So yeah, Toy Story 3 is universally loved by critics and made over 100 million dollars over its first weekend of release (I’m going to see it a second time tomorrow night). You can read any of dozens of reviews that are all basically going to tell you the same thing; I think Sara Benincasa’s video review sums it up pretty well:
She’s not really exaggerating all that much, either: this movie will make you cry. If you’re not in tears at the end of it, then sorry, but you’re a replicant. I stopped even making a token attempt at hiding the fact I was crying, because the movie earned it. It actually started to make me concerned for the folks at Pixar having to work on these movies: is the company giving them enough water, making sure they’re properly hydrated while spending years working on things designed to make people cry?
Toy Story 3 isn’t my favorite Pixar movie (Up), and it isn’t even my favorite Toy Story movie (Toy Story 2). But it’s the first that doesn’t hit a single false note. Seriously, there’s just nothing wrong with it, no scene or even a single line of dialogue that feels out of place or unnecessary. All the plot developments are perfectly foreshadowed, and everything just makes sense. (If I had to struggle to find one complaint, it’d be that it veers a little too close to being a direct parody of Cool Hand Luke, but that’s a huge stretch and I’m not even sure if that would qualify as a “complaint.”) And what’s more, it’s structured and paced so well without feeling forced or over-calculated.
That’s another thing: the Day & Night short turns out to be the perfect choice to present with Toy Story 3, because it’s the most old-school capital-A Animation short Pixar’s done in years. And TS3 is the culmination of the studio’s first attempt at feature-length animation, and it shows. They’ve proven over and over again that they can basically do whatever they want at this point, but the movies still don’t feel as if they’re family films that happen to be animated; there’s a real sense of the love of animation for its own sake.
There’s a kind of density of imagination that’s unique to animation — every object on screen and every second of screen time is valuable, so scenes are meticulously planned out and packed full of as much stuff as possible. In Toy Story 3, it’s most evident in the various escape sequences. The people behind the scenes are familiar not only with every object in the room, but every square centimeter of every object, and all the possibilities of it. Scenes are expertly choreographed so that every fraction of a second plays out exactly as it should. There’s an element of that in any animated movie, even the most insipid cash-grab franchise movies. But the Toy Story series celebrates it, with all of its scenes of toys working together to pull off some complicated scheme, each toy revealing some hidden part at just the right moment. There’s a real sense of play, where the people behind the scenes aren’t thinking “what happens next?” but “what could happen next?”
And that idea of a “Toy Story series” was a surprise to me throughout the movie, even though I’d bought the ticket and saw the big number 3 on the marquee. It hadn’t occurred to me that this was the last movie in a long-running series, so it was jarring to be reminded that time had passed for all of these characters, and that Pixar was going to be finishing their story. You can tell that they really love the characters and the world that they created, and they wanted to give them a satisfying conclusion — it’s not milking another movie out of a franchise, or even joining in another adventure of a bunch of well-loved characters. It’s an arc. And for the people making these movies, it’s the end of a story that started almost 20 years ago, one that they’re more closely tied to than even the most devoted fan.
It’s not that I hadn’t gotten attached to the characters, it’s more that I’d always just assumed they’d always been there and would continue to always be there. We’ve gotten accustomed to ongoing franchises and disposable blockbusters, but Toy Story had become a classic while I wasn’t noticing. I guess I’d always just assumed that, like toys, the characters and the movies would keep going on, unchanged, in perpetuity. And the major theme of the movie is that time goes on, and even those of us most locked in a state of arrested development are going to have to grow up sometime.
Which is ultimately why Pixar can accomplish things that no other studio has quite been able to manage. The technical artistry in Toy Story 3 is predictably flawless, but of course Pixar movies have never been about technology — other studios have caught up with Pixar with rendering tech, but you can’t just put anything through a rendering engine and end up with a classic. But it’s not just about “story,” either: you can’t just take any sitcom, or “family-friendly” feature script about the importance of being true to yourself, and expect that to be anything more than disposable entertainment product.
Where Pixar’s different, I think, is that there’s a sense of harmony between the movie and the process of making the movie. Stuff isn’t animated because animation sells, but because they love animation. Only animate when it makes sense to (which is I imagine why they’re branching out into live action). And the movies don’t feel like calculated family-friendly hits, but movies that end up being family-friendly because they’re genuine and honest stories about childhood, parenthood, identity, and discovery. That’s the main reason I don’t see any merit in the common complaint that Pixar movies haven’t had female lead characters — Pixar doesn’t need to be making movies to order or to fill some sort of quota; they need to keep making movies that feel honest.
No doubt there were all kinds of high-level meetings and marketing mandates for a third Toy Story movie. But watching Toy Story 3, you don’t get the sense that that’s why the movie was made. It feels like a movie they wanted to make to conclude the story of characters they loved. (Now watch them announce a Toy Story 4 and waste all the time I spent writing this thing). It never registered as the third in a series with me because I never really thought of it as a “series;” it was just something that’s always existed with no beginning or ending, and we’d peek in every five years or so to see what was going on this time. You can’t choreograph or plan to have that kind of a classic; it’s something that happens as a result of being honest.