Friday, June 18, 2010

Toy Story 3: All Growed Up

Toy Story 3 (2010) • View trailer for Toy Story 3
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: G, and perhaps too generously, for quite scary moments and heart-stopping suspense
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.18.10
Buy DVD: Toy Story 3 • Buy Blu-Ray: Toy Story 3 [Blu-ray]

To this day, I can't listen to Peter, Paul and Mary's 1963 recording of "Puff, the Magic Dragon" without getting an ache in my gut, and the patiently calm, sentient teddy bear in Steven Spielberg's A.I. tore me to shreds.

The notion of abandoned "toys with souls" as a metaphor for growing up is more than I can stand. Only a wretchedly cruel world would demand that children surrender their innocence and sense of wonder, as a "necessary" step toward maturity and adulthood.
Woody, far left, is surprised to learn that all the other toys -- from left, Mr.
Potato Head, Slinky Dog, Bullseye, Mrs. Potato Head, Rex, Hamm, Jessie,
the Aliens and Buzz Lightyear -- would rather be sent to Sunnyside Daycare,
than wait in the attic of the only home they've known, for the time when the
college-bound Andy one day might need them again.

Imagine my chagrin, then, to discover that this message is front and center in Toy Story 3.

Ah, but trust Pixar to soften this subtext with the studio's trusted, impeccable mix of solid storytelling, spot-on character voices, bursts of wicked humor and a growing level of tension and suspense that climaxes with a heart-thumping third act.

Granted, these characters have lost a bit of their freshness; and yes, many of the new toy co-stars feel overmuch like deliberate product placement, much the way George Lucas let the commercial tail wag his artistic dog, when he added those cuddly Ewoks to his third Star Wars film.

But that's small stuff: There's also a lot to be said for simply seeing Woody and Buzz together again, and for hearing the wonderfully familiar strains of Randy Newman's "You've Got a Friend in Me" in the soundtrack of this third toy-centered adventure.

But goodness: If you thought that nasty neighbor kid Sid was menacing in 1995's original Toy Story, you're likely to choke on your Jujubes after meeting the cymbal-smashing monkey in this story.

Indeed, it could be argued that this film is much too scary for the youngest members of its target audience. I'm all for stories with teeth; those grim Grimm's fairy tales demonstrate the necessary truth that heroic redemption means little without some adversity along the way. But writers John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich and Michael Arndt skipped teeth and went straight for fangs; they've really ladled on the terror, which builds to a wide-eyed, chest-clutching, gasping-for-breath finale.

The monkey's bad enough; the deceptively serene "Big Baby" will revive all those doll nightmares we had back in the day, thanks to Twilight Zone episodes such as the one involving the homicidal "Talking Tina." Brrrrrrr!


One of the numerous clever touches employed in Toy Story 3 is the acknowledgment that time has, indeed, passed. Andy has become a young man bound for college in a few short days; he's no more than an echo of the boy whose childhood was so happily occupied with Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) and his wife (Estelle Harris), Rex the dinosaur (Wallace Shawn), Hamm the piggy bank (John Ratzenberger) and Slinky Dog (Blake Clark, sounding very much like the original film's late, lamented Jim Varney).

As a result, Andy's mother demands a purge: Her son must decide what's going with him to school, what's being carefully preserved in the attic ... and what'll be left for the garbage collector.

Actually, there's also a fourth choice, but we'll get to that in a moment.

The toys must abide by the decisions of their boy, but our playtime heroes are horrified when Andy places only Woody in the box bound for his college dorm room. All the others are bagged, tagged and destined for the attic, but of course things go awry; believing themselves abandoned and dumped at the curb  merely the first of this film's many crises  Buzz, Jessie and the rest are relieved to wind up instead at Sunnyside Daycare, where they envision making an endless supply of children happy, five days a week.

That's the paradise promised by Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty), a jumbo pink-and-white stuffie who loves to hug, smells like strawberries and serves as the de facto master of the Sunnyside Daycare toys. Ah, but appearances can be deceiving, and there's such a thing as too much attention.

It turns out that Sunnyside Daycare has a split hierarchy: The "privileged" toys are enjoyed by the somewhat older children in the classroom where Lotso rules the roost ... and the sacrificial lambs are locked into a second classroom, where unrestrained toddlers do little but thrash, smash and otherwise abuse anything they can get their pudgy, booger-slimed little hands on.

Lotso and his chief accomplice, Ken (Michael Keaton), think nothing of tossing Buzz, Jessie and all the other newcomers into the latter room.

The unheeded warning comes, in subtly ominous fashion, as Buzz notices that all the other toys in this playroom are hiding beneath the furniture, rather than waiting excitedly for the kids to arrive: a familiar moment that echoes Pixar's early 1988 short, "Tin Toy," and its frantic attempt to flee from a similarly unrestrained infant's destructive clutches.

Woody, meanwhile, has wound up in the temporary possession of Bonnie, one of the nicer little girls at Sunnyside. She knows how to take care of her toys, and she also has international taste: In a nice touch, one of her stuffed critters is the fat, furry and utterly silent star of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's 1988 classic, My Neighbor Totoro.

Woody quickly learns of Sunnyside's true nature from Bonnie's other playtime companions: a lederhosen-wearing hedgehog dubbed Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), a cuddly unicorn named Buttercup (Jeff Garlin) and a plastic triceratops named Trixie (Kristen Schaal).

But how can one lone toy  even one as resourceful as Woody  free all his friends from the clutches of kids, the malevolent dictatorship of Lotso and the real-world security of Sunnyside's locked doors and windows?

Not to mention that blasted monkey, which Sees All.

This suspenseful central storyline is further highlighted by numerous subplots, the most amusing having to do with Ken's head-over-heels infatuation with Barbie (Jodi Benson), who shares his way-over-the-top fashion sense. Lasseter and the other writers mercilessly skewer poor Ken, who's already sensitive about being dismissed as a "girl's doll"; the increasingly edgy humor ramps all the way up to snarky gender issues and the implication that the simple-minded Ken might be in touch with his feminine side a little too much.

Barbie, happily, eventually gets to prove that she's no mere dumb blonde. (Let's here it for doll emancipation!)

Another running gag involves the Potato Heads, forever losing their various parts, and the lengths to which Mr. Potato Head goes in an effort to fulfill his portion of Woody's crazy escape plan.

Hint: It involves a tortilla ... and you'll never laugh harder.

Other bits, inserted strictly for giggles, are just as memorable; they also demonstrate the deft timing of director Lee Unkrich (Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo) and the skill of Pixar's stable of animators. A plot contrivance messes up Buzz's programming, and he suddenly emerges in a lusty "Spanish mode"; watch the impeccably rendered expressions on Jessie's face  assuming you can take your eyes off the hilarious Buzz  as she nervously watches the spaceman court her with robust flamenco moves.

No flesh-and-blood actress could have handled the scene better.

Aside from his energetic underscore, Newman gets to update "You've Got a Friend in Me" with something of a follow-up song, "We Belong Together." It's another ballad that echoes the notion that children and their toys shouldn't be parted, and fortunately isn't nearly as sorrow-laden as Sarah McLachlan's poignant vocal on "When She Loved Me," in Toy Story 2.

Needless to say, you'll also want to remain in your seat during the amply animated closing credits.

Although the final scene of Toy Story 3 could be viewed as open-ended, I hope Lasseter & Co. are content to leave Woody, Buzz and the rest with their well-earned sense of closure. Trilogies have a nice ring to them, and  over the course of 15 years  Pixar has delivered one for the ages.

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