Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Out of the Box

Film: Toy Story 2; Toy Story 3
Format: DVD from New Lenox Public Library through interlibrary loan (Toy Story 2) and from personal collection (Toy Story 3) on rockin’ flatscreen.

It wasn’t a huge shock when the second and third Toy Story films appeared in the latest edition. I was kind of surprised they hadn’t appeared already. The Toy Story films are not my favorite of Pixar’s (that would be The Incredibles), but all three of them rank pretty high. Pixar started with the bar high, and managed to up the ante in this series every time.

Toy Story 2 picks up essentially where the first film left off. If you managed to miss the series, the basic conceit is that toys are alive, and when no one is looking, they move around and have feelings and lives. The goal of every toy is to be loved by a child. As Toy Story 2 opens, the toys owned by Andy (John Morris) are preparing for their owner to head off to camp. Since it’s cowboy camp, he plans on taking his favorite toy, Woody (Tom Hanks). Woody is damaged just before they go, and Andy decides to leave him behind.

All is well enough until Andy’s mom decides to have a yard sale and goes through Andy’s room for some things to add. One toy she picks up is Wheezy (Joe Ranft), a squeaky penguin with a broken squeaker. Unwilling to see his friend go, Woody effects a rescue, but ends up on the ground where he is spotted by Al (Wayne Knight), a toy collector. Andy’s mother refuses to sell Woody, so Al steals him. As it turns out, Al has a complete set of Woody toys, needing only the doll itself to complete the collection, which he then plans to sell to a toy museum in Japan.

So, while Woody meets the other toys in his collection—Bullseye the horse, Jessie the yodeling cowgirl (Joan Cusack), and Stinky Pete the prospector (Kelsey Grammer), his friends attempt a rescue. These are Andy’s other favorite toy Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), the Slinky dog (Jim Varney), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Rex the dinosaur (Wallace Shawn), and Hamm the piggy bank (John Ratzenberger).

While the toys get lost in a toy store looking for Woody, Woody himself faces something of a crisis, in part because of the influence of Stinky Pete, who is original in his box and has never been played with. Pete is tired of being in storage and wants Woody to fall in line, trying to guilt him into staying, eventually using force to get his way. Meanwhile, the other toys encounter a different Buzz Lightyear (also voiced by Tim Allen) who hasn’t figured out that he’s a toy yet. And, of course, everyone needs to be home in time for Andy’s return from camp.

Toy Story 2 is a natural extension of the Toy Story franchise, doing exactly what a sequel should do in a perfect world. It takes all of the joy of the first film and keeps all of the fun characters and includes new characters that help build on the original story as much as possible. The new characters are great, and Jessie the cowgirl is the character who will stay with the group by the end of the film. She’s a good addition, as is Bullseye, who doesn’t talk.

So let’s get into the guts of this. First, the animation is beautiful, which is to be expected from Pixar. It’s better than that of the first two Pixar films, not as sophisticated as what we get in subsequent films. It’s important to remember that, because it’s easy to be a little disappointed in the animation after seeing later Pixar films. It’s mostly noticeable in the human characters; the toys look fine because they’re not supposed to look that real.

The other great thing about Toy Story 2 is that it manages to maintain not only the depth of the characters, but the depth of emotional connection to those characters. It might be silly to feel so connected to a series of toys, but these toys are real characters and they matter to us in the audience almost as much as they matter to their owner, Andy.

The third, and most important truth of Toy Story 2 is that it’s fun. It’s a great story and a great adventure, and it all holds together perfectly. It’s entertaining as all hell, and there are moments when it’s genuinely in question how we’ll come to a happy ending.

In other words, it’s a hell of a fun ride. And that’s exactly what a great kids’ film should be, so that’s what Toy Story 2 is.

Which brings us to the current conclusion of this universe, Toy Story 3. It does what almost no film in a series like this does; it improves even further on the overall formula and world it presents. The typical pattern lately is for the sequel to improve on the first film and the conclusion of the trilogy to be massively disappointing. Only The Lord of the Rings and Toy Story come to mind as breaking that mold. If Toy Story 2 is four stars out of four, Toy Story 3 is five-and-a-half.

