Mar 24, 2011

On DVD: Toy Story 3

People think that Pixar can do no wrong. Yet Toy Story 3, a movie that made the cut for Best Picture Oscar last year and that many people put in their ten best lists, is a perfect example of everything I think is wrong with Pixar. Their movies have become such an automated and mechanized formula that they lack real imagination, real charm, and real flights of fancy. For a movie about children and toys, it doesn't have much spontaneous play. Yes, technically it is jawdropping. Sometimes I think they invent sequences just to show off their astonishing prowess with different textures and surfaces. They have, on occasion, beautiful images and inspired sequences here and there, but for the most part, the entire Toy Story franchise has become so calculated, so plotted within an inch of its life, that it can barely breathe. My experience of it was mostly rather annoying and relentless frantic action sparsely peppered by some genuinely funny and lovely moments. It should be the other way around.
The alpha male penchant for mindless running around exhausts me. And I don't believe that kids like it all that much either. There are things a young mind never forgets, for better or for worse. Pinocchio being swallowed by the whale, the disappearance of Bambi's mom (Middle Enchilada was 3 and inconsolable for days), Snow White's witch at the mirror with the apple. These are the stuff of our deepest dreams and fears. Chases and plots are a dime a dozen; instantly forgettable.
The premise of Toy Story 3 is wonderful. What happens to toys when kids grow up? When they are not wanted any more?  I would have liked to have gone on that journey had it been original. But there are a number of things that I suspect conspire against the filmmakers fully delivering a good story about this premise.
It seems that they've all read the screenwriting books that insist that every story is a mythological male quest for the holy grail and that there need to be such and such plot points and turns at such and such minutes. Structure and plot are essential, but these films have been reeking of formula for years. They feel like you are watching the machinery of a clock ticking, not a story.
I find it very interesting that in movies like Wall•E and this one, the very company that makes billions of dollars creating needless licensing tchotchkes that end up in every landfill and polluting every ocean is mightily concerned with the environment  and what do we do with all the stuff we consume and dispose of with such reckless abandon. I used to think this was sheer hipocrisy, but now I think it's closer to some sort of expiation. Not that it is not the height of chutzpah, but at least they seem to be trying to atone for it. I'm not buying it.
Most of the time, whether in Ratatouille, or Up or WallE or Toy Story, they start with a lovely premise that gets hijacked by convoluted plotting. They don't allow themselves to go deeper into their characters' predicaments because there is so much frantic running and rescuing. And the story lines show signs of triteness. The girls always have too much moxie and the guys are always afraid of them (as if). In Toy Story 3, Woody (Tom Hanks) is stubbornly obsessed with the idea that the toys can't abandon their owner, even as he's going to college. Andy has a little sister. Why not bequeath the toys to her? That's what every reasonable mom would do. We held on to our toys until they disintegrated. But there would be no movie in this case. I loved the fact that they ended up in a day care and my favorite scene is when they meet all the other toys. That was spectacular and it promised so much giddy fun. But no fun was to be had without a smattering of deeply suspect moralizing. There had to be a bad guy (Ned Beatty, who should have been nominated for his voice performance as Lotso the bear. He was awesome!). Are people in this country ever going to tire from the fight between good and evil? I guess when they do, we will become the French. It turns out that in this case the aforementioned good bear is actually evil but he used to be good until he was abandoned. I'm sure the people at Pixar congratulate themselves on the fact that they think that they are reaching a level of Freudian character complexity never before seen in animation. And it is true, to a certain extent, but it's not fun.
Toy Story 3 has a surprisingly dark vein that felt forced and inordinately cruel at times. Now these poor toys not only lose their owner but are tortured by toddlers (in a charmless and shrill sequence) and then literally put behind bars and then through a garbage truck and a compactor and an incinerator. This is way too much. Screenwriters are taught to torture their characters, but this is a kiddie movie, for crying out loud. We are being taught a lesson I guess about appreciating the bounty of our capitalist society, but I've always balked at being taught lessons by huge corporate conglomerates. The moral complexity is supposed to work for the adults. I think it is belabored and exaggerated. I don't know how it fares with the kids, but I suspect it goes down like bitter medicine. And who wants that? (I need to poll the Mini Enchiladitos).
As this is a massive global entertainment, I assume that for those of us lucky to have owned a Fisher-Price phone and a box full of toys, Toy Story 3 is a stroll down memory lane. For the less fortunate it must be even nicer, because it works as pure fantasy. They are seeing a paradise of toys they will never have.
I am grateful to Pixar for one thing, though. They graciously included a plush Totoro among the new toys, as a nod to the artistry of Hideo Miyazaki. I loved seeing Totoro there. There was not enough of him. Totoro is my friend. But I can't say that about any of the toys in Toy Story. Except for the little martians, I find everybody deeply cutesy and annoying.
Totoro brings me to my last point. I hate that everything today is CGI. I hate that few people are still doing line animation. At the beginning of the Toy Story 3 DVD there is a preview for the restored version of Bambi. Looking at the gorgeous line animation, I miss it so much I want to cry. There is something about line animation that breathes with life, that is porous and liquid and full of feeling.  The Pixar CGI technique is awesome to look at, but for all its wizardry, it feels as hard as plastic and as impenetrable.

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