It’s been fifteen years since the first “Toy Story” opened in theaters; that first grand salvo from Pixar that let us know, without reservation, that a new force had arrived on the cinematic scene. The run of quality, even classic, films that have come from Pixar since then (A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Rataouille, WALL-E, and Up) can rival any run of films from any studio in cinematic history. The remarkable thing about Pixar is not that they so often make good movies; it’s that they never seem to make a bad movie.
But now, with “Toy Story 3,” Pixar takes on perhaps the ultimate cinematic challenge. Quick quiz: try and think of a “threequel” that was just as good as (or better than) the first two movies in a series. (I can think of one. Can you guess it? Hint: there’s a clue in this paragraph) While it’s difficult to make a good sequel, it’s often done– Godfather 2 “Empire Strikes Back,” “Spider-man 2” and many other sequels were all arguably better films than their predecessors. (For what it’s worth, I liked “Toy Story 2” better than the first one.) But it’s almost impossible to make a great, or even good, third movie. The good third movie is the cinematic Holy Grail: everyone seeks it; nobody achieves it.
So how does Pixar go about doing the impossible? Well, to begin with, they acknowledge that a great deal of time has passed since “Toy Story” was released, and the children who loved that film are young adults now, wrestling with questions about how to be adults. Consider: “Toy Story 3” opens the same weekend as “Jonah Hex” and “Cyrus,” both films unabashedly targeted at the 18-22 demographic. If you were 7 when you saw the first “Toy Story” in the theater, that means you’re 22 now. Which film do you go see? These are exactly the questions “Toy Story 3” embraces, and wrestles with.
The thematic underpinnings of the Toy Story movies have always been the same: if you are not loved, you’re nobody. “Toy Story 3” takes this a new direction by introducing a toy who believes he is not loved, in fact, believes that love is nothing but a lie, and proceeds to build a world in which everyone is either useful or disposeable. The toys themselves—all but the ever-loyal, ever-loved Woody—fall into this dystopic nightmare world because they, themselves have gotten confused about the way love works. Andy, their boy, has gotten older and is about to leave for college; he hasn’t played with them in years, and is about to relegate them either to the attic or to the trash can. While Woody protests that, if Andy wants to stow them in the attic, that’s his right because they’re his toys, the rest of them sneak their way into a box destined for the local daycare, because they long to be played with. Even if they aren’t loved, they will feel loved, and that’s better than being loved in theory and feeling forgotten. Right?
But the daycare is ruled by a big purple bear (who smells of strawberries) named Lotso. Ned Beatty voices him with a deceptively charming southern accent and manner. His sidekick is big baby, who is supernaturally strong, nonverbal, and perhaps the creepiest doll since Chucky from “Child’s Play.” Lotso’s rules are simple: you start in the toddler room, and if you pay your dues (ie, survive the abuse those little monsters dole out,) you can eventually graduate to the rooms where kids know how to play with toys properly. Escape attempts are brutally, mercilessly squashed by a terrifyingly efficient team of toy security guards, and bad toys get to spend the night in “The Box.” The sand box, that is. Dark and cold and filled with lincoln logs. Ugh.
At this point, “Toy Story 3” devolves (or evolves, I suppose) into a version of “Escape from Alcatraz” or any number of other heist/escape movies. We get the montage of security features, narrated by a rebellious toy phone who sounds like a convict. (Question for parents: do your kids even recognize that toy as a phone these days? It bears almost no resemblance to modern phones. My daughter just got one for her birthday, and I think she thinks it’s a funny-looking car.) The escape attempt follows, and, as always, almost works as planned. Then comes a climactic showdown (weirdly reminiscent of the climactic scene in “Return of the Jedi”) and then a breathless struggle on a conveyor belt of death, and then . . .
. . . and then one of the most startling, powerful, emotional, grown-up scenes I’ve ever seen in a kid’s movie. And the second theme of “Toy Story 3” becomes crystal clear: as these toys grow older, as they face the changes going on around them, and as they grow ever closer to their eventual demise (even the most beloved toys eventually fall apart) there’s one thing they know: they’ll face it together. They’ll face whatever may come with strength, with love, and with each other. This is the scene that will make the grownups in the theater cry, and will go right over the heads of the little kiddies. At least I hope it will. They don’t need to encounter this much of the world in a kid’s movie.
But, truth be told, this isn’t really a kid’s movie. But then the Pixar movies never have been; they are movies kids enjoy and watch repeatedly, but they never pander to their audience, never go for the easy joke (well, almost never) or the overly simple plot device or conclusion. And while I don’t feel like Toy Story 3 quite reaches the heights of the best Pixar movies, and isn’t quite as good as Toy Story 2, it’s still a well-executed, deeply felt piece of quality filmmaking. It may not be great, but it is very good. Once again, Pixar comes through. I’m still waiting for them to make a bad—or even not very good—movie.