And dammit, I’m not supposed to tear up at a kids movie, but I’ll be damned if Toy Story 3 doesn’t make me weepy just thinking about the last five minutes before the credits. I know I’m miles ahead of myself in talking about the ending here, but those moments just before the credits roll are among the most emotionally perfect cinematic gems I’ve ever seen. After everything we go through with these toys, it all comes to a perfect conclusion.

This time, the toys aren’t dealing with greedy collectors or petty jealousy, but with reality. Andy is now 17 and preparing to head to college. His toys, the ones we’ve watched battle for survival through two movies, now live in a toy chest, all but forgotten by their owner. It’s evidently been years since they have gotten any attention from their owner and the toys steal a cell phone and cause it to ring in the toy chest in the hope of getting some last playtime before Andy leaves. It fails, of course, and Andy is told to decide what to do with his old toys. He decides to take Woody with him and to put the rest in the attic, but a mix-up puts all of the toys at the curb instead. (For the sake of ease, I’m not mentioning who voices the characters when they stay the same—of the main characters, one changes; Slinky dog is voice by Blake Clark due to Jim Varney’s untimely death.)

Andy’s younger sister is donating a box of toys to a local daycare, and Andy’s toys figure that this is better than being thrown away. Woody, loyal as always, tries to convince the toys that Andy intended to put them in the attic, but none will believe him and they opt for the daycare instead.

Once there, they meet Lotso Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty), who appears to run the daycare as a benevolent place for toys, a place where the toys can be played with in perpetuity, with new kids arriving to replace the ones who outgrow the daycare. In truth, he runs the toy world of the center as a malevolent dictatorship, forcing all new donations to live in the pre-school room where the children are violent and abusive to the toys. He maintains control with his own toy Mafia, enforced by Big Baby and a Ken doll (Michael Keaton). Woody winds up in the possession of Bonnie (Emily Hahn), the daughter of one of the women who works at the daycare. Bonnie is a kid much like Andy; she takes care of her toys. Here Woody discovers Bonnie’s favorite toys: Trixie the triceratops (Kristen Schaal), Buttercup the unicorn (Jeff Garlin), Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), and the classically-trained actor Mr. Pricklepants the hedgehog (Timothy Dalton).

Naturally, Woody decides to save his friends and battle against Lotso and his toy thugs. Ken finds himself torn between loyalty to his mob and his sudden love for Barbie (Jodi Benson). And of course, there’s adventure aplenty.

There are also great jokes throughout. Buzz Lightyear attempts to reason his way into getting his friends moved into the bigger kids room only to be reset to his factory settings, making him return to his belief that he is actually a space ranger and not merely a toy. When his friends try to reset him again, they inadvertently activate his Spanish language mode, which creates a series of tremendous visual gags.

So what makes it work? Toy Story 3 works because its creators never lost sight of what made the first Toy Story so damn good. We can talk about the action sequences, which are a lot of fun. We can talk about the real, existential issues of the world the toys live in. But it all really comes down to the fact that these are great characters. They’re characters we like being around and spending time with. We care about them and want them to be happy, and hope, even if it’s just a little, that we were nice to our toys when we were kids for the sake of Woody, Buzz, and Jessie.

Even better, there are things here that work because the Toy Story universe has remained consistent. Toward the end of the film, all of the toys have found their way into the city dump and are moments away from being incinerated. They’re not, of course. A cynical person would claim that they are saved at the end by a deus ex machine, and in a way they are, but it’s something that was set up in the first Toy Story film! That sort of perfect call-back is the result of smart writers who genuinely care about their stories.

So yes, Toy Story 3 is a wonderful film. It all culminates with one of the sweetest, most beautifully poignant sequences ever filmed, something that chokes me up just thinking about it. I’m not supposed to get weepy-eyed thinking about what happens to a cowboy doll, and yet here I am, tearing up just thinking about it. It takes a special film to do that, and Toy Story 3 is a damn special film.

