Sunday, July 18, 2010

Review - Toy Story 3

At the height of summer, every Hollywood studio is desperate to dazzle us with the most expensive, ambitious and bombastic sequences money and technology can buy, and in the opening minutes of Toy Story 3, we're led to believe that Pixar is following suit. The film begins with an explosive chase in which all of our favourite characters from the first two films play key roles, but just as the outlandish action builds to its dramatic climax, director Lee Unkrich cuts away to reality. We're in Andy's bedroom, and the previous scene has taken place entirely within his head, as he plays with his toys on the floor. The boundless imagination of a child has concocted this fantasy from whatever items he has to hand.

This depiction of childhood playtime will strike a chord with anyone who has ever created a world for their toys to inhabit – which, I'd imagine, is almost all of us – and that's why the Toy Story movies have found a special place in audience's hearts, above and beyond the rest of Pixar's astonishingly consistent output. They're cutting-edge films that celebrate old-fashioned virtues. We can instantly relate to Andy's relationship with his toys, and Toy Story 3 takes advantage of that emotional connection by exploring what happens when that relationship comes to its inevitable end. Toy Story 3 has all of the humour, action and excitement that made its predecessors instant classics, but it is also a piercing study of the limits of nostalgia, and of the pain involved in severing the ties that bind. It's a film about love and loss, ageing and even death.

Such is the way of Pixar, whose mastery of animation is now so complete that it seems there are only emotional boundaries, rather than technological ones, left to be pushed against. The remarkable thing is just how adept all of the filmmakers at this studio are in striking a balance between the light and shade of their stories, cracking jokes throughout without undermining the real sense of peril their characters face. The toys' traumas begin as 17 year-old Andy (again played by John Morris) prepares for college life and must decide what to do with the long neglected Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and gang. Through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, they find themselves carted off to the Sunnyside Day Care Centre, a place that initially sounds like a utopia – children to play with every day! – but one that is quickly revealed to be a terrifying hell from which there may be no escape.

This turn of events allows screenwriter Michael Arndt (who had the assistance of Unkrich, John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton) to add a whole bevy of new toys to the cast of characters. Michael Keaton's Ken is a terrific newcomer – his on-off romance with Barbie culminating in a hilarious fashion show sequence – while I have a particularly soft spot for frustrated thespian Mr Pricklepants (voiced by a haughty Timothy Dalton), but pink teddy bear Lotso (an outstanding Ned Beatty) is the new toy who dominates the film's second half. He may be all smiles and hugs but his soul is twisted, and his imprisonment of the toys leads to the superbly staged Great Escape-spoof that drives the narrative. Toy Story 3's screenplay is a thing of beauty, with Arndt never allowing the momentum to slacken, even while he finds time for funny sidetracks like Buzz's bizarre Spanish turn, or Mr Potato Head having to improvise after losing his potato.

There are also pleasing references and echoes of the first two films laced throughout, like so many small gags and details that will only become apparent on repeated viewings, but Unkrich also pushes the emotional core that those films shared further than ever before. At one point, the toys stare into the abyss and face the fact of their ultimate mortality, their quiet acceptance of their fate being one of the most remarkable and moving scenes I've ever witnessed in a film ostensibly aimed at children. Toy Story 3 ventures into some extremely dark corners and finds a number of haunting images there – many of which feature the damaged Big Baby – and I couldn't help wondering if the film might prove too intense for some young viewers. But the filmmakers seem acutely aware of how much is too much, and they manage to put us through the emotional wringer without seeming to manipulate our emotions in a false way. Every tear is earned.

That holds true right up to the touching coda, which brings the story full circle and ends on a note that feels perfectly apt. The decision-makers and accountants at Disney will undoubtedly look at the box-office returns and ask for another instalment in this can't-miss series, but I hope Pixar resists that notion, because it's hard to imagine a better culmination for the story they began 15 years ago. Made with incredible love, care and attention, Toy Story 3 is the climax this series deserves and it's as close to a perfect piece of mainstream entertainment that one could imagine. A whole new generation of children will surely thrill to the wonderful action sequences, memorable toys and slapstick humour, but those of us who have grown up with these characters will undoubtedly have a stronger reaction. Rarely has the act of putting away childish things resonated as deeply as it does in this glorious film.