Monday, August 23, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #42: Toy Story 3

For me, as a parent, Pixar movies are a sure thing. I take my daughter to see most of the kids movies that hit theatres because I remember what life was like when I liked movies and want to encourage that in her. Hopefully that love of movies will not end in an uncomfortable estrangement like it did for me.

Anyway, most of the movies we go to see are pretty crappy, but I enjoy the conversations we have afterwards. Not always about "what saccharine moral lesson did you have imparted on you this time", but about the ethical concerns various scenes have for her, what her favourite part was and why (only once was it a flatulence joke, thank you G Force), and the like. She always asks what I liked about it, and I try to stray from the negative because, frankly, I am a bit of a fusspot and I want her to like what she likes. So I usually talk about some narrative strategy I found interesting, in terms that she'll respond to.

So Pixar is always a blessing, for any number of reasons. First of all, their aesthetics are ace. Their films look fantastic, unlike the majority of CGI kids pictures which are full of ugly design (Shrek) and awakward execution (Shrek) made palatable by sitcom-quality comedy (Shrek). Secondly, they either only hire genius story developers/script writers or their writing undergoes rigorous quality control. My favourite Pixar film is Up (second place, a close thing, is Wall-E), which is one of an ungererous handful of family films I've seen that can genuinely be enjoyed on completely different levels by adults and children.

A few years ago, the consensus of most of the film writers I respect was thatthe Toy Story films as the masterpieces of the Pixar canon (The Incredibles seems to be usurping them of late). At the time I undervalued Pixar because: a) I did not have kids yet so had not yet confronted the myriad lousy films made for the under-10 set; b) my two favourite Pixar films had not yet been made; c) I don't really respond to spot-the-celebrity voice casting that every Pixar film except my two faves indulges in; d) I do not like the characters in the Toy Story films.

I don't like art that feels the need to tell me how much I should like it. So every time a Toy Story character tells me how much I love bloody Woody I feel my muscles tense from head to toe. Especially since Woody is just Tom Hanks doing the two Tom Hanks schticks I hate the most: laconic dontcha-just-love-me charm and manic, high-pitched exasperation. Buzz Lightyear I would respond better to as a supporting character you only have to hear from every once in a while (which is why Spanish Buzz in TS3 sat so well with me). None of the characters strike me as especially inspired bits of personality/voice casting that Pixar otherwise seems to excel at.

Anyway, the way the Toy Story series overcomes my serious reservations about its characters is by being generally excellent in all regards (in spite of my being mostly unmoved by the universally beloved "When She Loved Me" sequence from TS2, which loses me by being so obviously designed to make me an emotional mess and by partially relying on some howl-at-the-moon vocals to sell its accompanying song). Toy Story 3 continues in this tradition by being excellent, albeit treading some of the same territory that its predecessors did. What makes Toy Story 3 tip over the edge into greatness is that this is the most existentially terrifying film of 2010, ruthless and bleak to an extent that I forgave it its one poo joke.

Toy Story 3 is the animated film companion to Ingmar Bergman's early 60s "silence of God" trilogy: Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence. Like those awesome and depressing movies it is about what happens when people who have absolutely believed in the goodness of the universe as they've had it defined for them suddenly have to deal with the permanent absence of that around which they've organized their belief system (squeaky-clean now-teenager Andy / God / something else like cola, Burton Cummings, or what have you). The questions raised by the situation are troubling, especially the big one: in the absence of "God", what do you have to fall back on while facing the void?

That these heady questions are tackled in a narrative about toys being donated to a preschool is formidable indeed. The Pixar kids are smart, and load the film with great new characters, with Michael Keaton's take on Ken a particular standout. Also impressive are a terrifying deformed baby doll who utters the film's most heartbreaking line, and cuddly bad guy Lotso (Ned Beatty) who utters the most chilling one.

I will warn you, this film may not be suitable for children, with its profound and troubling questions and particularly the terrifying climax, which is set in - I kid you not - an incinerator/the fires of hell. The final scene ends the film on a whimsical and sentimental note that also factors in the Woody-sure-is-the-goddamned-greatest-thing-ever-isn't-he-folks stuff that makes me not embrace these films as firmly as others do. But here I forgive it, because I take it as the Pixar people's admission that they know they went too far with that fires of hell bit, and even though it all ends happy my daughter was still convulsing in tears when we left the theatre. But the conversations we had afterwards were amazing. So Pixar are still batting a perfect game in my book, probably because I haven't seen Cars.

1 comment:

MLClark said...

I'm still marvelling at how easy it is to interpret that ending as a dream sequence after death-by-incinerator. Layers upon layers!