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Paradise Lost For Kids: Toy Story 3 (2010)

July 28, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in In Cinemas with 1 Comment

Mild spoilers, so if you’d prefer not to look, don’t look…

Toy Story 3
(Lee Unkrich, US, 2010)

Toys: y’know, for kids. Right? With the perfect threequel, Pixar turns playtime into an existential warzone where laughter is at the mercy of infinite sadness.

Although it’s seldom given the credit, the one thing that The Godfather Part 3 got absolutely right was the length of time Francis Ford Coppola waited before revisiting the Corleone family. So often a belated instalment is a tired cash-in or a desperate career kickstart (morning, Indiana Jones; hi there, John McClane) but here was a film about regrets and redemption, which needed the wisdom and experience accrued over time – particularly for Al Pacino – to register its tragedy. The only problem being that the film isn’t very good.

Toy Story has sometimes been compared to The Godfather, not least because the sequels are amongst the most highest regarded ever made. Well, here the toys go one better – because Toy Story 3 is everything The Godfather Part 3 should have been: a tough/tender treatise on loss, abandonment and pain; growing up, moving on and starting anew. It’s a film that benefits from all of the daring narrative choices the studio has made over the past decade, not to mention the sheer pace of modern life. When Andy, voiced by original star John Morris, speaks, it cuts right to the core, because entire lives have been lived since he first played the character as a boy.

I’m 34. I was a 19-year-old student when I saw and fell in love with Toy Story, a 24-year-old about to go travelling when the sequel came out. Since then I’ve got married, bought houses and had a child – the day I saw Part 3, by some freakish coincidence (or maybe the subliminal hum of the movie calling) I sorted out the toys my son no longer plays with, and took a box up to the attic. After this, I’d probably best go check they’re OK. The Toy Story concept has always thrived by imbuing those familiar consumer brands with palpable warmth and humanity; here, they properly become relics of lost innocence, victims of time and happenstance, and – hope against hope – symbols of joy and imagination for a new generation.

It goes without saying that Lee Unkrich’s narrative skill and control here are absolute, but – even more so than Up – Pixar is currently in the memory business. The opening set-piece is a glorious up-to-11 evocation of action and adventure, but it’s an intentional throwback, a video recording of bygone days (and how quaint the very word ‘video’ is). Cut to the present day: the toys are locked away in a collective funk, taking desperate, pathetic measures to rekindle their relationships with Andy. Clearly, this isn’t going to work…and after a convoluted misunderstanding, they find themselves apparently abandoned in a daycare centre.

Rumour has it that Disney’s original threequel pitch involved the toys rescuing Buzz after a recall to Taiwan. A funny idea, but probably too close to Part 2’s rescue plotline…and the ‘foreign holiday’ aspect smacks of too many bad spin-offs, doesn’t it? The daycare, by contrast, picks up on hints in Toy Story 2 of how to avoid obsolescence. There, Woody toyed (so to speak) with the everlasting worship that the museum promised… but daycare delivers all of that in tandem with the tactile love of kids at playtime.

Yet such a fantasy is easily perverted; all it takes is one viper in the nest to sour the nest…except this Eden, instead of snakes and apples, has a strawberry-scented teddy bear. Unkrich evokes prison camp movies as the toys are tortured, locked up and brutalised by Lots ‘o’ Hugging Bear’s reign of terror – the sandpit even becomes a Great Escape-style cooler – but it’s surely a metaphor for any new environment: school, work, neighbourhood. Somehow the fact that the aggressors are themselves toys, abused and abandoned, makes things so much more nightmarish – a flipside to the optimism of the first film, which now seems aeons away. In the tragic figure of Big Baby, dirty, half-blind and unloved, the film doesn’t even bother with a metaphor for the cruelty the world can mete out.

Fortunately, the film is still vibrantly funny, with old and new characters alike given plenty to play with. Buzz Lightyear’s default settings remain a source for humour, although it’s the Potato Heads continue to get the lion’s share of laughs; it’s amazing how versatile detachable body parts can be, and the tortilla made me laugh more than anything else this year. But the masterstroke is the creation of Ken, the insecure alpha-male who only feels comfortable with a costume change. It’s such an acute psychological portrait, flip-flopping between groovy hi-jinks and embittered self-hate and played with such scary/funny bi-polarity by Michael Keaton, that theses could be written about how he reflects the series’ themes of identity and acceptance as a whole.

But, like all the best kids’ films, it’s the sadness that distinguishes this one. Like Michael Corleone, who wants out but keeps getting dragged back in, these toys just want to find the place they once had but are thwarted by the entropy of time. By the end, everybody – Woody and Buzz, Andy, even Andy’s Mom – has to face the certainty that things change, and if you don’t feel a pang of empathetic sorrow, you’ve been living your life in a bubble. Cast out from life’s toybox into an unforgiving world, it’s all any of us can do to remain loyal and kind in the face of the temptation to stray into bitterness. If those lessons sound a bit Biblical, that’s because they are. Toy Story 3 is the Paradise Lost of kids’ movies, and just as resonant. There’s even a fiery vision of Hell to contend with. The difference? For Pixar, playtime is paradise, and the only religion you need is the imagination to join in.

A wonderful film, obviously – and just when you think it can’t get any better, up pops Totoro.

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