Toy Story 3: All Things Must Pass

[See also Toy Story 3D]

I hope that the makers of both Shrek Forever After and Toy Story 3 will keep good on their implicit promise that these are the concluding chapters of their respective franchises, but for very different reasons. While the Shreks have become increasingly tired, desperate, repetitive and, by becoming what they used to mock, cynical, the Toy Story team have miraculously kept things fresh, developing their ideas rather than chasing their own tail for one last elusive chew of the same old piece of meat. Shrek Forever After moves quickly enough that you might not notice how heavily it is wheezing, hoping to squeeze a bit more milk out of the CGI teat before you get too bored. Toy Story 3, on the other hand, makes a virtue out of the story’s frailty: as a trilogy, Pixar’s three films have grown into an achingly beautiful introduction of themes of mortality, obsolescence, the passing of time and making the best of what you have before it’s gone. It’s about death, ageing and decay. You know, for kids? Instead of fabricating some tosh about wishing on a star, your dreams will come blah and your prince will meh, Toy Story reminds that you’re going to die – don’t waste the time you have in denial. Embrace the ephemerality of life – it’s what makes it delicious and thrilling. As this film heads towards its end it becomes clear that the toys are heading for retirement, and the suspense becomes about how they’d like to go out – fighting, passive, dignified, accepting?

Hopefully, kids won’t come away with a feeling that they’re hurtling towards the grave, though. Beyond that wish, I won’t try and second guess what an 8-year-old will find loveable about this film. I’ll just speak for myself. And I’m determined to keep this short and pithy, not least because you’re going to die, and you’ll be wanting to make the most of the time you have left.

OK, despite me starting on a downer, Toy Story 3 is a delight. It doesn’t quite attain the precision-engineered, textbook execution of its predecessor, which was one of Pixar’s highpoints. I still can’t watch the ‘When She Loved Me’ sequence without welling up: it’s the scene that signalled Pixar were ready to shift things up into a higher gear of emotional resonance, one that didn’t spare the kids the sadness of abandonment, fear and desperate measures to postpone an encroaching fate.

A couple of weeks ago, at the Screen Studies Conference in Glasgow, and again the following week at the Society of Animation Studies in Edinburgh, I had the pleasure of hearing Colleen Montgomery’s paper about Pixar. In it she showed how prevalent is the recurrent theme of nostalgic depictions of vintage toys and, despite their joyous deployment of innovative technologies to bring their works to the screen, how Pixar films are often ambivalent about modern technology and its displacement of earlier forms of culture and media. It can sometimes be difficult to square this message with the rampant, pollutant merchandising that accompanies their output, but it’s clear that their films repeatedly express a yearning for the preservation, or at least the appreciation of the outmoded, whether its Wall-E’s naive hoarding of an archive of humanity’s past that will one day be used as a memory-bank for a species ruined by its over-reliance on technology; or Up’s paean to the wisdom of the elderly with Carl (though even he has to learn to escape his memories in order to move forward and communicate with the younger generation, a neat expansion of the motif). In the Toy Story films, they face constantly the threat of abandonment and obsolescence, always trying to delay or at the very least comprehend and come to terms with the inevitability of their fate. The possibility of staying where they are with Andy (still played, as in all the other films, by John Morris) is, over the course of three films, gradually eroded, and we are left to watch them facing up to this so that they can one day enjoy their remaining time. This is never expressed in terms of death, but it’s not a stretch, especially with all the autumnal colours that start to seep into the film (call me on that if I’m mistaken – that’s a recollection from one viewing, but I got the impression of a long sunset at the end: did I imagine it?), to see this narrative as one of mortal clock-watching.

