fun. I loved the old-school telephone toy who talked like an informant out of a classic film noir movie, or the sad and gruff clown toy who relays the origins of Lotso to Woody.

Speaking of which, I do have to point out just how stellar the voicework is here. The slightly more layered script really gives the likes of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and the rest a lot of great stuff to work with. These characters "come to life" in ways that most real-life ones in film rarely do.

The animation is the best yet from the series, and up there with the best CGI rendering you'll see. The animation quality, combined with the visceral and emotive direction, along with a stirring score, make Toy Story 3 an absolutely top-notch production.

And again, though this is in many ways an adventure movie at heart, the opening and closing acts that tie the movie, and the series, together are what likely make this movie into something really special. I've seen some of the debate online about Andy, the lead human in the world of Toy Story, who's grown from a small kid in the first film to a teen headed off to college in the third film. You can argue that Andy is either too sentimental about his old toys, or that he's not sentimental enough. But, I like that Pixar lets this aspect of the story be a little ambiguous. We never know exactly what special meaning Woody has for Andy. We don't know if Woody was a hand-me-down or a gift from Andy's never-seen father. We don't know a lot about Andy in general. But that allows us to fill in the blanks, to interpret things to our own liking. And I give Pixar a ton of credit for not saddling Woody with a long backstory about his ties to Andy's family. It's something for us to think about, and even to project our own lives onto. Anyone can relate to the end-of-childhood feeling that Andy and Andy's doting mom go through in the movie. And that transition from childhood - Andy and his mom's emotions, as well as those of Andy's toys - make for some genuinely touching and emotional moments (and I also like that Andy isn't given the typical teen attitude or anything that you usually see in such circumstances in movies). It's not just blind sentimentality either - by not letting us fill in a lot of the blanks, Toy Story 3 avoids hitting us over the head with the kind of sappiness that makes other such movies cheesy and pandering. Toy Story 3 is better than that, and it's a movie that will leave even hardened film fans a bit misty-eyed and choked up.

The only thing I'll add is that I do get a little weary of overpraising Pixar. I know, everyone has their Top 10 lists and personal favorites from the Pixar portfolio, and the consistent quality and craftsmanship in their films, now spanning over a decade, is unparallelled. But, I don't want to be too quick to hail Toy Story 3 as the best thing since sliced bread. There are a couple of moments where the film goes for easy humor (the Buzz Lightyear stuff, a couple of instances where the jokes are accentuated by a cliched pop song, etc.), and there's maybe one or two pop culture references too many. I look at Wall-E, and I see a movie that completely transcended the trappings of a "kids" movie and was just a great film, period. The fact that Toy Story 3 still has some of those sillier moments that are in turn kids' movie cliches keeps it, in my eyes, from being quite on that same level. It's one reason why I was able to get so absorbed by How To Train Your Dragon - it never had those meta-references or jokes that took you out of the movie's world. Also, the actual plot of the film can get a little bit flimsy at times. The level to which the various toys at the day care follow and support Lotso seems a little jumpy, for example. At times, they seem like his oppressed servants. Other times, like his willing conspirators.

Overall though, Toy Story 3 is definitely a landmark accomplishment from Disney and Pixar. The movie in many ways feels like the best big summer blockbuster of the year. There's action, adventure, great characters, and lots of moments to make you cheer. All the characters get their moment to shine, and again, the fact that the movie does go pretty dark at times really adds to the overall excitement and emotional punch of the film. It's been a pretty slow summer so far at the movies, but Toy Story 3 is the first truly great movie of Summer 2010 (and as an added bonus, the 2D-meets-3D Pixar short that precedes the movie is absolutely phenomenal - a true visual masterpiece). A great film that kids and adults can enjoy with equal enthusiasm, Toy Story 3 is another credit to the continued genius of Pixar and the creative, imaginative, and uber-talented people who've made it the standard-setter for modern animation.

My Grade: A-

No comments:

Post a Comment