Fifteen years ago, I approached Toy Story with skepticism. A full-length feature animated on computers? I feared it would look fake and robotic, a poor substitute for the hand-drawn brilliance of Disney classics.
But Toy Story won me over in its first five minutes. It had colorful characters, an adventurous spirit, and a big, warm, thrumming heart. It entertained kids and their parents equally, without a trace of the cynicism that sours most “cartoons for grownups.” I actually cared about that pull-string gunslinger, his spaceman friend, and their circus of strangely familiar supporting characters.
Pixar had raised the standard for G-rated entertainment…and then they raised it again. Toy Story 2 still stands as one of the only sequels in movie history to surpass the strengths of its predecessor.
Toy Story 3 completes what is arguably the finest American trilogy ever made. Can you think of another one that doesn’t have a weak link? It’s a surprisingly harrowing conclusion. After the first act, which takes Woody, Buzz, and the gang far from home and traps them in a frightening daycare, the movie becomes a celebration of prison-break conventions. Then, in its apocalyptic finale, it achieves an intensity that reminds me of another three-quel’s fiery finale—The Return of the King.
In the first act of Toy Story 3, leads Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and the rest of the beloved Toy Story characters are carried far from the room of their off-to-college owner Andy, and they land in a daycare. At first, it seems ideal. They’ll never run out of children to play with them.
But as the toys struggle to understand if they should remain loyal to Andy and return to his house, or to fulfill their purpose as toys in the hands of hyperactive toddlers, the story raises tough questions. This story about abandoned toys might cause some of us to consider how we respond to our own betrayals and heartbreaks. It raises questions about how we discern our true purpose in life. And when Buzz, Jessie, and the gang are sentenced to a period of torment and abuse for the benefit of more powerful toys, we might wonder what this suggests about our own society’s luxuries and what they might be costing others.
For all of its memorable thrills (including an Indiana Jones-style runaway train caper), its inspired humor (Mr. Potato Head momentarily becomes the Picasso-like Mr. Tortilla Head), and its hilarious tangents (Ken’s fashion show may be the year’s most inspired montage), director Lee Unkrich’s film has one remarkable distinction: it is, shot for shot, scene for scene, the year’s most beautiful movie, alive with colors and shadows and textures that move critics to use words like painterly and sumptuous.
2010 gave us three films that I highly recommend for all ages—The Secret of Kells, Babies, and Toy Story 3. That’s more than usual. American television and cinema feeds American children a steady diet of junk food. But art and entertainment are formative forces, and children need great stories. Pixar’s films continue to reward adults and children alike, giving them something they can enjoy together again and again. And their Toy Story trilogy sets a gold standard for all-ages moviemaking.
We need a whole generation of filmmakers to learn from Pixar’s example.