Friday, July 27, 2012

Meeting Old Friends: A Look Back at the Toy Story Trilogy

First off, glad to be back. Real life kinda got in the way for a while there but I'm back for reals now.

Anyway, Recently, I re-watched this fabulous little series of films and thought to myself "You know, a discussion about this would make for a good article." So here we are. Let's dive right in with Toy Story 1.
A warning though for all 4 of your reading this that haven't seen all of these yet: I'm so spoiling certain plot points so've been warned.
The first thing to recall is that this was the first full length CGI movie ever. Yeah, Reboot was on TV a year before as a series but this was how most people first experienced computer animation. What's funny is that while other CGI films look more than a little dated these days, Toy Story does not. I then came to a stunning realization: CGI still looked fake and plastic then. All the major characters are plastic or some other fake material. Pixar circumvented their technological issues by embracing them. THAT is some genius stuff right there. Toy Story did have the unfortunate side effect of major movie star casting in animated films. It works here because the people cast work in their roles. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen work so well off each other and the supporting cast just sounds right. Annie Potts is sultry as Bo Peep. Don Rickles somehow makes a great Mr. Potato Head and we get the beginning of John Ratzenberger being the Pixar lucky charm. The film itself is still a grand time, full of great moments, quotes, and just being an overall great movie. So, how does one top such an act? Not with A Bug's Life, I'll tell you that much. Nope, you go with...

 Originally to be released as one of those ever popular direct-to-video sequels Disney saturated the market with back in the 90's, production soon became too expensive to release that way so it got pushed back a year for theatrical release. This meant all completed scenes had to be re-shot in widescreen PLUS finishing the movie. They pulled it off and through luck, hard work, grace of God, or all the above, It was somehow BETTER than the first film. The animation was strikingly better, most noticeably on the human characters. The toys looked better too but in more subtle ways.  All the cast members were back and are joined by Joan Cusack as Jessie The Cowgirl, Kelsey Grammar as Stinky Pete, and Wayne "NEWMAN!" Knight as Al of Al's Toy Barn. The film, like the first, is full of great jokes and memorable moments but on sequence really stands out to me. After getting his arm fixed, Woody is ready to head back but feels he should apologize to Jessie, who is depressed that she is going back into storage. What follows is one of the most heartbreaking scenes I've ever seen.
 So powerful and moving was this scene that both Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, who were unaware of how the sequence played out, weeped openly at the premiere of the film. This scene and the film itself starts opening up what the whole series is really all about...which I'll get to a bit later.  By film's end, we have some great jokes, some character growth, and new cast members permanently joining as members of Andy's toys. It would be over a decade before we saw Woody and the gang in....

So, if Toy Story was a pretty good movie and Toy Story 2 was even better, logic would assume that the Law of Three, the decade between films, the recasting, and various other factors would mean Toy Story 3 would not be as good as the other 2 movies, right?

If anything, it's the best of the bunch. How is that possible? Simply put: It takes what the whole series has been about to it's logical conclusion and it took up until Toy Story 3 to let loose what the whole trilogy is all about. The whole series is about mortality. Toy Story showed how one could be replaced but there can always still be more love to go around. Toy Story 2 offered Woody a choice: Live forever in the memories of many from behind glass in a display case and never be played with again or enjoy the good times with Andy while they last and be what he is: a toy. In Toy Story 3, time has passed just as fast for the toys as it has for us. Andy's all grown up and heading for college so the toys have a few options: be trashed, get donated, or live in the attic to wait for when and if Andy needs them again. Let's just say that last option never gets explored. The other two do though. We see how life for a toy can be when donated. It can be in the hands of a great new owner like Bonnie or it can be the hell that is toddlers. Then we see what happens when a toy is thrown away. It is a literal hell, full of torture, fire, and despair, with hope a far distant reality. The last 30 minutes of Toy Story 3 are an emotional roller-coaster. First, through sadness and despair, then jubilation and finally, happiness and a tinge of sorrow. First, the sadness and despair. Our heroes end up in a garbage dump and despite their best efforts, are headed towards the incinerator with no way out. They slowly accept their fate. This is the end of the line and there is no point in fighting it. All they can do is hold hands, knowing that they will leave as a family. Enter jubilation as a literal Deus Ex Machina saves our heroes. How is it literal? They get saved by a claw crane being operated by the Little Green Men, who see The Claw as their God. To say it's genius film making is an understatement. So now we, the audience, are relieved and ready to see the happy ending. But it's not what you expect. After a little intervention by Woody, Andy ends up giving his toys to Bonnie. The way the scene is executed creates the conflict in the audience. On one hand, they're happy for the toys because they get to have a new home where they'll be loved and played with but at the same time, they're saying goodbye to the person who loved them for so long and who they loved for so long is giving them up so he can grow himself. It creates the welling of both joy and sad. It is about an apt use of bittersweet as one might see and man, just typing this up makes me a little teary eyed.

There is one other thing I noticed while watching this trilogy. The whole thing runs on nostalgia. Toy Story uses general childhood nostalgia that most anyone can connect with. TS2 uses nostalgia for 40's and 50's toys. Toy Story 3 uses nostalgia for the first two movies, The films use this nostalgia to fuel stories full of great characters, touching moments, and a depth that I'd love to see more of in both family films and western animation. It's a grand trilogy of films that no one should live without seeing.

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