Film criticism by Ian Kay.

Playing with “Toy Story 3”, dir. Lee Unkrich

Apparently, Pixar has under contract nearly all of the truly imaginative writers in the industry. Using old (but not tired) characters, they have yet again told a delightful, entertaining story that will be a blast for kids and adults.

What Pixar understands is that using a classic story model is fine, as long as you can inject a bit of wit and a slightly different approach into the obvious. The storytellers don’t stretch too far beyond the ordinary for their building blocks: they use toys we all recognize, spoof known genres and make generalized pop references as the butt of many jokes.  Yet in combination – and with a knack for pacing and building real character relationships – something fresh emerges.

Lee Unkrich has an awesome advantage when directing an animated feature: he has absolute control over the actors’ faces.  A beautiful human face or an actor who “lives the part” can be engaging, but a line delivered with a certain twitch of the mouth or a cut of the eyes can make a character. Animation allows the director to make sure that every character can be given a life beyond what is in the script.

And Toy Story 3 takes full advantage, from the Dinosaur’s ever present goofy grin to Buzz Lightyear’s eyebrows. These toys are expressive.  So instead of a group of “cute” characters, we have real characters with emotions who also happen to be endearing. When a toy is in danger, we care – it would be a tragedy; a death would not be a trivial point to move the plot forward.

The toys find themselves in a worrisome position. Their owner, Andy, who has played with them since he was a young boy, is now going off to college. Their fate is in his hands. Will he take them along, throw them away, or store them in the attic? As usual, Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) takes the lead, assuring them that Andy will do the right thing and store them in the attic. But by a shift of fate, they all end up being donated to Sunnyside Day Care center.

It is at Sunnyside that the tone takes a mature turn. There is a grim side opposite the sunny one at this day care center, and the toys discover it early on.  An oil-tycoon type in the form of a stuffed pink teddy bear controls the toys in the day care with an iron fist. This bear, Lotso (as in “Lotso Hugs”), decides who gets to be played with by the older kids and who must deal with the brutalities of the younger, wilder children. The rest of the film is an epic, exciting prison break (escape from Sunnyside) and the race to return to Andy before he leaves for college.

There is a lot to be said for dealing with themes of change and growing up while avoiding schmaltz and sentimentality.  The reason it works in Toy Story is that the toys have earned an identity that is tied to, yet still separate from Andy. They see themselves as having a duty: to always be there for Andy, and if Andy is through with them, their secondary goal is to be played with by other children. They exist to make children happy. So it is not the story of a boy growing too old for his toys, rather, it is the story of the toys realizing their own worth, their place in Andy’s life, and then figuring out what to do about it.

All of that aside, the voices and the characterizations are no less brilliant than the animation and the story. There is not a single misstep in the voice casting, though my favorite is still the squeaky voice of Wallace Shawn coming from the green T-Rex. The best addition to the toys is the arrival of Ken (as in Ken and Barbie). Michael Keaton does his voice, and Ken serves as the source of  some of the best jokes in the movie : “I am not a girl’s toy! What makes you think that?!?

There is a measure of restraint in the animation that completes the circle of artistry. The level of realism and depth in Pixar’s animation is absolutely stunning and there seems to be nothing that they cannot do. Yet they resist what could become mayhem. Toys do outrageous things, but there is a certain “physics” that applies even to them, and it binds them close enough to reality to punch home the tension and drama.  The pacing is fast and thrilling, but it never devolves into using the mind-numbing editing styles of the worst action pictures. Just like a terrible pop song is given a bit of life by mesmerizing imagery in a music video, fast, nonsensical editing and a large volume of crass humor can temporarily distract from a bad screenplay. And we witness that, all too often. So it is all the more credit to Pixar, with their limitless visual capabilities and young demographic, for taking the time and energy to give us a memorable story with style instead of a forgettable assault on the senses.

This review can also be seen on JimSullivanInk.

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