This third film may be hampered by its familiarity in places – I’ve suggested that the three films follow a cyclical structure (each story sets up the status of the toy’s world, then endangers some or all of them who get separated from the group, all the time with the threat of replacement, expulsion from Eden, looming over them, along with a concomitant temptation to stray voluntarily), while building up to a single thesis about not fighting fate (or something like that), so there is some repetition, with chase and peril scenes used to pep things up periodically. It’s surprising to be reminded that it’s been more than a decade since the previous film was released, because these characters have never gone away, living a parallel existence as real-world dolls and icons of lunchboxes everywhere. Woody is still Woody, Buzz is still Buzz and Jesse is still Jesse (the other toys, such as Ham, Rex and Slinky are still the same as ever, but never really developed anyway): they’ve done all their character development and made the most important personality changes. Though clever ways are still found to re-set Buzz to delusions of grandeur, Jesse’s poignant backstory has been overcome, and she gets little to do but play the lovestruck cowgirl. The greatest pleasures in Pixar films tend to be the discovery of new characters, seeing how they move, what their foibles are, and hearing the voice that completes the act. Favourites this time include Mr. Pricklepants, a thespian hedgehog who takes the job of performing as a plaything very seriously (“We do a lot of improv around here”), Ken (as in Barbie’s mate), who gets to do a showstopping fashion show, and there’s even a mute cameo by Hayao Miyazaki’s Totoro, surely the benchmark of animated adorability. It remains a tribute to Pixar’s visual acuity that these characters are never overshadowed by their celebrity voices (I bet you can’t guess who played Pricklepants or Ken without reference to the credits, even though they’re well-known actors).

Usually, toys, dolls and puppets (forgive me indulging an ongoing research interest here), are used as symbols through which to talk about people, to allegorise their fates, functions and subjection to larger forces. In some ways, I think that’s true of the Toy Story toys – they’re being deployed didactically to teach us (well, mostly kids) how to behave and to be, how to accept our differences and specialties. But actually I reckon we’re also asked to take this without a double meaning – this really is about the importance of toys, play and imagination in marking out the stations of our lives. A while ago I reviewed Jiří Barta’s In the Attic, which is also about the private life of toys, in this case discarded dolls who live on independent of humans, retaining a sense memory of their earlier functions. In both works, animation is used to bring apparent life to things previously animated only by our imaginations – we made them “live”, and the fantasy that they might care or be affected by our bestowal of life is an attractive, if narcissistic one. (And yes, I’m saving the Marxist critique of how the object’s status as a commodity depends upon the “personification of things” for the book…) But it’s not all about us, us, us. These are toys which want to serve us, not toys which are dropped in our path to indoctrinate, inculcate and educate us by proxy. They are permitted, in the space of this particular fantasy, to have their own agency (that is, after all, what they’ve worked towards gaining all this time) and identity….

Have I finished? Did I sap all the fun out of it yet? I don’t have a smart last line that will wrap this up. The Toy Story films give us a masterfully ambiguous depiction of products as characters, allegories as agents. However hard you try to catch them out, you’ll never get to see them workings of their ideological smokescreen that promotes nostalgia, submission to your station and obedience to order, because it all moves like anarchic fun. But never mind what I say. Go and see the film, and don’t think about death. What was I thinking?….

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14 thoughts on “Toy Story 3: All Things Must Pass

  1. Great Observations. While the Jesse-Scene in Toy Story 2 always left me cold (I don’t know why, maybe I was too young at the time), the finale of Toy Story 3 had me in at least a few tears. As you say, Toy Story 3 has little character development apart from Ken – and I found Lotso’ back story a bit clichéd, but it made up for it with some very exciting and funny action setpieces channeling everything from “The Great Escape” to “Under Siege”. I love how Pixar can pull these things off and win (cf. the direct Star Wars references in Toy Story 2) and how DreamWorks just makes you groan when it throws in a completely useless Wizard of Oz reference. If water kills the witches, why doesn’t the rest of the suffering kingdom simply attack in the rain :)

    • Thanks, Alex:

      “the Jesse-Scene in Toy Story 2 always left me cold (I don’t know why, maybe I was too young at the time)”

      You must be made of pure evil! Just kidding. You’re right – Lotso played the same role, and suffered the same fate, as Stinky Pete in TS2. I didn’t spot the Under Siege reference, though? What did I miss?

  2. A very interesting review. I loved the film and think it’s great that a mainstream family franchise can effectively help children come to terms with these difficult themes, rather than just peddling weak jokes about animals and hip-hop. It was also kind of miraculous that they had introduced so many new secondary and tertiary characters so late in the series and managed to imbue them all with character and memorability (apart from possibly that insect guy). I too think that it is the perfect time to end the franchise, as it must surely be in the top rank of film trilogies for its consistency of quality and progression of the animation medium. Also, given that Pixar will soon be branching out into live action with “John Carter of Mars” I think that the timings of the films’ releases would make the trilogy emblematic in years to come of the company’s formative years as a peerless animation-exclusive company.

