This Is the End, Beautiful Friend
2010 // USA // Lee Unkrich // June 21, 2010 // 3D Digital Theatrical Projection (Landmark Tivoli)
A- - I've previously observed that the most gleefully gratifying aspect of Pixar's triumph over the realms of American feature animation has been the burgeoning thematic sophistication of its films, which have evolved from wholesome entertainments into nimble and sensitive works of art. However, I've also long held the perhaps heretical view among Pixar aficionados that Toy Story and Toy Story 2, despite their charming qualities and seminal status in animated cinema, seem, shall we say, slighter than the later-model Pixar efforts. The first two chapters in the saga of Woody and Buzz Lightyear are unambiguously lesser films when held alongside subsequent films. Little in the first two Toy Story films compares to Ratatouille's virtuoso storytelling, WALL●E's sweeping sci-fi explorations, or Up's adroit blending of giddy thrills and profound sorrow. For this reason, there is a rich sense of fulfillment to be had in Toy Story 3, quite apart from its inherent sensory and emotional pleasures. Director Lee Unkrich—here taking solo helming duties for the first time—expands the scope of the studio's most familiar franchise to encompass delicate matters such as emotional abuse, the sting of betrayal, class-based tyranny, and the specter of mortality. Yet Toy Story 3 never loses sight of the fundamental appeal of pint-sized adventure in the perilous wilderness of suburbia, nor of the essential pathos of growing up, here handled (as always) with the utmost care. The third chapter in the Disney / Pixar behemoth reveals itself to be the best: gorgeous, intricate, a little frightening, and shamelessly touching.
The film opens with a ticklish flashback sequence that visualizes a child's frenetic fantasies on a grand scale, as young Andy (Charlies Bright) casts Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and the other toys in an outlandish adventure. In the present day, however, the toys are lamenting their long state of disuse just as seventeen-year-old Andy (John Morris) is about to depart for college. The inevitable emotional separation from his grown-up owner haunted Woody in the second film, but it seemed a distant thing. At the outset of Toy Story 3, this slow-motion calamity has finally come to pass for all of Andy's playthings. (Oddly enough, only Woody, as the designated Best Friend, has a chance to tag along to college as a keepsake, a privilege that engenders resentment from the other toys.) Banishment to the attic is the toys' most likely fate—a dull prospect, yet preferable to the landfill—but a series of mix-ups and hasty gambits lands them in the donation bin at Sunnyside Daycare. There they meet a faction of second-hand toys led by the genial magenta teddy bear, Lotso (Ned Beatty), who speaks glowingly of the never-ending cohorts of playmates at the daycare. Naturally, not all is as it seems at Sunnyside: Andy's toys discover to their horror that as "new recruits" they've been relegated to a gaggle of savage toddlers who only know how to bite, bash, and break. (The recommended age metric, it would seem, is less about the safety of the child than that of the toy.) It turns out that Lotso, jilted by a former owner and seething with bitterness, is running Sunnyside as if it were a prison, complete with a rigid caste system and fearsome punishments, such as banishment to the dreaded (Sand) Box.
Consistent with the previous chapters in the series, the narrative of Toy Story 3 is essentially a framework for an extended slapstick adventure tale, although the threat of outright destruction has never been as acute for the toys as it is here. The urgency of a reunion with Andy propels the story forward through a landscape fraught with peril for our eight- to twelve-inch heroes. However, their owner's nascent adulthood heightens the ambiguity of such a reunion. Whereas the primary villains of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 were humans who failed to recognize the sentimental value of the toys to their rightful owner, this outing's antagonists are other playthings who have been traumatized and hardened by their past experiences. On another level, however, the true villain of Toy Story 3 is mortality itself, which menaces our little heroes in a manner that is almost disconcerting for a children's movie. The emotional earnestness of the Toy Story films has always seemed a bit suspect—Can we truly be moved by the travails of plastic junk, no matter how robust the allegorical aspects of their story?—but here the dread of abandonment is paired with a genuinely frightening threat of outright annihilation. One of the film's most affecting scenes confronts the compulsive need to struggle against oblivion, and, with superb poignancy, reveals our heroes' grim resolve to face their demise hand-in-hand. (Their eventual salvation by means of a deus ex machina only moderately detracts from this sequence's potency.)
Needless to say, the visuals of Toy Story 3 are tremendously lush and vibrant. The animators paint a setting of colossal corridors and vast playgrounds, where everything pops with a level of detail that puts even Ratatouille's magnificently realized kitchen to shame. There is an element of undistilled delight in seeing characters created fifteen years ago given life within a reality that finally feels settled and seamless. The script is admirably witty, although the film flirts with raunchy and scatological humor to an unfortunate extent not observed in prior Pixar films. There are plenty of gags that are unmistakably geared towards the adults in the audience, but the film's bountiful cinematic allusions are far more memorable and stimulating. Much of the extensive Sunnyside segment of the film plays as a riff on The Great Escape, but there are abundant nods to influences ranging from Cool Hand Luke to The Ten Commandments, from The Return of the Jedi to The Exorcist. However, Unkrich maintains a generous focus on the story at hand, such that these elements never attain the air of stilted homages or winking novelties, but rather signify a disciplined use of generic tropes to tell a sentimental adventure yarn.
Mawkishness is an obvious risk when one's very subject matter is childhood nostalgia, yet Toy Story 3 evades it with grace by showing us—more so than its predecessors—the authentic creative joy of kids, where the toys are beloved but the act of play is what endures. The film poses that while the relics of our past might exert a powerful magnetism over us, nostalgia is ultimately wrought from emotion and memory, not objects. The authenticity of the film's final scenes, as Andy at last lets go of his old friends, is rooted in the clarity and pain of his sudden revelation that his childhood is gone forever. If there is a spot of comfort, it lies in the notion that Woody the Cowboy is still out there somewhere, riding alongside another little buckaroo.