Why to watch Toy Story 2: All the fun of the first film with new characters.
Why not to watch: I’ve got nothing.

Why to watch Toy Story 3: A heartfelt conclusion to a magical trilogy.
Why not to watch: Sorry, can’t answer. There’s dust in my eyes.


  1. I think 5 1/2 stars out of 4 for Toy Story 3 still isn't enough. It's a tremendous achievement in every aspect, and I can't fault it one bit. From the fantastical being-played-with opening, taken directly from the first film (I brought my dinosaur, who eats force-field dogs!) to the Great Escape sequences, and all the new supporting characters, this is easily my favourite entry in the trilogy, and vies with Wall-E for my favourite Pixar film.

    As for Toy Story 2, I have more issues with it than you seem to - Jessie really gets on my nerves - but there's still plenty there to keep me more than entertained. The Star Wars callbacks, the Jurassic Park wing mirror gag, Wayne Knight as Big Al. There's so much to love here too!

    1. Death by monkeys!

      Toy Story 3 is my second-favorite Pixar film, and I think that's only because I stubbornly cling to The Incredibles as a favorite. Toy Story 3 is something really special, though. It contains an emotional weight that's difficult enough to achieve with live actors, let alone animated toys.

      I love that it stays true to the characters and true to the world. I love that it ends the story of those characters so perfectly. I'll admit that I was someone who thought that the 11-year gap might mean that the third installment was a cash grab. Hell, it might've been a cash grab. If it was, though, you can't tell from watching. It's storytelling at its finest.

      Six stars? Ten? I could live with that.

  2. I just posted my review for Toy Story 2 and what do I find after a couple of days of not being online? That you've just reviewed it and #3, too.

    I wholeheartedly agree on the reaction to the end of Toy Story 3. It happens to me, too. The scene in Toy Story 2 with Jessie no longer being wanted by the girl who owned her is related to this. And the incinerator scene had me almost crying one minute and laughing out loud the next because of the callback to the first film.

    Toy Story 3 is my favorite Pixar film (I named it the best film of 2010) and Toy Story 2 is, well, number 2. The Incredibles would be my number 3 Pixar film, but it would probably make my Top 5 superhero movies of all time.

    1. When you talk about Pixar movies, it's very difficult to discredit someone else's #1, even if you pick a different film. While they've had a dud or two, I'd have no objection to someone naming Monsters Inc. or WALL-E or several others as a favorite. It's hard to have a "wrong" answer for that question.

  3. Great review.

    The Incredibles is my favorite Pixar film as well, although, ironically it is one of the only ones that doesn't make me cry. Pixar is amazing in that they can create moments in their films where a character or situation comes to some perfect revelation.

    Buzz, learning he's a toy, then gritting his teeth and climbing that railing to prove he can fly.

    Dory, suddenly remembering.

    The look on Sully's face at the end.

    Anton Ego tasting the Ratatouille and flashing back to his childhood, color returning to his pale skin.

    Wall-E and Eve dancing among the stars.

    The entire damn first five minutes of UP.

    I'm sitting here with tears streaming down my face just thinking about these moments.

    Toy Story 2 has the heartbreak of Jessie and Toy Story 3 has the toys holding hands in friendship as they slide to their doom. Perfect moments that are rare in movies today.

    1. "The look on Sully's face at the end."

      Hell, yes. I can't even talk about this moment of film without bawling my eyes out. For me, it is one of the most emotionally perfect moments I have ever seen. It's damn beautiful.

      There is no moment like this in The Incredibles. My favorite moment, though, is in the limousine at the end when Dash relives the weekend, falls back into his seat and says, "I love this family." That, and Violet's force field at the end and Helen Parr's almost whispered, "That's my girl." More than anything, those moments pushed my stance that the Parrs are a completely believable family.

  4. Both great moments from The Incredibles. Violet's final forcefield comes closest to the emotionally perfect moment because she's the most unsure and vulnerable of the family. In my opinion, she's the heart of the movie. As you say, they are a completely believable family.