Rumination vs. Revelation: Pixar, the Remarkable, and Toy Story 3

It’s not often I write about movies in this neck of the woods, but it’s hard not to use Cultural Learnings as an outlet for my thoughts about Toy Story 3. Not only is this a Pixar film, but it’s a Pixar film which deliberately taps into my childhood nostalgia: I was 9 when Toy Story was released, and 13 when Toy Story 2 hit theatres, so this is arriving at a time when that sort of nostalgia is both most welcome and most intellectually stimulating (as I’m considering culture and the media I consume in a much more critical fashion than I was back then).

Toy Story 3 is a solid sequel to the second film, and a wonderful conclusion to the cinematic trilogy, but I personally feel as if it is the least successful (relatively speaking, of course) of the three films when separated from our nostalgia and the emotional resonance the series has accrued over time. Whereas there are moments in this film which are more powerful than those which came before, and Pixar continues to separate itself from the pack by tapping into the audience’s emotional connection with this franchise in a fashion which has eluded Dreamworks with Shrek, Toy Story 3 is the first in the trilogy to feel repetitive, albeit in a purposeful fashion designed to emphasize key themes from the second film which become more complex in the context of the third.

Considering this is Pixar, they pick the right themes and execute them to perfection when the time comes to bring the series to its cinematic close, but there is a lack of discovery within the film’s adventure, establishing it as an extremely engaging rumination more than a revelation – what will follow is my attempt to explain why I’m not head over heels in love with the film as a whole even after being head over heels in love with its conclusion.

[I went a few paragraphs without any major spoilers, but then I sort of throw all caution to the wind, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet I’d suggest bookmarking this until then, and you’ll have something to read after getting back from the theatre.]

I had some enjoyable Twitter conversations about the film upon returning from the cinema, and what I’ve discovered is that I don’t necessarily think I’m criticizing Pixar for designing Toy Story 3 as they did. Considering how emotional I was when the movie came to a close, and considering how much fun I had with the adventure in the middle of the film, this was a journey I’m very glad to have taken, and I would agree with Todd VanDerWerff that the way the film is organized is fantastic at emphasizing the emotional climax (more on Todd’s argument in the conclusion).

However, with Toy Story 3 it is very clear from the beginning that this film is designed to reach this conclusion: while Toy Story 2 started as a basic inversion of the first film (in that Buzz was searching for Woody rather than the other way around), it evolved into an investigation of what would happen when Andy grows up, and what life waits for a toy once their owner goes off to college or has a family of their own. By comparison, Toy Story 3 opens with an extended montage which tells you that this is the answer to that hypothetical question (established in the heartbreaking “When She Loved Me” sequence), an entire film about what happens when Andy goes off to college and has to decide what to do with his childhood toys, and that never changes throughout the film. And so there’s not really any sense of discovery for the audience: while characters learn (or, more accurately, relearn) certain lessons, the film’s narrative is simply a sequence of barriers to a conclusion that the writers clearly started with. We don’t spend time at Sunnyside Daycare because the lessons learned there are necessary to the conclusion, but rather we spend time there because it reinforces key themes and has plenty of ways in which story points can be logically worked into the action.

In that sense, the film is very efficient, an adjective I use to praise the film even if it likely sounds like a bit of an insult. We often like to call the people at Pixar geniuses, and there are moments in the final thirty minutes of this film which show a perfect understanding of storytelling at its finest. However, for the most part, those moments rely more on our experience with these characters within the first two films than on the action within this film itself; Toy Story 3 is a delivery system for the series’ closing moments rather than a moment in its own right, carefully designed to hit the right notes to get the characters to the point (heading into real spoiler territory here now, in case you’ve been risking reading it) where they link hands as they are nearly incinerated and to the point where Andy passes his toys onto young Bonnie so that another generation can enjoy them.

Considering that my eyes were beyond watery during that conclusion, the emotional catharsis of saying goodbye to these toys alongside Andy was well set up by the film, but only in so far as it reconnected us with these characters before the point we said goodbye. I didn’t feel like any of their character arcs were substantially changed or altered in the process of their time at Sunnyside, and while Lotso’s backstory was nicely used in terms of connecting with themes of abandonment and the fear of being replaced, the decision to have him remain a heartless villain meant that he was just another barrier at the end of the day. Sure, Jesse spends the film anxious about Andy turning out to be another Emily (although not as much as I would have liked, to be honest), but no other character really feels like they go on anything close to a journey: Buzz gets reset into a delusional space ranger (again) and eventually starts speaking Spanish, but these are barriers, not character arcs. Woody has the closest thing to a full-on arc, but his goals remain pretty consistent until the end where reflection (or rumination, if you prefer) convinces him to put himself in the box along with his friends as opposed to going off to college with Andy.

