Friday, July 09, 2010


Human Story

By Damian Arlyn
My wife and I saw Toy Story 3 (in glorious 2-D thankfully) a couple of weeks ago and I find that since then I’ve been reflecting on it a great deal. I was fully prepared for it to be a decent movie (perhaps not the best of the three but an enjoyable and pleasant time at the theater nonetheless), but what I was not prepared for was how emotional an experience it would prove to be and how red my eyes would look when the lights came up.

For those few who still may not know, Toy Story 3 deals with mostly the same group of characters we’ve come to know and love from the previous films (minus a few supporting players and including a couple new ones) dealing with the reality of their owner Andy (whose last name, to my knowledge, is never given) leaving for college thus causing the toys to wonder what will happen to them. Are they going with him, are they going into the attic or are they going into the trash? The rest of the film follows much the same structure that the first two did and is equally as joyous and thrilling, yet also somehow manages to be quite stirring. I am not alone in feeling this way. Word of mouth by moviegoers has been overwhelmingly positive and critics have been completely charmed by the film. Toy Story 3 currently has a 99% fresh rating on rottentomatoes (which, when you consider that’s out of more than 200 reviews, is pretty remarkable), has made more than $300 million domestically and almost is certainly going to take home the best animated feature Oscar at next year’s ceremony. All this has caused me to mull over certain aspects of the film (and of Pixar in general). I have come to a few conclusions. I doubt that what I have to say is going to be particularly enlightening to anyone, but I feel compelled to say them anyway.

First of all, I have finally decided that I need to simply “bite the bullet” and see every single Pixar film that gets produced in the near future regardless of whether or not I think it actually looks good. Nobody out there is creating work as deep, thoughtful or imaginative as they are without any trace of irony, cynicism or ugliness. My skepticism has been proved wrong too many times now to doubt their abilities any longer. Indeed, even the trailers for this third entry in the Toy Story series didn’t really impress me much, though I was aware it wouldn't be a complete waste of time as I realized not too long ago that Pixar has yet to produce anything actually “bad.” Their worst products (Cars and A Bug’s Life) have been, in my estimation, merely mediocre when compared to the majority of other Hollywood fare and most of their recent stuff (such as Up, WALL-E and Ratatouille) has bordered on brilliant. It took me a while to come around on the excellence of Pixar. Although I always thought their stories were good and their characters engaging, I found the look of their films to be rather odd. Everything, including plants and animals, appeared to be made of plastic. The creatures never seemed to be composed of flesh, bone or muscle and all the objects, to me at least, looked like they were made of the exact same material, which was hard, shiny and colorful. This approach may work fine for a story whose characters truly are made of plastic (such as toys), but feels strange when it involves people, insects or monsters. It wasn’t until Finding Nemo that they managed to finally combine the beauty of their rich and vibrant colors with things that seemed to be made of the “stuff” of real life.

Secondly, I am officially giving up trying to understand how it is that Pixar is able to consistently create works of such sterling quality. Before going to see Toy Story 3, I watched The Pixar Story, a documentary that chronicles the rocky development and ultimate triumph of the company as well as provides a rare glimpse inside the inner-workings of the studio and the creative processes of its animators/storytellers. I don’t know what I was expecting (certainly not someone to address the camera and explain that “this is how we make great movies”), but I wasn’t any closer to knowing their “magic formula” when it was over than I was before it started. The closest I can come to explaining the secret of their success is an event the film related wherein Toy Story 2 (after having been worked on for several years) was slated to be released to theaters in a matter of months, but the filmmakers weren’t satisfied with it. Disney, however, knew any Toy Story sequel would make money and didn’t care if it was a sub-par product. Nonetheless Pixar couldn’t hand over something that they didn’t believe in, so they brought in the first film’s director John Lasseter to help “redo” just about everything in a very short period of time. It was grueling and intense, but they finally were able to produce something of which they could be proud. I think this anecdote speaks volumes about the work ethic and integrity of the people at Pixar. While Disney is now clearly just in it for the money (Has anyone seen the trailers for Tangled?), Pixar is committed to making movies that they themselves would want to watch… and their tastes are superb.

Finally, with regards to Toy Story 3, much has been made of its ability to move audiences (including quite a lot of men apparently) to tears. Since I can’t discuss what specifically provokes these reactions without spoiling the movie, I will simply respond to something I have noticed in several reviews (which, I must say, ultimately inspired this piece I am writing). Many critics have related our emotional attachments to these characters with our own natural materialistic tendencies. They claim we feel nostalgic about our old discarded toys and consequently project that affection onto Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang. Personally, I think this misses the point of what makes Toy Story (or any Pixar film for that matter) resonate with us. I would suggest that it is not their “toy” nature that we are connecting to, it’s their "human" nature. The toys in Toy Story 3 (just like the fish in Finding Nemo and the robots in WALL-E) are really just mirrors in which we can see our own joys, fears, victories, defeats, rewards, losses and other significant existential experiences reflected back at us. One of the things that Pixar is able to do so well is take what appears to be a rather simple premise on the surface (a bunch of toys come to life when nobody’s around, a male fish is separated from his son, two robots meet and fall in love, etc) and expand it into a complex and sophisticated meditation on themes that are universal to all human beings: friendship, love, family, youth, courage, sadness, pain, suffering, duty, sacrifice, etc. When we watch them, we are really looking at ourselves. Their adventures are our adventures. Their tragedies are our tragedies. So, in the end, Toy Story 3 isn’t really about toys at all (or at least about as much as Animal Farm is about animals). It’s about us. All of us. It is a profoundly human story they are telling and the people at Pixar are never afraid to reach deep into their souls and let their own humanity pour out onto the screen for all to see.

Come to think of it, maybe that is their secret.

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I don't think it tops the original, but it's damn good and though I haven't seen Toy Story 2 in a long time, I think it tops that. Ned Beatty also makes a great villain out of a stuffed bear. That big baby doll is real creepy too.
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