Movie Review: Toy Story 3

I am a fan of Pixar.  There was definitely a time when I wasn’t paying attention to animation, this web but since The Incredibles I have always looked forward to their next project with curious, hopeful skepticism.  A cleaning robot in space?  An old guy in a floating house?  Didn’t grab me on the concepts, but man, WALL-E and Up were absolutely two of my favorite films in recent years.

I had a similar sense of trepidation going into Toy Story 3.  I didn’t see the second film, and I suspected that this one was going to be more for kids than the last two Pixar films were.  Boy was I wrong.  This is not at all a movie for kids, and it’s not really for parents of young children, either.  This movie is downright scary in places.  There was never a more unsettling henchman than Big Baby, who dives purposefully into the Uncanny Valley and comes out with a limp and a lazy eye.  The incinerator sequence takes every bit of the virtuosity displayed in the sequences of EVE saving WALL-E and the opening sequence of Up and refocuses the loss felt through the death of a loved one into terror and resignation at one’s own impending death.  Unsettling is not a strong enough word.

The real audience for this movie is parents with grown children.  That doesn’t describe me, but I was able to see the movie through my own experience in growing up and going off to college.  The scenes of Andy with his mother and sister and Andy’s last playtime with the toys perfectly captured that sense of present-tense nostalgia.  The awareness of knowing a watershed moment is happening and not knowing how to feel about it.  A simultaneous anticipation and loss.  The act of growing up and moving on.  The performances of Andy, Woody, and Andy’s Mom are so complex and nuanced, it’s amazing that they’re completely created.

Still, these last three Pixar films have suffered from weak second halves.  This one didn’t go as completely off the rails as WALL-E and Up did (don’t get me wrong, I still love those movies in spite of their major tone shifts), or maybe it’s just that I’m more into the prison-break genre flick it becomes for long stretches.  Regardless, these are not perfect films, and the deus ex machina of “the claw” was the biggest offender in this one.  They almost got away with it by making the scene so overwhelming and telegraphing it at the start of the junkyard sequence, but showing your hand does not count as setting up action.  Still, intellectually it works on the level set by the opening sequence of playtime from the toys’ point of view.  When kids are playing, pretty much everything that happens is deus ex machina, with the child as god.  Here, director Lee Unkrich gets to play god and save his toys from a fiery death.  It’s cute and clever, but emotionally it undercuts the scene, which is maybe a good thing in this case.  Still Pixar is good enough that they can take risks, make missteps, and still deliver really, really powerful films.  I can’t wait to see what they do next.

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