I sound really hyper-critical, but I want to make clear that I loved this movie: the “great escape” elements of the Sunnyside storyline were a whole lot of fun, Michael Keaton’s Ken is a nice balance of caricature and character, and Lotso is nicely captured by both the animators and Ned Beatty. However, with the two previous films it felt like the fun evolved into the unexpected, and the films came to conclusions that we couldn’t have anticipated when the film began (okay, this goes more for Toy Story 2 – the first film is pretty predictable). This time around, it seemed like the series was repeating itself: Lotso is awfully similar to Stinky Pete, and it’s not like the series hasn’t done action-adventure storylines in the past two films. And while these characters and this action were very purposefully and effectively deployed, you could tell that they were being deployed: rather than flowing naturally from Point A to an unexpected (or at the very least unseen) Point B, it seems like Toy Story 3 starts a short distance from the finish line but then takes an extended detour before eventually bringing the race to a close. Yes, we’re incredibly focused on the finish when it arrives having already seen it earlier, leaving me an emotional wreck in the best possible way, but it seems to place more emphasis on the destination than the journey, or at least on the larger three-film journey than on this particular journey in and of itself.

There’s been quite a few comparisons made with the Lost finale, and while it’s slippery to start conflating television with film I do think there’s some validity to such a course of action. A film franchise and a long-running television series each face the same problem in their final moments: how do you balance tying the whole story together with creating a season, or episode, or film which lives up to the series’ legacy? In some ways, I’d argue that Pixar played it safe with Toy Story 3, at least compared with the Lost finale: yes, they took some serious risks with the incinerator scenes being quite as harrowing as they are, bringing these characters to the brink of certain doom and all, and I thought opening the film on such a depressing note (that many of the ancillary characters we had come to know, in particular Bo Peep, have been sold/thrown away) was bold, but outside of those emotional bookends the rest of the story is less than “remarkable” (more on that word in a bit). I enjoyed it a great deal, and it had plenty of fun jokes and well-designed set pieces, but there wasn’t that sense of discovery that came with the other two films, perhaps because the central emotion the film wants us to experience was already resonant within the second film. If Toy Story was about Woody learning to share his space at the top of the pyramid with Buzz, and Toy Story 2 was about Woody discovering he was part of another “family” and having to unite the two worlds, Toy Story 3 was about continuing those themes within the context of Andy’s departure for College, which is perhaps too logical a progression.

In making the argument that this is a lesser film compared to the first two, it isn’t really a reflection of my enjoyment of the film or how I think others will respond to the film: its emotional punch is so strong, and so predicated on our long-term relationships with these characters, that I fully understand why many consider it their favourite in the series, just as many found the Lost finale to be one of their favourite episodes. However, I think Toy Story 3 suffers for me in that it feels more like a traditional sequel than the second film; while Toy Story 2 felt like it was taking the series in new directions, Toy Story 3 relies too heavily on that which came before, struggling to establish itself as a standalone film. This doesn’t make it any less of an accomplishment, as its reliance on the past leads to its finest moments (along with a number of fun little callbacks earlier in the film), but it does make it a different kind of sequel than that which came before. It captures the energy and emotion of the series’ first two films, but it doesn’t feel like it develops any new energy or new emotions, and I’d argue that it crystallizes more than it complicates the pre-existing emotions central to the series.

I don’t think every Pixar film needs to be groundbreaking, but I do think that it’s part of our initial response to their films: we were in awe at the silent opening to Wall-E, and we all left the theatre talking about the “Married Life” sequence in Up, primarily because of how they broke the mould for the way animated films tell their stories. The problem with Toy Story 3 isn’t that it lacks one of those moments that gets us talking after we leave the theatre: upon leaving the theatre, I overheard numerous conversations about the conclusion (including one woman who expressed guilt over having thrown her son’s toys away) which indicated that it stuck with people, and I can personally attest to its resonance considering that I teared up every time I thought back to those closing scenes when writing this piece. However, the reason that it resonates isn’t because it broke new ground, but rather because it successfully used the power of a long-running franchise to tap into our emotional connections to the characters and deliver a satisfying conclusion. And while this is commendable, and certainly enjoyable, it isn’t remarkable in the way we’ve come to expect: rather than being remarkable for something entirely new, Toy Story 3 is remarkable in that it manages to maintain the series’ momentum and quality in a way that second sequels rarely ever do. We shouldn’t be surprised that it would be Pixar who finally discovers how to make a second sequel work, but I don’t know if I’m quite as impressed with that feat as I have been with their past efforts.

It feels weird to be criticizing a film which serves as the perfect ending to this trilogy, and perhaps I’m being too harsh on Toy Story 3 considering how wonderful those final images are. My issue, I think, is that there is a disconnect between those final moments and the film itself: in fact, if you were to cut out the middle of the film and simply tell this as a short film, I’m not convinced you would have lost that much of the emotional resonance considering that the Sunnyside story is 80% plot and 20% character. However, as Todd pointed out on Twitter, there’s value to delaying the inevitable: the action may be repetitive, but the toys’ uncertain future builds plenty of tension which feeds into the conclusion, heightening its impact.

And for this reason, I’m not really suggesting that Pixar should have told this story in a different way. There is plenty of evidence in my and others’ reaction to the conclusion that this was a smart decision, a good way to tell this story and to bring this franchise to its full-length cinematic close (all signs point towards the series continuing with short films, likely appearing in front of Disney and Pixar theatrical releases). What I’d simply argue is that Toy Story 3 settles for skillful rather than pushing for inventive, relying on the series’ legacy when it could have tried to push further. This, for me, puts it on a different level than the first two films, which felt like they were pushing boundaries: while I give Pixar all the credit in the world for crafting another memorable story and managing to negotiate their way through a second sequel, the way this film was organized was bound to create a disconnect between the structural cohesiveness of the film as a whole and the emotional response to its conclusion.