    • Thanks – it will be very interesting to see how Pixar applies its technology to live-action cinema. Let’s hope they won’t be tempted to take the money for a fourth Toy Story film. TS3 was originally going to be made by Disney without Pixar’s involvement, but then the two companies got back together again, and Pixar thankfully took the project back.

      I actually found it really difficult to write about Pixar, even in a short review – there’s so much that we take for granted, and so little that they do badly, that it’s hard to generate any controversy to run with.

      • “so little that they do badly, that it’s hard to generate any controversy to run with.”

        This has been bugging me for years. Whenever I have any chance of talking to a Pixar employee (or recently I met Leslie Iwerks, who made “The Pixar Story”), I asked them: “Where is the catch? There must be something evil about Pixar, they can’t be that good without striking a deal with the devil.” The only thing I ever heard is that the company puts so much positive pressure on their employees to come up with good stuff that their private lives can suffer. I’ve found one interview where Andrew Stanton basically admits that he had no private life during “Wall*E” (http://creativescreenwritingmagazine.blogspot.com/2008/12/andrew-stanton-wall-e-q.html). But I guess that’s a problem of a lot of people in the movie business, not just at Pixar (I have heard so many horror stories about undoable amounts of work from Visual Effects people), so it doesn’t really count.

        In their films, the point is probably the only one to criticize: Pixar films do propagate a nostalgic-but-liberal world view in which the old can always be reconciled with the new. Does the real world work like that?

      • Maybe “controversy” was the wrong word for me to use – it’s easier to write about something with flaws and inconsistencies, because when something appears to run as smoothly as a Pixar film, there’s no critical friction to get a discussion going. That’s not always the way – films like Wall-E and The Incredibles are much more firmly engaged with other genre films, so there’s more to talk about, and they both take risky or contentious decisions (first half of Wall-E is their best work, to my mind).

        If anything, I’m perturbed by the double-edged message of TS – the nostalgia for old-fashioned toys and childhood, i.e. imaginative play over passive, couch-based TV consumption is sincerely presented in the films, but is matched with an onslaught of merchandise and videogame tie-ins. I suppose they’re not inherently incompatible (you don’t have to play videogames all the time), but it does seem like a mixed message.

    • Regarding Disney’s foolish original attempt to move forward without Pixar on Toy Story 3, it’s interesting how every film in the trilogy was saved from either mediocrity or obscurity at some point. It’s well known that TS2 was originally planned to go straight-to-video, and was only brought to cinemas when people took notice of its high quality (causing all kinds of contractual controversies in the process). However, I didn’t find out until recently the fate that TS1 almost met. Apparently when Jeffrey Katzenberg was still working at Disney he put pressure upon Pixar to make the film as ‘edgy’ as possible. As a result the first drafts/recordings of the film was full of cynical characterisation and references that didn’t really appeal to either the child or adult audience. Pretty much the template for a lot of Katzenberg’s later stuff with Dreamworks then! These triumphs over adversity make the Toy Story trilogy contrast with a lot of other franchises which suffer as they go on due to the film makers being indulged creatively (Matrix/Star Wars spring to mind).

  3. Now THAT’S what I call a “Toy Story 3″ review. WOW ! LOL !!! “TS3″ is darker than the other two installments, so a little gloom and doom is certainly appropriate…

    • Thanks, Daniel – that scene in the incinerator was incredible, about as gripping as it gets, and for a moment I wondered if they were going to end things right there…..

      The amazing thing is that it never feels gloomy. It’s like the ideal parental chat (!) that explains mortality without making it feel like a bad thing.

  4. Now I have to admit it: I’ve never even seen “Under Siege”. The scene on the conveyor belt just felt a lot like it happened on a moving train. The pure evil part is true, by the way.

    • All I remember of Under Siege is Steven Seagal saying “I also cook”, Erika Eleniak coming out of a giant cake (having fallen asleep inside and missed all the shooting), and the fact that he saved the ship without taking his jacket off or breaking a sweat.

      • Ah, but Under Siege II is the one on the moving train. I remember now. He doesn’t take his jacket off in that one, either. And Eric Bogosian from Talk Radio plays the bad guy…

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