Monday, July 5, 2010

"Toy Story 3" and Lost Childhood--A Review

(This post may contain a spoiler or two unless you have already seen "Toy Story 3", or the 1946 film "The Yearling")

Toyland, toyland
little girl and boy land
when you dwell within it
you are ever happy there!

Childhood toyland
mystical merry toyland
once you pass it's borders
you can never return again...
(Words and Music by Victor Herbert )

Even now, well beyond the age of playing with childhood toys, when I am in a nostalgic state of mind around the holidays, the song "Toyland" gives me pause.
What affects me about the song is not the remembrance of a particular toy. It is the idea that we can never return to childhood again, can never again see the world with the same wonder or innocence, once we move across the border into adulthood.

The lyrics, and the highly sentimental tune, efficiently deliver a concentrated emotional punch.

It's the same chord within me that is struck even more profoundly by 1946's "The Yearling", in which a boy loses a living creature, a fawn, he has grown attached to, actually killing it to ensure his family's survival, and is at once torn away from his innocent boyhood and thrust into a stark world of adult toil and disappointment.

 The new "Toy Story 3" is a busy, creative, visually splendid film, that nonetheless pummels its audience to the same emotional response. Although I personally did not identify with a college student who  maintains emotional connections with his boyhood toys, the idea of growing up and leaving innocence behind was intriguing, and I looked forward to a new and contemporary working of this theme.  
About halfway through, the tone darkens, the film attempts too much, and almost completely loses its way.
I enjoyed a lot of this movie, especially the earlier sections in which we are re-introduced to our "inanimate" friends and to Andy, the boy who has breathed life into these toys from the start of the series. Andy, who is now grown up and leaving for college, must either relegate his old toys to the trash heap and certain destruction, or remove them to the safety of his family's attic.

After a series of mishaps, the toys find themselves on the curb, ready to be trashed. The movie is their colorful odyssey of escape and survival, of sticking together and letting go, and the pain and excitement of beginning lfe anew.

We have come to expect an intelligence, cleverness and attention to detail from Pixar, and the filmmakers and hundreds of artists and technicians on "Toy Story 3" have once again delivered. Taken on that level, it's a terrific work of animation, with great dialog and well-realized characters (many of the toys have individual personalities rendered with loving care and voiced to perfection), and is often very funny, and suspenseful.

I think, however, the film takes a huge misstep by introducing another level of danger into the mix. There is so much potential in our toys making a break from a hilarious day-care center, that a subplot involving evil toys is a bit jarring. With so much going for it, this manufactured peril seems unnecessary, and does little to reinforce the films gentle message about loyalty and friendship. It also adds about 20 unneeded minutes, and causes the latter half to drag.

Most viewers are there to have fun and marvel at the careful detail in the filmmaking, and maybe to shed a nostalgic tear. There are surely many better ways to elicit sentiment and excitement without subjecting these animated creatures to a terrifying ride toward an incinerator. While most of us correctly assume that it will all end up pretty well, even so this plot development felt terribly manipulative.
The miscalculation cuts two ways.  First, the movie successfully brings these toys to life, and we empathize with them and do not wish to see them destroyed, so the fun drains out, and the images seem to suggest something deeper than the subject of the film can support.   On the other hand, we may question giving the toys the same emotional weight as a sentient being (animal or human) who is placed in grave, even fatal, danger.
The movie sometimes compensates for this foray into darkness with an abundance of noise and activity, as though this were an extended commercial for something (quite possibly, for "Toy Story 4"). Occasionally, it suffers from overconfidence, like it assumes that it is so well-loved that it can do no wrong.....sort of the way I feel lately about Tom Hanks himself, who once again supplies the voice of the beloved cowboy Woody.

Even so, there are great pleasures to be had here, if one doesn't take it as seriously as the movie seem to want us to. The artwork and animation are uniformly fine.  The voice-over work is terrific, especially from Joan Cusak, Wallace Shawn, and Don Rickles. The script seems to have been fashioned with some care, even if it could have been edited somewhat before production began. And, as demonstrated in "Up",  Pixar is masterful at drawing and animating dogs.  Andy's old dog is a delightful rendering.  (I would love to see Pixar do a story exclusively about dogs.)

And it does move people, pretty deeply, judging by the reaction of those around me, and comments I have found on several reviews of the film.

If only the filmmakers had listened the song "Toyland", or screened "The Yearling", to show that audiences can be stirred to a fond nostalgia and catharsis over lost childhood, without imposing artificial terrors.


  1. Thoughtful words. I do agree that the film reeks of entitlement at times, though I actually liked the darker tone and which it would have been sustained. It's fine, but I resent the overwhelming buzz...but I've actually let that go (surprising myself). And Joan Cusack continues to be an adept actress.

  2. Thanks for the response, Andrew. After a week's time, I still feel the same way about the film. While it is good enough, I would not hold it up as a standard of excellence worthy of awards...which is exactly what I expect is gonna happen come January...