22 June 2010

First Impressions: Toy Story 3, Part I: Characters and Themes


Inarguably the best film of Summer so far, if not the entire year, Toy Story 3 (2010) seemingly does the impossible - surpass its predecessors. It's one of those films that simply cannot be hyped enough - I know there's a lot of positive talk around the Intranets about it, and it's all legitimate. Every moment of this movie is fantastic, let's dig in:

Monuments in CGI:

The first Toy Story (1995) is notable for a few reasons. It was the first full-length CGI film, it was Pixar's first full-length film and if you saw it as a kid it's a core element of your childhood. It certainly is for mine. It's a film about simple child needs and desires - playing with toys and imagination then dealing with loss, jealousy, replacement and acceptance. It's brilliant.

I watched both this installment as well as Toy Story 2 (1999) a couple days before I saw the third one. There are definitely upgrades in each proceeding film, although none of them looks terrible. The biggest thing I noticed between the first two is camera placement. Toy Story really isn't that innovative in its camera movements, it's like the animators were worried enough for the simple shots to look good. Toy Story 2 loosened up a bit and by the time we have 3 it feels like not only a live-action film but one with exceptional camera work. There are also massive improvements to level of detail, textures and variations of environments, lighting, number of moving parts on the screen at once and scope. One reason why Toy Story 3 is an excellent sequel is that it ups the ante in all these categories while maintaining a story and characters committed and faithful enough to the original.

Big Fat Southern Villains and Mobile Tortilla Heroes:

The major baddie in the flick is this big pink bear that smells like strawberries. Fearsome as he is, Lotso is a complicated, intricate character with a great deal of insecurities and abandonment issues that he covers up through merciless control of his Daycare, violence and betrayal. He just had to have a Southern Accent and position himself as a Prison Warden, didn't he? His animation is spectacular - the fur is dirty enough to be believably old and worn and its texture in rainfal is breathtaking. There's never really a moment in this film when the toys look like they couldn't exist.

There are a lot of new toys in this film, but it never really feels too crowded, mostly because the majority have already had some room to grow in previous installments (some like Rex had bigger roles in the second film as well). While some characters have certainly been squeezed out (Hamm and the aforementioned Rex had the second film packed with their best lines and there's a passing mention of Bo Peep's disapperance. Really, how did a Woody/Bo relationship work with Jessie in the picture anyway?), there's still a good amount of growth here. Much of Bonnie's and Sunnyside's toys exist only for a few good jokes and the film wisely doesn't feel compelled to give every single character a motivation and backstory. That's left to Lotso, Chuckles and Ken.

I've never been so entertained by a Ken doll. Michael Keaton nails this voice and the film really pins down the inferiority complex Ken must have attempting to retain masculinity in the shadow of Barbie. I mean, it's one thing to be second banana to your woman, but to be second to Barbie is something else. Ken eventually relishes his role while authentically fighting for his right to be included among the other action figures. I'll get into more of this later, but his retention of mannerisms from the nature and time period of his design are simultaneously bizarre and hilarious.

To briefly skim some of the other minor characters, it's nice to see the useful natural abilities of the Potatoe Heads and Slinky Dog put into play. It's cool to see a big crowd on the adventure this time around - that was the way to go. With just Buzz and Woody the first time, then adding the four major male characters, we had 11 of Andy's Toys out and about for this round - it upped the stakes both in that we had a lot of personalities to jar around and there were a lot more toys to lose.

After Andy's toys we have Bonnie's toys, which the slightly different rules regarding their society seemed interesting to get into, but I'm sure this is my overthinking nature rather than anything worthwhile for the narrative. More on Toy Society later.

Pair of Cowboys- Woody and Jessie:

Jessie was given a pretty big role this time around and she deserved it after being introduced in the second film as one of the most complex characters. Some of her insanity seemed lessened, perhaps an afteraffect of actually getting played with instead of sealed in a box forever. She's also clearly a babe among toys, something not lost on Buzz.

I'm going to talk about Buzz a bit later because his own personality defects tie more into the nature of Toy Society more than is fit to discuss here. His relationship with Jessie though is interesting. I don't understand Toy Dating (other than the obvious bond between Mr. and Mrs. Potatoe Head), but it seems like he def wants to bang her out. It's kind of weird but since they're toys who don't really have gonads it ends up being pretty sweet and innocent.

As for Woody, wow what an inspiration. He's that rare natural born leader that serves as an instant rally point for all those around him. He's got a commanding presence, unfaltering loyalty and a brilliant tactical mind (Andy sums up most of this by film's end during a direct talk of how he's been with him so long and why he's his favourite toy). His bravery and commitment to his Toy Family is unsurpassed. While Toy Story was arguably a dual protagonist film with possibly Buzz as the deuteragonist, Toy Story 2 was more equal with both their arcs (Woody contemplating leaving while Buzz rising to the role of Leader of Andy's Toys in his stead), Toy Story 3 is clearly Woody's story. You can see this in the opening credits. Toy Story 2 opened up with a space-themed font and sequence, Toy Story 3 is clearly Western. Buzz's role is hardly larger than Mr. Potatoe Head, but Woody is by far the star.

Subtext out the Battery Pack:

There are so many motivations going on at any given time in this film, it's staggering. There are many hard choices going on - do the Toys abandon Andy who seems like he was going to abandon them? Do the owe loyalty to each other? Is there justice in fighting to the top of the brutal set-up of Sunnyside Daycare?

There's the Toys' status as family against belonging to the Daycare System (Lotso offers escape to Buzz but he's loyal to his comrades). Woody, above all has a desire to be Andy's toy forever and it's actually a tough decision for him to sacrifice being with Andy in order to send his friends as well as himself to Bonnie. There is always a lot going on. Abandonment vs. misplacement, with Lotso and Big Baby there's also revenge and corruption vs. innocence (Lotso smashing the Daisy broach). There's adventure (how easy is Toy Travel anyway? Seems nuts but doable), passion (Mexican Buzz...more on that later) and drama out the wazoo. While a Best Picture nomination is about guaranteed, I'm still doubtful over an animated film's ability to win. Shoe-in for Best Screenplay at this point, though. This is an incredible film - I plan to overthink the shit out if it during Part II later this week.

Stay tuned, adventurers!

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