If Inception was the brain that got attacked, then today it’s the heart
One thing a movie fan knows: Trilogies are hard.
It is a tough enough call to even make an adequate sequel, but when facing the task of making a third movie there are way too many ways this can turn out:
It can either sink a story so great and perfectly established by its predecessors (Godfather Part III)
It can be a nice addition to a franchise that ties up the open plotlines but never reaches the heights of the original (Back to the Future III)
It can be a disaster after the second one already blew it (Starship Troopers: Marauder)
It can turn the franchise into an unintentional parody (Scream)
It can go batfuck insane (Army of Darkness)
Or it can revolutionize the way we look at films, turn the genre upside down and make time stand still (Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah 1991)
Toy Story 3 is the exception to the trilogy-curse, it is a heartfelt send-off to the characters I’ve known since I was eight years old. For a sequel that appears on the screen over ten years after the second part it doesn’t seem like the idea has worn out over time. Quite the contrary, the crew from Pixar uses our nostalgia for the story’s advantage by letting Andy outgrowing his toys.
For some reason the creative team of this studio always manages to pull me in, not because of a melodramatic story, but mostly because of the characters and their stories.
Right off the bat the Pixar team shows its expertise in storytelling with an intro in an over the top intro reminiscent of the Buzz Lightyear opening of Toy Story 2. But what starts as a dramatic western about a train robbery that Woody and Jesse have to prevent soon turns into a bizarre sci-fi James Bond adventure when Buzz Lightyear, Woody and Jesse have to fight an army of monkeys that a flying vessel in the shape of a Pig unleashes, making us realize that this all is a child’s fantasy – and we are back at Andy’s room watching him play with his toys, just like it used to be. The familiar “You’ve got a friend in me” narrates the opening sequence as we see Andy growing up until he has finally reached the age when he’s ready to go to college.
While the second instalment never demanded a third part, storywise the story progresses organically:
In part one Woody overcame his jealousy, reordered his priorities and was content with just being there for Andy
In part two the toy was faced with the fact that someday Andy might outgrow him, yet Woody still chose to be with Andy as long as possible
And now we are here, it’s easy to say “well it will be fun while it lasts”. It is a whole different pair of shoes to cope with rejection, to face the fact that one might never get played with again
Through a series of coincidences (granted there is a lot of coincidence required to start this plot) the toys wind up as a donation to Sunnyside day-care centre where the story can finally progress naturally, freed from preparing the stage.
As we all know appearances can be deceiving and even though the centre looks like a newfound paradise, there seems to be something else going on. Under the nice appearance of the leader “Lots-o’-Huggin” Bear or Lotso there seems to be a dark stride.
Very soon the Sunnydale centre turns from a Garden Eden into a dark and scary prison – this might very well be one of the scariest (in children’s movie terms) things Pixar has put on screen and makes me wonder how a non-Disney Pixar horror movie would look like.
The charm is in the details
The reason Pixar movies connect with so many people often lies in the small things. Last year’s Up even addressed this fact by letting the character of Russell state that it’s the boring parts (i.e. small unimportant details) that he remembers most. The artists who crafted this movie know of these things and it’s the reason the scenes feel so much more alive than in your standard animation movie.
For example the walls of Andy’s room which features clouds on a bright blue sky have been covered over and over again with posters of any sort – something that reminded me of my cousin’s room. He had a similar blue sailor-like tone on his walls and when he grew up he felt that this was so childish, so he pasted every poster he could find onto the walls so that there was as little blue as possible visible.
The movie is filled with stuff like this, never in our faces, but visible enough so that we that this is a living breathing world, not a fake image created by a computer.
When you don’t know how to make a sequel you can always load a truck of new characters onto the screen. They serve for cheap laughs, are new toys you can sell to the children after this movie and distract from the fact that your original characters have finished their arc two movies ago and have nothing more to do.
Pixar loads an army of new characters onto the screen, but not once do they fall into any of these traps (although I am pretty sure that Disney is eagerly releasing every single Toy that was featured in this movie). All characters are believable, they have their motivation, even those who just exist for a little subplot are never annoying, but funny and original in their own way – the standout being Mr. Pricklepants, a hedgehog who sees “standing still so humans don’t know that the toys are alive” as a Shakespearean play where you always have to stay in character.
Among this huge new cast there are two big newcomers: Lotso, the leader of Sunnydale day-care and Ken, the doll who insists that he isn’t a toy for girls, after all he’s a man with style!
Especially Lotso is one of the best things of Toy Story 3, scarred by rejection, he now is a ruthless dictator hiding under the fluffy surface of a bear that smells of strawberries.
New movie, same story?
With the third part in a franchise some things might seem very familiar, some in a good way, some in a bad way. The opening with Woody was as already mentioned inspired by the Buzz Lightyear videogame, yet it is so much better in terms of excitement since it takes us into the mind of a child and how it perceives playing with toys and making up adventures.
The story of Lotso is similar to Jesse’s tale, but it is not redundant since the story team decided to give the rejection a different spin, so it is not a repetition but a further discussion of ways toys have had their spirits broken.
A thing that bothered me a little was that the beginning until they get into day-care is very reminiscent of Toy Story 2 (many coincidences that keep on happening, a rescue mission that backfires) and of course the overall motivation is the same as in the previous two movies, so this might be a little too familiar for some.
But when we starting to feel like we have already seen this, the movie turns into a prison escape drama, that builds up tension and while I wasn’t completely into the escape there is a turning point in this movie where if you have just remotely liked Toy Story 1 and 2 you are going to be on the edge of your seat.
It is time to move on
There are few third parts that capture the very essence of the original while still getting us emotionally. While my expectations for this movie were way too high, having read too many times that people started crying at end of this film, the finale had an emotional impact.
Would this movie work as a standalone movie? Probably, but not as well as it does. This movie not only relies on the previous instalments but also on our own experience with this franchise and like Andy we are aware that this is a short visit of our pasts (especially if you’ve grown up with this movie) that is so memorable because of what has come before.
This might be the thing that will turn this trilogy into a perfect example of how to tell a three part story. Most of the times the big guns have been blown after the second part and the third part is aware of the fact that it won’t reach the original’s heights – not after two very successful attempts – so the only thing that remains is delivering a decent imitation while not disappointing too many people with the resolution.
The third Toy Story does none of this, instead it builds upon this foundation, finding the right mixture between nostalgia, imitation and new grounds. It might not be the greatest thing since sliced bread (because we all know that this award goes to Godzilla: Final Wars), but I would lie if I’d say that I wasn’t a bit moved after the credits started rolling.
Toy Story 3 deals with the themes of finally growing up and changing, it completes the big storyarc from the very first Toy Story and it feels like we are entering our attic, trundling out our old toys to have some reminiscence of our past before we leave with a smile that is a mixture of pleasant memories tainted by the sadness over the knowledge that we have outgrown this part of ourselves.
P.S.: I haven’t found a place to mention it, but just the short before the actual movie is an astoundingly creative movie about two figures representing day and night and their differences/similarities. One of Pixar’s finest shorts to date.