[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?….