I know I am late to the game with my review of Toy Story 3, Pixar’s latest installment in the playtime trilogy, but I felt like I had to be. I needed the film to rest in my mind for awhile.
See, I grew up with the two Toy Story films, the first released in 1995 and the second in 1999 would’ve had me at 7 and 11 years old respectively. That meant these films were classic nostalgia for myself. Both films I saw at the height of my childhood when a movie wasn’t a work of art, or a business, or even a movie – it was purely story and characters.
As you can guess, I love the first two Toy Story films and so I was a bit hesitant but also excited at the prospect of Toy Story 3. And when I finally saw it, I wanted the film’s presence and story to marinade before I dove into a review. I didn’t want my nostalgia and hype influencing a true exploration into the cinematic art of what director Lee Unkrich drew up.
(For those wary, this review is SPOILER FREE)
With that said, the film has still remained as fresh in my mind as it first did walking out the theater as one of the greats – certainly at the top of Pixar’s impressive 11-peat of box office smashes. It might be a bit unfair though since Toy Story 3 already had the advantage with a cast of characters that everyone loves and has grown to know. Yet, Unkrich crafted a film that delivered a fresh story without abandoning what made the first two films great. Perhaps most importantly, however, he also provided us with a touching ending to the series that doesn’t feel like cheap plastic.
Toy Story 3 follows all the favorite toys – the core gang – leftover from Andy growing up to college age. Some toys have been given away, some lost, most gone forever. Andy has to make a choice when leaving for college to leave his toys in the attic, trash them, or give them to a daycare center. Through a classic mix-up similar to Toy Story 2, the toys end up at Sunnyside Daycare. At first Sunnyside seems like a dream “retirement center” for a toy, but it’s not all glossy under the surface. Run by the manipulative Lotso Huggins (voiced by Ned Beatty), the toys quickly discover that Sunnyside is a dark place they need to escape from and return to their duty of “being there” for Andy.
It’s this sense of duty and responsibility versus finding your own way that resonates throughout the film. On multiple occasions, the toys are met with a choice that pits their own wants against that of Andy, their owner whom they love. At the center of this great tug-o-war is Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen), Woody pulling towards Andy and Buzz pragmatically sticking up for the rest of the toys who aren’t as highly regarded to Andy as Woody is. It’s a reversal from Toy Story 2, a film that saw everyone else trying to rescue Woody from his intentions to ditch Andy for Japan.
And though on the surface the film explores this interplay, it’s larger theme is that of loss and moving on. It’s as if the entire film is preparing the viewer for the eventual end and goodbye to these characters – we’ve loved them for 15 years but at some point everyone goes their own direction. Just as Andy goes to college, many of the viewers have moved on to separate times in their life, whether that is a job, a school, or a new city. What the toys debate is a heartbreaking proposition to either stay for whenever their owner needs them (if he ever does), or to go somewhere where they’ll be more immediately appreciated. How do you make that choice? They both seem selfless on the face of it. And yet, it makes you want to crawl in your attic and “rescue” all those toys you have shut out of your life for making the choice of you rather than abandonment.
This is what Pixar does best: the animation studio provides a film with an emotional core not just for the characters but for the audience as well. We relate to the characters on so many levels. They resonate because everybody knows what it means to feel loss or a betrayal of loyalty. They resonate because nobody likes the harsh feeling of having to move on. They resonate because at one point in our lives we all moved on from our own toys. But most importantly, all these levels are presented with a hint of ambiguity so you never feel coerced into feeling a certain way.
Couple this strong theme with the incredible visuals that Unkrich and the amazing animators at Pixar have provided and the film enraptures you into it, unrelenting on it’s emotional squeeze until you’ve walked back to your car realizing that your life is moved on from the fictional toy story world, never to be revisited on the big screen. The lighting is gorgeous, the camera work awesome and the editing and pacing just wonderful. The film never feels dragged or chaotic, instead it feels intentional and pushes the audience to grief and sadness only to pull them into happiness and nostalgia. There were genuine moments in the film where I did not know what was going to happen next but desperately wanted to know – a mark of great writing.
I wish I could say more without spoiling the film, though I imagine many readers have seen it already. The ending is so perfect and so incredibly ambiguous with your emotions I don’t think it can be understated. The last act is exciting and suspenseful and if you don’t at least think about crying, I doubt you have a heart.
I realize I have written most of my review about theme and less about the film as a whole, as were my original intentions, but it’s hard not to. What hit home the most about Toy Story 3 was it’s ability to deliver an epic movie with broad questions and size it down to the scale of a toy. It doesn’t matter if the 3D was good (it is), or how many wisecracks Hamm makes (a good many, don’t forget how humorous this film is), or if the movie looks great (naturally, it’s Pixar) because at the end of the day, what Toy Story 3 gives us is a story with heart and soul that feels honest to these characters we love. The story feels utterly sincere to the audience and not forced. And at the very last frame you can’t help but feel love and thanks for the whole universe of Toy Story “to infinity and beyond.”
Directed by: Lee Unkrich
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Ned Beatty
Synopsis: Woody, Buzz, and the rest of their toy-box friends are dumped in a day-care center after their owner, Andy, departs for
Runtime: 103 minutes