At a time when every soulless movie multiplex might well have “Abandon all hope…” emblazoned over its portals, Pixar has represented a source of consistent joy. There may have been a minor misstep or two over the course of its history (“Cars”—maybe), but this Disney-owned, CGI-animation wonderland has largely been busy producing one mini-masterpiece after another—“The Incredibles,” “Monsters Inc.,” “Finding Nemo” and the sublime “WALL-E.” The studio has won 24 Oscars. It has just released its 11th movie.
That film, “Toy Story 3,” may not mark the end of the trail for Woody the Cowboy (Tom Hanks) and the posse at Andy’s Playroom. But it feels valedictory. It seems like the culmination of all that preceded it in the franchise/series that started the Pixar coffers chiming with glee back in 1995. “Toy Story,” the first entirely computerized animated feature, signified a victory for cutting-edge entertainment technology and made it, in a sense, anti-human. But, of course, humanity is what it was all about. The photo-realist visuals may have been both new and dumbfounding (how are they doing that?), but the film was also an immersion in the familiar: We knew the toys, we knew the conflicts (personal dynamics, ego, loss, purpose), and we certainly knew the characters. They could have been a 4-H Club, a ladies’ sodality, a group of mah-jong players in San Francisco or a B’nai B’rith chapter in New York City. They also may have been springy and plastic, but hey—nobody’s perfect.
And imperfection was, and is, what makes the “TS” characters who they are, and the movies what they are. Woody’s precarious dominance over the playroom is a constant source of tension and something he blusters his way through. Buzz Lightyear’s egomania (batteries not included) is a reliable source of fun; the Potato Heads are constantly bickering; Rex the dinosaur is paralyzed by neuroses; Slinky Dog is leashed to an inferior intellect. Hamm? A salty character at best.
Like the characters, we know the basic structure of the “Toy Story” movies: They begin with a fantasy conjured in Andy’s head as he plays with his beloved toys; they end with a chase-and-rescue executed by the toys themselves. These sequences have gotten wilder and more virtuosic over the course of the series, and the “TS3” sequences are the best yet, at least in terms of choreography and wit. What’s curious this time around is the edginess of the story. One would not know it from the trailers, but the ending of this latest film contains a vision of eternal damnation that will be positively hair-raising, particularly for smaller children. What will unnerve their parents even more, though, is the existential dread that underscores the entire movie.
The crisis? Andy (John Morris) is going off to college, and his toys are going—well, that’s the thing. His mother (Laurie Metcalf) wants Andy’s room cleaned out; his covetous sister (Beatrice Miller) would like Andy gone, too, and quickly, so she can annex his bedroom. Andy is torn about his toys. For a pregnant moment, he stands with Buzz (Tim Allen) and Woody poised over his college-bound suitcase before he finally drops Woody in and consigns Buzz to the plastic bag with the rest of the gang. You feel bad for Buzz. It’s like Dorothy telling the Scarecrow she’s going to miss him most of all. Pass the oil can. And hand that lion a hankie.
Anyway, the rest of the toys are intended for the local day-care center, except the bags get mixed up, Mom puts the toys on the curb for garbage collection and Woody (as always, putting others before himself) has to undertake the kind of plaything-salvaging mission that’s been the core drama of all the “Toy Stories.”
This is the first “TS” in 3D, but apart from the cumbersome glasses, you might not notice. The Pixar style has always implied three dimensionality and the “3D” boast is more about marketing than effect. Still, the action is superb, the humor is abundant, the slapstick is inventive—Woody’s little balancing act on an unrolling tube of toilet paper is worthy of Buster Keaton. Barbie (Jodi Benson)—who finally gets her 15 minutes and a date with Ken (Michael Keaton)—is hilarious. But underlying the comedy and the tenderness are some disturbing suggestions about mortality, meaning and, despite the fiery images of the film’s finale, what hell might really be.
These toys have no life expectancy and no heavenly expectations. For them ultimate happiness means having a child to love and amuse. Being put in a bag in the attic for an indefinite period of inactivity/disconnection apparently holds no terror for the toys. But it does for us. What would eternity be like for a conscious being with no hope of a hereafter, no purpose, no contact? Is there anything more terrifying? What the toys represent is not something human or subhuman, but superhuman: beings for whom the only salvation is an existence rooted in charity itself, without other reward, without freedom through death. Children won’t get it. But it’s hard to imagine adults who won’t.
The entire “TS” series has been marked by a certain darkness. The absence of a father has gone unexplained, and silence implies misfortune. In the first film, the family is moving for undisclosed reasons, but one gets the sense they’re downsizing. The toys have had to contend with several incarnations of evil: Sid, the malicious toy-abuser of “Toy Story”; Al (of Al’s Toy Barn) and Stinky Pete in “Toy Story 2.” In “Toy Story 3” the bad guy is Lotso (Ned Beatty), a k a Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear, the neo-Stalinist leader of the Sunnyside day-care center, where an entrenched hierarchy maintains a kind of enslavement of newer toys in the playroom of the youngest kids (where pain and chaos reign).
Joe Morgenstern, the film critic for the Wall Street Journal, has compared Beatty’s performance to Andy Griffith’s in “A Face in the Crowd,” and the comparison is apt: a folksy facade masking instinctive ruthlessness. Unlike other “TS” villains, however, Lotso is imbued with a psychology: He was abandoned by his first owner and suffers from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. But he is also beyond redemption, which makes him a rare thing in what is ostensibly a children’s movie, a character without hope.
That may sound oxymoronic, but much about “Toy Story 3” is. The ostensibly inanimate objects are far more animated than most movie stars. They certainly have more soul. Plastic may not biodegrade for several millenniums, but the characters still struggle with questions of obsolescence and a kind of mortality. They may be the possessions of a kid just now going off to college, but they are aging Boomer toys. At the beginning of the series, few real-life children had ever related to the gang in Andy’s Playrooms, except as the fictional characters in the film: the talking action figure with the pull string (Woody), his female counterpart (Jessie, voiced by the great Joan Cusack), the Slinky dog, the Potato Heads, the little army guys who provide the toy room’s Swiss Guard. These are, in fact, recognizable to children now thanks to the movies and the unholy Disney-Mattel alliance, but they were, originally, aimed at their parents’ nostalgia for innocence. There’s not an X-box in sight; the Mario Brothers make no appearances (that would have been a rights infringement of the type Disney would never tolerate against itself). It is Barbie, and Barbie alone, who spans the generations with any ease, and she has her own poignant story in “TS3.” She finally meets Ken, and Ken turns out to be a rat. You wonder how many mothers of little “Toy Story 3” devotees will be nodding sympathetically as Barbie tries to make Ken into the anatomically correct man he ought to be.
But such are the story points that make “Toy Story 3” something other than the child-mollifier of its marketed image. The characters, specifically Woody, are confronted—even in a milieu that should be free of such crises—with unavoidable choices that test their moral mettle. Once again, Woody is offered a kind of paradise (college with Andy) and turns it down because the greater good depends on his selflessness and leadership. He is not quite Jesus in the desert, but neither can he turn from his mission or his sense of duty, nor can he deny the love/responsibility with which his existence has been blessed.
The heavy subtexts of “Toy Story 3” are perhaps like the undercoat on a Rembrandt, something that makes the surface brightness pop. There is nothing chiaroscuro about “TS3.” It’s sunny and warm and well-lit by the selflessness and small-caliber courage of its characters. Were the toys themselves casually heroic, the storyline would not mean that much. That they have to work so hard to do the right thing makes them very recognizable and worthy of affection.