by Brett Parker
The very idea of toys is an invite to the vivid imagination and childlike playfulness deeply rooted within all human beings. That explains the universal appeal of the Toy Story movies, a series that devised clever and hilarious ways to depict the logical universe of Toys if they actually existed. As you would imagine in the nature of a toy, they worried about being played with enough, getting lost, being broken beyond repair, or worst of all, being neglected by their owner. These Pixar hits not only highlighted the ingenious plights of being a toy but even revealed startling human depths along the way.
The first Toy Story is one of the best and most inventive of all animated films, computer-animated or hand-drawn. It captured the childlike glow of playing with toys while dissecting their very nature in humorously philosophical ways. It was also an exceptional buddy comedy, a thrilling adventure, and a sly meditation on adolescent anxieties over feelings of change. Toy Story 2 didn't exactly live up to the excitement and humor of the first film, but it was surprising how it deepened the series' themes of neglect and heartbreak.
Despite the exceptional quality of the first two films, there was an appropriate air of cynicism when it was announced that Pixar would be making a third Toy Story film, in 3-D no less. Despite Pixar's streak of magic, there was reasonable suspicion that this would be an assembly-line sequel that aimed for wallets instead of hearts. I'm achingly happy to report that this is certainly not the case and Toy Story 3 could not have found a better way to bring the adventures of Andy's Toys full circle and towards a satisfying conclusion. The filmmakers have discovered the most logical and fulfilling way to end this series with a cinematic experience that is almost exactly on par with the original film. The result is a surprisingly heartfelt and devastating experience to behold. Make no mistake about it, this one will punch you straight through the heart.
The film continues the story of the toys that live in Andy's bedroom, toys that come to life and discuss their existence whenever their beloved owner is not around. These toys include wise Cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks), action-ready spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), wise-cracking Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) and his faithful wife Mrs. Potato Head (Estelle Harris), nerve-wracking dinosaur Rex (Wallace Shawn), and a trio of three-eyed Aliens ready to help out wherever they can. As the film opens, the gang faces a crisis: Andy (John Morris) is all grown-up and heading off to college. His mother is forcing him to get rid of all his childhood toys. For the gang, this means either living in the attic or, worst-case nightmare, getting put out in the trash!
Through a mishap involving cardboard boxes, Andy's Toys are accidentally donated to a day-care center to be played with by toddlers. All of the toys at the center are overseen by the seemingly warm teddy bear, Lotso (Ned Beatty) who is aided by the hilariously ambiguous Ken Doll (Michael Keaton). The center has the relaxing come on of a joyful retirement community and Andy's gang decides to settle in and give things a try, all except for Woody, who decides to set out and track down Andy. On his journey, Woody runs into another gang of toys who reveal deep, dark secrets about the day-care center and warn him that his friends may be in imminent danger. This leads Woody to set off an adventure to rescue his friends and return to Andy's house once and for all!
What is so appealing about the characters in the Toy Story series is that they aren't just a celebration of the plastic nature of toys but reflect sympathetic feelings and anxieties within human nature. Like the toys, we too have an intense need to fulfill our roles in life and feel loved and accepted. Whenever we feel like we're not living up to our potential, we also feel inadequate and worrisome. When our loved ones neglect us the way Andy often neglects his toys, the level of sadness and heartbreak is surprisingly equal to that of the toys. Like most humans, the toys are constantly analyzing their place in the world and the meaning of their existence only to discover that strong bonds through friendship and family are the best way to go.
These ideals and emotions have always been strongly present throughout the series but in Toy Story 3 they are brought to their absolute breaking point, demanding a catharsis. The fears and pain these toys feel come across as startlingly real. Take for example the character of Lotso, at first he is set up to be the typical animated baddie, yet the film slows down to reveal the wounded past that made him so vile and spiteful. This makes all of his actions come not from a standard place of evil, but from a broken one filled with heartache. He is not so much a villian as he is a tragic figure, one filled with such strong feelings of abandonment and existential loneliness that it's jarring how much we can relate to it. When was the last time an animated villian could be analyzed so deeply?
Even with its sly, dramatic subtext, the Toy Story series is always a reliable source for break-neck cinematic adventure. To me, the climactic race to the Moving Truck from the first film is the most thrilling moment in the entire series, an adventure sequence that could rank with any from the Indiana Jones films. Yet Toy Story 3 keeps its action just as fresh and exciting as the first time around. As Andy's Toys race to bust out of the shady day-care center that threatens to destroy them, the film settles into the mold of a prison-break film, one that can stand with any of the real ones. As the gang executes a calculated and thrilling plan to hurtle themselves out of their elaborate prison, we are witnessing an escape just as brilliant and exhilarating as the one Steve McQueen planned. This all leads to the most horrifying and powerful visual moment of the whole series, as Andy's Gang find themselves in a garbage incinerator, heading towards a giant flame that resembles the fires of hell. The toys feel this will be their last moment together and decide to hold hands and face hell with the entire strength of their friendship. In the moment of their ultimate nightmare, they fight it with the ultimate heart. The terrifying beauty of this scene truly levels you.
By now, much has been written about Toy Story 3 being a film that can make anyone cry. Not just women and children, but grown men as well. I admit I cried as the film's final moments allowed me to say farewell to each one of Andy's toys and realize just how special each and every one really is. For me, the film's end made me confront the fleeting passage of time that effects all our lives. I was 11-years-old when my Aunt Patty took me to see the original Toy Story and I was still young enough to let my sense of imagination and wonder completely take over as the film washed over my young mind. Of course, I've grown up and like most adults, I may have lost some of that childlike wonder. We often find ourselves living in a dark and cynical world and Toy Story 3 brings us face-to-face with a sense of innocence we once had and now lost. What is so heartbreaking about the film's ending is the realization that our childlike innocence just might be forever out of our reach. How could it not be? I kid you not, if you're a member of my generation who saw the first film in theaters, then watching Toy Story 3 will be one of the stronger Benjamin Button moments you'll ever have in your life.
Since the first Toy Story hit theaters back in 1995, Pixar has been on a creative roll that have made them one of the most influential forces on animated movies in cinematic history. The key to their success is that instead of shrouding their plots with junky sitcom hijinks, they root it in aspects of human nature that can touch about anyone's heart. While Toy Story 3 could've been a disposable, money-making sequel, it's an emotional powerhouse that ranks with the first Toy Story and Wall-E as Pixar's very best. It's almost a jaw-dropping surprise how hard this one tugs on the heartstrings. Even if animated flicks aren't really your thing, this is one not to be missed.