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COMMENTARY

Toy Story 3

Story Time

I am an agnostic bordering on atheism where Pixar is concerned, so it took me more than a month to get around to seeing Toy Story 3. I saw it flat, my skepticism encouraging me to save the extra five bucks I would have spent on the 3-D version. Perhaps that was a mistake; in his capsule review in The New Yorker, David Denby said that 3-D "makes the space [on the screen] vividly dramatic." But Denby loved Up, too, so I can't take his opinions too seriously, at least where Pixar is concerned.

TS3 is far too long—a besetting sin of most Pixar features and, for that matter, most contemporary features of all kinds—but it is, overall, a neat piece of narrative carpentry. There's a real story, the pieces fit together, and in the proper order. It's no wonder that TS3 has been praised so highly in a summer otherwise dominated by films—Inception, Salt—whose dominant characteristic seems to be incoherence. In earlier Pixar films there have been cheats that I had trouble forgiving (in the original Toy Story, when Buzz Lightyear still believes he's a real spaceman, what is he thinking, why is he inert, when his owner Andy plays with him?), but I wasn't aware of any egregious sins in the new feature.

There's a big problem, though: the characters are lacking in any complexity, and ultimately in any interest. The toys have always been defined as individuals by schtick, clever plays on or against type—the airhead Barbie doll, the milquetoast dinosaur—but Pixar worked those schticks very hard in the first two movies, and in the third we're left with the reality that these characters are essentially indistinguishable. They're toys, and they yearn for some child to play with them, preferably without tearing them apart. That's it.

Some critics have tried to read more into the movie—Denby said it "gets at the most primary fear—being cast off and no longer of use"—but I think they're seeing what's not there. True, there are hints in all three of the Toy Story movies that their premise could have been explored in intriguing and potentially disturbing ways, as when the toys bump into the reality that there is no difference between them and vast numbers of other toys that look just like them. Surely the fear that we're not really individuals of unique value but just disposable parts in a vast, impersonal socioeconomic machine comes closer to being "the most primary fear," but the movies quickly dispose of any such traces of existential anxiety.

So, the toys are cute, as always, but any interest must be looked for not in them but in their situation. In TS3, Andy, the toys' owner, has reached college age, thus the question, what is to become of his playthings? Will their destination be the attic, a daycare center, the city dump, or, in Woody's case, Andy's dorm room? As I've suggested, that complexity is managed well, for the most part. The toys' "prison break" is clever and funny enough to justify the overdrawn grimness of the daycare-center-as-prison metaphor that precedes it. Such narrative ingenuity can take a film just so far, though (especially when it's too long), and the same is true of excellent voice work (which TS3 certainly has). Past that point, a story demands richer characters than Toy Story 3 can provide.

Granted, if the toys had more substantial personalities, they might seem uncomfortably weird, like most other movies' toys-come-to-life—Chuckie, anyone?—unless, that is, they were handled with a mastery that so far I haven't seen in any Pixar features except Brad Bird's two. (There is in fact one truly weird character in TS3, the hulking Big Baby, but that weirdness feels more like a lapse of directorial control than a considered choice.) CGI animation, which encourages complexity of many other kinds, has proved to be a stubborn obstacle to animated acting of real subtlety, but then, animated features of all kinds rarely combine narrative complexity and character complexity in satisfying fashion. That's one reason most animated features are regarded, correctly, as children's films. I haven't seen anything in the non-Bird Pixar features to suggest that the Pixar directors—Lee Unkrich directed TS3—feel any strong interest in achieving a rich blend of story and character, or are capable of it.

What Pixar has tended to provide instead is a sort of emotional blackmail, epitomized by the opening minutes of Up (can you claim to be a truly good person if you are not moved, on cue, by the story of Ellie and Carl?) but present in most of the earlier Pixar features, too, if not always so obviously. There's a little of that sort of stuff at the beginning and end of TS3, but it's borderline acceptable as a summary of the first two features and then, at the end, as a way of wrapping things up—and, of course, pointing us toward Toy Story 4.

I doubt that I'll go see TS4, whenever it happens to be released, but there's no question in my mind about what I'll do when the next Pixar feature, Cars 2, reaches theaters next summer. That will be, I'm sure, the first Pixar feature that I skip entirely. Pixar has finally exhausted my patience, and I have to wonder if it will ever exhaust the patience of mainstream critics and the mainstream audience. Not for a while yet, I'm afraid. By now, everyone is too well trained in how to admire the emperor's splendid attire.

[Posted July 30, 2010]

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