And so it gets the lowest rating I’ve ever given a Toy Story film: seven thumbs up.

Cultural Observations

  • Check out /Film’s great collection of Easter Eggs found in the film if you want to see some of the fun tidbits that the animators threw in there.
  • While the human characters had a far more substantial role than in the first two films, as animating humans is the one area where Pixar has come a long way in the decade since Toy Story 2 was released, I think we needed a bit more with Andy. While I understand why we’re following the toys first and foremost, in many ways it is Andy who comes the furthest of all of the film’s characters (from his disinterest in the toys to his reconnection with his childhood in those final moments), so to spend so little time with him seems a bit odd.
  • Randy Newman’s score was not the star of this show, as he was relying heavily on nostalgia throughout the film, but his work in the final scene was a key part of our emotional response, so I’ll give him some credit there: I still think Giacchino’s work on Up remains a Pixar high point, but Newman’s Toy Story themes remain effortlessly memorable.
  • Speaking of Giacchino, I thought Day & Night (which he scored) was quite fun: it’s probably Pixar’s best chance of taking home the Animated Short Oscar in the past number of years, as its concept is wrapped up in its animation style (the blend of hand-drawn and CGI, the use of 3D, etc.) The Academy likes shorts that stretch the potentials of animation, and I thought this short did that in a simple fashion which fit the concept and delivered nicely on the story of the piece.
  • There’s a lot of very recognizable voices in very small roles in this film: some are simply not very prominent, like Whoopi Goldberg as Stretch the octopus or Kristen Schaal as Trixie the triceratops, but others are actors who Pixar has worked with in the past (Jeff Garlin (Wall-E), Richard Kind (Cars), Bonnie Hunt (Cars), etc.).
  • I thought the opening sequence did quite a nice job of bringing to life Andy’s imagination: those sort of big setpieces are something that Pixar probably couldn’t have done ten years ago, so it was nice to see them open with something big and imaginary before beautifully folding it into the montage of scenes from Andy’s childhood.
  • Some of the ways in which the film established the passage of time between this film and Toy Story 2 were depressing (the missing toys, for example), but overweight and lazy Buster? Hilarious.
  • It’s a bit unfair to criticize something as being similar to The Simpsons, considering how much ground that show has covered, but the Sunnyside story was not dissimilar from Maggie’s B-Story from “A Streetcar Named Marge.”
  • In case it wasn’t clear above, I really enjoyed this movie, and will be seeing it again soon – honest!
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5 Comments

Filed under Cinema

5 responses to “Rumination vs. Revelation: Pixar, the Remarkable, and Toy Story 3

  1. I want to say first that I agree with most everything you said. I have one little bone to pick. I thought Buster the dog was one more in a series of terribly depressing things in the opening of the film. Having lost my childhood dog since Toy Story 2 I found this really tough. While we’ve seen the entire use of Toy cycle, it is actually Buster’s life that is coming to a close. (I similar to you have aged along with Andy, Toy Story being the second movie I ever saw in the theater at age five, the first I remember, then being nine when Toy Story 2 came out and now being 19.) Anyway great job.

  2. There was just so much crying on my end.

  3. KateT

    I wanted more of Woody and Buzz’s relationship to come to the surface. To me, they are the emotional center of the series, but TS3 focused on Woody’s relationship with Andy more and spent too much time resetting Buzz’s personality to get laughs. Not that I didn’t laugh at Spanish Buzz, because I definitely did. But, Spanish Buzz mostly just related to Jessie, and barely seemed to interact with Woody at all. So I was a little bummed that their friendship got kind of sidelined.

  4. Tausif Khan

    The success of these films reminds me of the original Star Wars trilogy (now episodes IV, V, VI). I believe that many believe that 2 was better than 3 in both cases. Too me it was ironic because in Toy Story 2 Buzz finds his real father like Luke in Empire Strikes Back and in this film the supreme villain is carried over someones head and then thrown down (reminiscent of Vader throwing the emperor the emperor in Return of the Jedi). When they entered the trash truck I was waiting for one of the characters to exclaim “What an amazing smell you’ve discovered!”

    Myles were their particular toys in your past you were reminded of when you started tearing up?

  5. Craig

    Wow I’m so glad I found this article ! I couldn’t agree more with your feelings,Ts2 established the entire tone of the franchise.Ts3 while enjoyable,did nothing to provide us with a new direction for the characters or a chance to expand their world like Ts2 did.The writing also was missing it’s wit and charm.Granted we’ve had years to learn and recite line from Ts1 and Ts2,but Toy story 3’s dialouge was not memorable.I often wonder if John Lassater’s involement would have been the key ingrident to a stronger film.Considering Lee unkrich was in the directors chair,his involement seemed to give Toy story 3 it’s eeire feel considering his love for The shining.

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