Toy Story 3 opens with a scene familiar to viewers of the previous films: Andy’s toys “being played” through a spectacular cliff-hanger. John Lasseter and Crew are acknowledging the obvious: “Yes, we’ve done this twice before. But let’s see if we aren’t still capable of a few surprises.” And, in fact, it did get me giggling.
Which did surprise me, frankly. Unlike most of the audience, I was not chaffing for a third chapter to this franchise. I thought Toy Story 2 was the best sequel to a brilliant first act since The Godfather II. The Toy Stories explored issues of fealty and yearning and development of character with a surprising degree of nuance, but these introspective moments never jarred in contrast to the larger madcap adventure. That they accomplished this feat twice was nearly miraculous. Why push it any further? Was there any question raised by these films that still needed to be answered?
Then again, most of the questions raised by the films had ambiguous answers tailored to the circumstances. There is a theological irony running through these films: the toys may feel their deepest yearnings fulfilled when they are being played with, but they discover their truest selves when they are separated from their godlike owners. Similarly, the madcap adventures they initiate to get back to Andy are always larger in scale and spectacle, and considerably more emotionally involving, than the zany shorts concocted by the child-god’s brain. In the first movie Woody has to learn to share his owner and be content with the possibility of Andy’s fickle loyalties. In the second, he has to relinquish the prospect of a sterile immortality for the joys of perilous engagement with Andy. What lessons remain?
Turns out Woody has to learn how to let go of the college-bound Andy, a scenario he seemed to be more at peace with at the conclusion of last movie than he is at the beginning of this one. Strangely, after several years of being left entirely to their own devices, Woody is the only toy who isn’t ready to move on. Seeing this, viewers now know the lay of the land: the toys will be separated from their joy, will initiate feats of comic daring-do to get back, during which old lessons of loyalty will be reinforced and the singular new lesson will be learned.
The architecture is dependable (it's a retelling of Toy Story 2, basically), and the emotional revelations have worthy weight, even if some come with the unwanted (for me, at least) freight of blunt sentimentality. But as one wag said after viewing The Godfather III, “We all knew one of these films would have to be third best.” In the case of Coppola’s movies, that was quite a distant third. Not so much for this one, but waiting to see it on the smaller screen at home, where expectations are scaled down accordingly, might have actually been the more rewarding experience.
There is a new toy that hovers at the outskirts of the final scenes: a plushy Totoro. Chances are this is just a little tip of the hat Lasseter is giving his hero, Hayao Miyazaki. But it could also be a sign of things to come. When viewers pay admission for a Miyazaki film, they leave narrative template expectations at the door, because Miyazaki will subvert and thwart them from the moment the lights go down. Day & Night, the preliminary animated short for TS3, was a mini sermon on fearlessly exploring the mysterious and unexpected: is Pixar bracing us for a template change? I truly hope so.
Elsewhere: discarded toys aren't all necessarily fated for the incinerator — meet Bamboo Charlie. Most reviewers are more smitten with this film than I am: Tasha Robinson is probably the clearest voice on their behalf. Plus: do you remember Lego before the Minifigs took over? Do you really? WP Flashback: bitch, bitch, bitch — what is it with me and Pixar, anyway? Is there any reason why I shouldn't just declare Monsters, Inc. to be this generation's Casablanca and leave the rest alone?