Today, I conclude my journey revisiting the “Andy trilogy.” All three of its entries I maintain are unimpeachable masterpieces that each have their minor but distinct set of flaws.
As with my reviews of Toy Story 1 and Toy Story 2, I present my thoughts in a disorganized format. Maybe someday I’ll collect all of these into a cohesive review, but for now I leave you with bullet points.
So here’s my case that Toy Story 3 is not just a masterpiece, but one of the great films of my lifetime.
What I love:
- The end. Of course, everyone cites it as the best part of the movie, but not many go past “it made me cry.” It’s a brilliantly structured finale, paying off on threads set up throughout the film and the entire trilogy. The entire first hour feints hard at a suggested finale: a chase scene to catch Andy before he leaves for college with Woody, with the other toys accepting the attic. And just when it seems that endgame has kicked in motion, the villain tossed in the trash, everything is apocalyptically upended when all of Andy’s toys also get tossed into the trash. This leads to the unforgettable near-annihilation at the incinerator (the moment Woody grabs Buzz’s hand, he fully accepts his toy mortality), then the rebirth at Bonnie’s as the toys get played with by Andy one last time. (Which is what set off the entire story in the first place — Andy’s toys wanting to get played with but fearing the trash so fleeing to Sunnyside.) It’s really one of my favorite endings to any movie, ever. And, yes, it makes me cry, too — a different part every time, but always and inevitably.
- The underrated beginning and middle acts. Toy Story 3 has the bad rap of being mediocre in its first hour. It’s just not true. This is a really daring and fun movie — starting with the premise, a state of despair via toyhood obsolescence due to Andy’s impending adulthood. That moodiness takes a shift towards the playful genre pastiche (always in the Toy Story DNA) as the false utopia of Sunnyside is deconstructed via kaiju and heist subplots. Toy Story 3 certainly has a slower boil than plenty of other Pixar movies, but it’s never dull and never less than gripping.
- The animation. Pixar’s tech and art design here are leap ahead of Toy Story 2 in every conceivable way. The direction and virtual-camera placement is phenomenal, the lighting fantastic and precisely matching each mood, from the sharp lights of the toddler play session to the hazy golds of the last scene with Bonnie, and so many other variations. All the character animation is best-ever material, with Tortilla Mr. Potato Head a particularly inspired creation. The wear-and-tear on the toys is so tactile and real and thematically appropriate. The humans look better than ever (especially too-cute Bonnie). My favorite single effect is probably the flickering from the heat of the incinerator, rendering everything ever-so-slightly distorted and choppy.
- The score. Randy Newman isn’t at the top of my favorite composers list, but he was the perfect man for Toy Story, bridging the irony and sincerity of the series perfectly, able to tug the heartstrings when needed. (“So Long” is a beautiful, elegant, understated all-timer piece.) My biggest complaint is that the credits song “We Belong Together” is on the bland side. But that leads me to…
- The dance party? I know it’s become an animated feature cliche (and was already one in 2010). But they’ve never been as satisfying as this. And if you’re going to have a dance party, it’s hard to beat a flamenco version of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” by The Gipsy Kings.
- The symbolic roundness. There’s no question that Toy Story 3 is the most thematically rich of the Toy Story movies, and perhaps any Pixar movie. But what I especially love is that there’s so many ways to read every scenario and conflict — I’ve been arguing with friends about the symbolism of the ending for over a decade now. Whatever your take, there are certainly more spiritual overtones here than ever, which adds an appropriate gravity to a movie flooded with death/afterlife imagery. (“Where’s your kid now, Sheriff?”)
- The conclusion of my childhood. It’s something of a cliche for millions of millennials, but undeniably true: this film is the end of innocence, incarnate. Toy Story 1 came out when I was in elementary school, Toy Story 2 came out when I was in middle school, and Toy Story 3 came out a couple weeks after I graduated college. This trilogy accompanied and refracted my childhood, then sent me off to adulthood with equal parts sentimental gratitude, bittersweet wistfulness, and hope for a bright future. “Thanks, guys.”
What I’m less crazy about:
- Lotso as a villain retread. Lotso is hardly a “surprise” villain — the false generosity/Machiavellian vibes are off the charts from his first appearance. But he hits a lot of the same notes that Stinky Pete from part 2 does, from his curdled resentment due to childhood neglect, to a put-on “best interest” for toys, to even his rotund appearance. It’s not an exact match, though; Lotso, for example, weaponizes southern hospitality charm, and the mechanics of the abandonment and villainy are plenty different. But there’s unmistakably some “sameness” to him. That said… It’s ultimately a minor point, as Lotso is not the film’s true antagonist — that would be Father Time.
- The stereotypes. Ken is not exactly a big gay joke, but he’s pretty close, and the film leans on it way too much for comedy (I could do without the fashion show or the high heels quip). And Spanish Buzz is a character animation delight, but a tango-dancing telenovela heartthrob caricature for sure. A bit outdated in 2010.
So, add it all up, and what do you get?
My favorite Toy Story movie. Not just that, but my favorite Pixar movie, and a movie the climbs higher up my all-time favorites list every time I watch it. (Edit: See just how high here.)
I don’t hate Toy Story 4 by any stretch — I like it, in fact — but, to me, it’s a new spinoff series. “The Bonnie Chronicles” or something. Pixar should have given that film and whatever sequels inevitably come a different title. And so I feel no need to revisit it as part of this retrospective. Who could ask for a more perfect ending for one of cinema’s greatest series than Toy Story 3?
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