The Films of Pixar: “Toy Story 3″ (2010)

For now, we are at the end of “The Films of Pixar” until I sit down and watch Cars 2 in November. (At least it will be better than Sucker Punch.) So how does Toy Story 3 hold up in the context of the Pixar filmography and in comparison to the other two films?

Toy Story 3 is the only film in the series that is not directed by John Lassetter and is instead directed by Lee Unkrich, who co-directed Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo. While the first two films feel very much like fun family films, the third film meditates on the themes of loss, abandonment, attachment, betrayal, and love. While it doesn’t match the accomplishment of Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up, Toy Story 3 is still one of the best films Pixar has ever released.

When the film starts out, we see the toys in a typical western scenario that blends all of Andy’s toys together. This is the product of a child’s fertile imagination and, as it turns out, a memory of the old days. Time goes on and the owner of the toys grows up to the point that he’s ready to head off to college. In an early scene, Woody (Tom Hanks) assembles the toys together in a toybox for “Operation Playtime.” They take a home phone and dial the number for Andy’s cellphone, which causes him to open up the toy box and not just touch them, hold at least one, Rex (Wallace Shawn). After Andy (John Morris) leaves the room, the toys exit the box and we discover that their ranks have dwindled. The only toys left are the main characters, Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Rex, Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Slinky (Blake Clark), and Bullseye. They are faced with the reality that Andy has grown up and doesn’t want to play with them anymore.

Andy’s mother (Laurie Metcalf) comes into the room and tells him to clean up his room, deciding what will be thrown out, what will go in the attic, and what will go to college. As Andy goes to clean his room, the mom tells Molly (Beatrice Miller) that her old toys could be donated to a day care called Sunnyside. Andy’s toys think this is a terrific idea, except for Woody, who insists that Andy still loves them. However, Andy places Woody in a box for college and the other toys in a bag destined for the attic. When Andy leaves the bag in the hall, his mother assumes it’s trash and takes it to the curb. While the other toys escape into a box headed for Sunnyside, Woody insists on telling them that they weren’t meant to be thrown out because Andy really loves them. (The toy that has the hardest time believing this is Jessie.)

When they arrive at Sunnyside, they’re greeted by a purple bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty) and a warm, colorful environment that guarantees they’ll be played with. Barbie (Jodi Benson) meets a Ken doll (Michael Keaton) and falls for him. Everyone thinks this is wonderful except for Woody, who is still determined to get home to Andy, however he is found by a girl named Bonnie (Emily Hahn), who takes him home and takes care of her other toys. Meanwhile, the rest of Andy’s toys find out that Sunnyside isn’t as wonderful as they expected and they try to fight the playtime hierarchy and Buzz being switched to Spanish mode.

Toy Story 3 has one of the more complicated plots in the film and unlike it’s predecessor in the series, it doesn’t work very well without having seen the first two films. If this film is a person’s first introduction to the series, the loss of Andy as their owner and the other toys aren’t as affecting and Jessie being incredibly upset over being thrown out isn’t as understandable. The film’s structure still resembles the second film on some levels. Toys are taken to leave the house early in the film and at one point there’s a rescue mission and later a climactic battle scene. But this film handles these scenes better because of the stakes being higher for the characters. In Toy Story 2, the stakes are relatively low for them. In storytelling, raising stakes for characters can do wonders because it gives them more of a motivation for their actions and consequences for their decisions and what happens. In Toy Story 2, Andy is still young and even if Woody or Wheezy is gone, they’re still together and Andy will be there for them. It could be argued that there are higher stakes for Woody, but lower stakes for the rest of the toys. In this film, that environment isn’t there. They’re desperate for affection and attention and completely aware their days are numbered. Almost all of them come close to being thrown out at one point and end up in the destination later in the film, the equivalent of death for a toy. Oddly enough, the fact that the toys seem to have nothing left to lose is what makes their situation harder for them because—except for Jessie and Bullseye—this is the first time they have an owner that isn’t Andy and won’t give them the same treatment. This is the first Toy Story film where a happy ending doesn’t seem guaranteed and the question of what would be a happy ending is left out there. Clearly, returning to Andy isn’t an option and the environment of Sunnyside is the equivalent of a prison where the new toys are put in the worst place possible to test their endurance. Paradise is a journey for the toys and difficult to find because even when it starts off the place they know as home isn’t for them any more.

The most striking thing about this film is what has been done with the antagonist. In the first two Toy Story films, we are told that the antagonists are just that way and have always been. Sid is evil, Al is greedy, Stinky Pete is bitter, and Zurg was born programmed that way. Lotso has an exterior of being a sweet, cuddly bear, but is an authoritarian leader of the daycare. But unlike the other antagonists, he wasn’t always that way, and there is a reason for the change. In a flashback, we find out that Lotso was left behind by his owner with two other toys. After travelling back to the house, he sees that he was replaced after assumed as being lost. He takes this to mean they were replaced and their owner never loved them. For Lotso, toys are abandoned because their owners fall out of love with them, maybe meaning they never loved them.

For him, this matter is black and white because if someone loved them, they would never grow up, mature, and stop loving them. Woody sees that Andy loves them and always loves them, even though he has stopped playing with them. Meanwhile, there’s Jessie who has been abandoned by one owner and acknowledged that at one time Emily loved her. Her initial reaction is what is mistaken as Andy throwing them out is just a repeat of Emily dumping her on the side of the road. For Jessie, the matter is that an owner can love a toy at one point stop loving them, which is still painful. Not only is Lotso a complex villain, he’s also a third perspective in the drama of what happens when toys are left behind or donated.

Finally, the advancements in Pixar’s animation are evident in this film. All of the humans look realistic and we see the individual strands of their hair move as they walk or bounce along. There’s more detail and dramatic lighting in this film, particularly in the climactic scene that takes place in a landfill at night. The lighting also affects the atmosphere of the environments. At night, Bonnie’s house still seems bright and inviting while Sunnyside looks more menacing and has a prison-like feel.

What makes Toy Story 3 work so well is how it deals with the characters and grows them. It doesn’t send them off on a crazy adventure, but instead puts them in a different world with a different reality to face. Toy Story 3 isn’t as mature or beautiful as Ratatouille, WALL-E, or Up, but it still examines complex ideas through a toy’s viewpoint. Pixar managed to make a fantastic film that would sell millions of dollars in merchandise, but they gave it a heart and told a well thought-out story. After all, Pixar is known for telling stories with terrific characters, lots of emotion, and fantastic animation and that is what will keep them around for several years.