“All good things must come to an end.” A poignant proverb, and so pertinent to the Toy Story franchise it hurts. Since the first film hit cinemas in 1995, Pixar’s ragtag band of children’s playthings which come to life when their owner’s backs are turned have not only delivered the two best films in Pixar’s canon (an admirable achievement in itself), but set the gold standard for not just animation, but filmmaking in general.
Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) are now as synonymous with movies as Don Corleone and Darth Vader, icons of a new generation of motion pictures which has made Pixar arguably the best and most consistent studio in the world. We’ve followed the toys’ travails for fifteen years, and have sat with bated breath as the final chapter was first rumoured, then made, and now released: but if this really is the end, it could seldom be better.
The story is classic Pixar: it’s as much (maybe even more so) an adults’ film for kids as vice versa. Andy is all grown up and about to depart for college, his loyal-to-a-fault favourite toys languishing unused in a toybox for years, all the others given away. Accidentally donated to Sunnyside daycare centre, their initial joy is thwarted by violent toddlers and dictatorial Lots-o-Huggin Bear (Ned Beatty). Woody, threatening his own future at college with Andy, returns to save them, and they make a final bid for freedom and one last playtime with their owner…
Already, it’s clear that Toy Story 3 is far superior to its lesser imitators and contemporaries. The film, helmed by Lee Unkrich – TS1 and 2 director John Lasseter now runs Disney’s entire animated wing – does not principally concern itself with cheap laughs (Shrek 3) or OTT referentiality (Shark Tale), instead focusing on two key themes: abandonment and family. Handling such profoundly complex concepts, in a manner communicable to both children and adults, is incredibly difficult, but you’d never guess it watching Toy Story 3. For a film whose main characters are all toys, there’s more human emotion in this film than in any other I’ve seen this year.
As with all the other Pixar heavyweights, it all starts with a phenomenal script. The ‘clever jokes slipped inside simpler ones’ method has long been a hallmark of the studio’s best films (Toy Story‘s ‘staff meeting’ sequence stands out), and here there’s an embarrassment of riches. Satires on office life, prison dramas and family dynamics are all present, handled with such deftness and intelligence it puts dozens of comedies to shame.
The comedy itself, however, is somewhat different from the first two films. Woody and Buzz are no longer relied upon to carry both the plot and the comic relief, instead principally dealing with the former. Mr. Potato Head, Hamm and Rex are the comic backbone of the film: Hamm’s sardonic quips wryly delivered by Pixar good-luck-charm John Ratzenberger, Rex’s alternating timidity and panic never better from the mouth of Wallace Shawn, and Potato Head’s world-weariness at its peak, Don Rickles’ old-school New York Jewish twang bitterly remarking the constant struggles facing the group. Michael Keaton’s Ken is also a brilliant creation, not so much in the closet as poking his head out of it.
Of course, the lead duo still offer some of the movie’s best laughs (I won’t spoil it, but Buzz’s ‘reset’ button delivers a hilarious ten minutes), but they now bear the emotional weight of the film even moreso than before. Almost like arguing parents, they struggle to leave Andy, Woody clinging onto the past while Buzz tries to move on. Much like in the first film, when Woody refuses to accept Buzz’s ascendance up the toy hierarchy, here he is still living in that same fantasy, trying to recapture the glory days of Andy’s childhood – his ploy to get Andy’s attention by stealing his mobile phone is heartbreaking in its desperation.
Despite all the laughs – and there are many – the film is, for huge parts, a tragedy on an almost Greek level. The toys are never out of the woods, from trying to escape Sunnyside to the climactic set-piece on a rubbish heap. The tangible villain of the piece is Beatty’s Lotso, a tyrant fuelled by the anguish of being abandoned (Pixar again going above and beyond to deliver an affecting backstory) who tries to trap them in daycare with help from the terrifying muscle Big Baby, but in reality the enemy is rejection.
For all their Herculean efforts, we somehow know from the first minute that things won’t go back to being the same for the toys, a fact tellingly revealed by the scenes with Andy’s mother, as she struggles to accept her first-born’s departure. Andy’s family is explored here – no longer the Tom-and-Jerry-esque pairs of legs walking around – and their fleeting screentime only reinforces this fear of abandonment we share with Woody, Buzz et al. The now-small family of toys know they must stick together, and the more tribulations they endure, the more heavy the emotional wallop the film carries. The smaller ensemble are like the last of the Mohicans, and their sense of family is ultimately what they must rely on to carry on, no longer loved as they once were and inseparable form one another.
Toy Story 3 is without a doubt the film of the year, and really ranks up with the first two as Pixar’s best output to date. The wit, the emotion, the sheer humanity of the film is what makes it so unforgettable. Although tagged as a ‘kids film for adults’, this is the first where the opposite seems more likely: the message of the film, difficult to swallow as it may be, is that life moves on, and if we aren’t willing to change with the times, we will be left behind, whether toy or human. And now, it’s time for us to realise Toy Story is gone: just like Woody and Buzz, we’ve got to move forward, a lump in our throats but joy in our hearts.
10/10: One of the most staggering cinematic achievements of the past 5 years, not just visually, but emotionally. A fitting end to what must now surely be named the greatest film trilogy of all time, Toy Story 3 delivers on absolutely everything, from humour to sadness to poignant observation. They may be child’s playthings, but Woody, Buzz, the Potato Heads, Hamm, Rex, Jessie, Slinky Dog and Bullseye have played with adult emotions once again, and saying goodbye is heartbreaking. They might miss Andy, but not nearly as much as we’re going to miss them.