Every once in a while, I’m impressed by an American animated film. It happened a lot when I was younger. Not that I was that much more easily impressed, it’s just that when I was younger, there was just so much more to be excited about. Don Bluth was still putting out amazing work, Disney hadn’t completely lost its soul yet, and I had classics like “All Dogs Go To Heaven,” “The Fox and the Hound,” “An American Tail” and “The Lion King” all appearing on my horizon. It was truly a good time to be a kid in America. And then things started to slide. Disney began throwing around films that, while visually impressive, lacked a lot of the heartwarming sensitivity I had come to expect from them. They were either too “kid friendly” or completely out of touch with the world we were living in.
And then came Toy Story. I remember it well, the day I saw that movie. I was 14 years old, on my way home from the mall, when I told my mom to drop me off at the movies. I wanted to see this new, computer generated film about the secret lives of toys. It had just opened, and my main draw was, of course, the computer animation. By this point in my life, I had seen the landmark children’s television series “Reboot” on television and was amazed by the early advances being made in computer animation. I went into Toy Story looking for something new and refreshing. I left with my mind completely blown.
I had expected to see a film with a flashy look to it, and a little story thrown in to justify the new technologies at work. I left with a modern fable about friendship, discovering one’s own identity and the chance to see the world through the eyes of a toy. Needless to say, it changed my life.
I am writing this now because I just finished watching Toy Story 3. It’s been a long time since the last time I had a chance to visit with Woody, Buzz, Rex and the Potato-Heads, and I will admit, it was great seeing them again. But this time I was’t a wide-eyed teenager looking for the next big thing, I was a grown man seeking a simpler time in life, when the pleasures of toys were the only thing that mattered.
I will start off by saying that this film is simply amazing. Where Pixar first pushed the envelope many years ago, they picked it right back up and pushed it some more. The environments are still colorful, the characters crisp and the dynamics of scene almost overwhelming. Despite being fully human-sized, I immediately could feel the room growing around me until I was the same size as Woody and the gang. Pixar has learned much in the last decade, and it shows.
But the strong point of Pixar’s films isn’t just the astounding visual effects, no, they also get by on strong stories. In the first Toy Story, the theme was friendship, self discovery and love. In the second it was the distance with which friends would go for each other. In this film, the theme is loss. Not just the loss of a beloved friend, or cherished possession, but the loss of innocence. Andy has grown up, the youthful boy that once played with these toys has now all but forgotten them. The opening montage of the film, chronicling happier times when play was the only thing that mattered, reinforces this sense of loss, especially when a grown up Andy now has to choose which toys he will keep, and which he will say goodbye to. Pixar knows how to tug at the heartstrings, and this is just the first of many times it does so over the course of the film. The toys confronting a new world, scary and mysterious, where they are no longer the most important thing in their boy’s world. It is a world where the toy box is now their home, with the attic or the curb being their final destination. Their one driving force is the potential for happier days down the road, as Woody puts it “one day Andy might have kids of his own, and we’ll be there for him.”
This theme of hope and loss is consistently reinforced throughout the film: when the toys are mistakenly thrown away, mistaking a simple error for intentional abandonment; finding a new home at the Day Care, where the promise of play reinvigorates them (the scene where the hear the children approaching is especially powerful, moreso when they see the other toys in the room run for cover); the fear and horror of discovering not only is their world, and its hopes, false, but that their beloved Andy truly misses them; the terrifying moments inside the trash compactor and incinerator (I admit, I almost cried); and of course, the moment of closure when Andy leaves for college. But mixed in with the knowledge that their happy days are gone, there is the spark of something beautiful, because they are a family, they rely on each other, and they always will be together.
After seeing the movie, I immediately tweeted that this film, more than I think any other Pixar work, mirrors the Studio Ghibli aesthetic best. And not just for the giant Totoro (though he was a welcome addition to the cast, wide smiles and all). See, John Lasseter, and indeed all of Pixar, are huge fans of Hayao Miyazaki’s work. And since I have essentially been eating, sleeping and breathing Miyazaki for about a month now, I began to notice things immediately. First off, this film is darker than any other Pixar has done. And because of this, the darker scenes seem all the more powerful. Just as Miyazaki tends to infuse his films with powerful imagery which sets tone, and empowers scenes, so here does Pixar. I need only to point to the end sequence with the incinerator. The sequence was so powerful, so vivid, that several people in the theatre (myself and my girlfriend included) were sweating while watching it. The perspective of seeing such a flame from the point of a view of a toy was frightening, awe-inspiring and all the more powerful.
Speaking of powerful scenes, Pixar also was not afraid to imbue this film with darker story elements. Just as Miyazaki disdains “dumbing things down” for children, Pixar leapt in feet first, forcing the toys, and by extension us, to confront the themes of loss and despair. Rather than sugarcoat the story, we feel everything the toys feel, and for a moment, the prospect of a sad ending was very real. It made the eventual resolution seem that much more satisfying, if still bittersweet. I know I wasn’t the only one holding back tears of both sadness and joy, and it made me think fondly of all the toys I had given away over the years, and the ones I still have back home.
Much like classic Miyazaki films like Laputa: Castle In the Sky and Spirited Away, Toy Story also sets up the locations as characters of their own. He imbues these locations with the same style of earthy organics he gives to his characters, allowing the viewer to essentially “feel” what the setting is thinking. Again, I draw an example from the dump/incinerator- Pixar gave a coldness and sterility to this locale, there are points during the sequence where we the viewer feel that the dump is itself a ruthless monster bent on destruction, when it is in fact simply a machine doing its intended job. This is a far cry from the safety of Andy’s bedroom, where it feels comfortable and familiar, or from the Butterfly Room, with it’s welcoming atmosphere and almost utopian flavor (at least, utopian for a toy).
Finally, Pixar manages to fit in just one more of Miyazaki’s favorite themes into the story: the innocence of youth. One of the defining elements of the earlier Toy Story movies was the genuine love Andy gave his toys, whether it was inscribing his name on their foot, or simply the act of playing with them, we could see that Andy was a happy child who loved his toys like they were his best friends...which it would be completely accurate to say they were. In Toy Story 3, this tradition continues, both with Andy, and later with the girl Bonnie. We see grown up Andy as a boy on the cusp of adulthood, but who still cares about his beloved toys, especially when they are suddenly gone. We see his behavior mirrored in the child Bonnie, who not only loves her toys, but actively seeks to “rescue” them from her Day Care, and even goes so far as to fix them when they break and treat them with the same love and respect Andy always had. There is a certain poignancy to the scene at the end of the film, when Andy finally parts ways with his beloved friends, and the joy in Bonnie’s face when she meets her new ones. They bond the two characters now share is tangible, palpable, and touching. Again, a very emotional scene that would draw tears from even the staunchest of viewers.
Hayao Miyazaki once said that if he were going to make a movie about a bug, he would do it from the bug’s point of view: he would make the world huge and show how the bug’s experiences were so different from our own. Toy Story was Pixar’s first attempt to do something of that nature with the hidden world of toys. When they succeeded there, they went and did it again (in between then, also showing us the world of A Bug’s Life). With Toy Story 3, they brought that world full circle, giving long time fans the resolution we sought, giving their most memorable characters the ending they deserved and introducing this magical world of toys to a new generation. This film will live on, because it speaks to the very core of who we are as humans, and reminds us that life is just a series of changes that we must face with dignity.