Thursday, September 23, 2010

Toy Story 3 (2010, Lee Unkrich)

Toy Story 3 is the successful culmination of Pixar's efforts to replace Disney as our culture's provider of shallow warmth. When the competition for children's attention is as cynical and ugly as the animated films of Dreamworks, what choice do parents have? Yet even more so than the first two films in the trilogy, part 3 is a comforting hand placed on the shoulder of an entire generation vaguely suspicious that their willful lifelong lack of adult refinement might have been a mistake. Four year olds who enjoyed the first Toy Story are by now getting high in college dorms and fabricating memories around 1980s toys they never actually played with. So too is Andy, the human owner of the film's toys, now leaving for college and actually considering bringing his Woody™ doll with him like some kind of nostalgia-mongering hipster baby. Andy is not only the surrogate for this film's audience, he's a more sophisticated model of the lifelong consumer old Walt once fashioned out of the baby boomers - hip to irony, knowingly passive towards corporate brand synergy and Corinthians be damned, an ageless lover of childish things. Like the infantilizing Disney films of old, Pixar flicks are designed to send you crying to mother - which may be why Andy's dad is so conspicuously absent. He might've told his son to grow up a little.

The closing scene in which Andy bestows the very-much-purchasable-in-the-real-world Toy Story™ toys to a four year old is the movie's true message; a conflation of the warm feelings of childhood with the brand of Pixar. This is akin to the Disney versions of Snow White, Peter Pan et all being reinforced by mass media as the ones to be shared and passed down between generations. Within the context of no context these films have done an excellent job of fabricating a fake-timeless collection of playthings: the original Toy Story (1995, John Lasseter) successfully used licensed products like Slinky™ and Mr Potato Head™ to evoke nostalgia from parents and I want it I want it I want it!!! from kids, satisfying both television-raised parties. Toy Story 3 continues recording the history of no-context by making Barbie™ and Ken™ integral players to the hoary plot, inviting parents to laugh knowingly at the in-jokes about Ken™'s metrosexual fashion obsession as their daughters make a mental note to ask for the Toy Story 3 Great Shape Barbie™ doll this Christmas.

Insidious product placement in children's movies is not new. What seems new is the degree to which people who should know better will overlook the dubiousness as long as the film is from Pixar. Toy Story 3 all but sanctifies the practice.

The waves of CGI feature length animated films in the wake of the first Toy Story have been uniformly hideous. The syphilitic animation industry abandoned the theory of evolution in the medium back when television was invented. Despite hopes that Toy Story would open a new world of visual possibilities in features, the only developments in the past 15 years have been some of what video game programmers concerned themselves with: bigger senses of scale in environments and more detailed textures. These are liberating advances in the field of video games - unlike the first Toy Story's tie-in game for the Super Nintendo, the graphics of Toy Story 3 and it's next-gen video games are virtually interchangeable. In computer animation, these technical accomplishments are irrelevant to the creation of characters or telling of a story. If anything, the increased freedom allowed by them makes the direction as lazily laden with gratuitous spectacle as the average live action film. The hard drive limitations of 1995 prompted clever direction in the first movie. Today, Unkrich's opening set piece is little more than a commercial for the identical first level of the video game and directed more or less as competently as any random CG cut-scene on your Playstation 3. The humans have more porous skin and creepily doll-like photorealistic hair, the better to add screen time for Andy's religious epiphany around the importance of giving another child a Woody™.

No one has expected to be amazed by animation since Walt died in '66, but supposing for a second that people have, one might notice that every surface in this film is meticulously detailed. Tiled floors bear scuff marks and specks of dirt, tree leaves have veins and seemingly every grain of sand on the ground is in focus. Clothing is also in high resolution and every fiber of Woody's cowboy jeans can me made out. One is barely cognizant of these changes, although they were made in the spirit of progress. Disney would actually be proud, since his own myopic vision of advanced animation had everything to do with making his artists create more realistic mountains, forests, sunsets, snow, et cetera - while freezing the "Disney style" in place so that every villain, hero and cute sidekick were cut from the same tried and true design cloth and identifiable as part of the Disney film look. Pixar's characters are all very much created with identifiable style in mind - a style descended from leagues of cartoonists mindlessly imitating Disney-cute without half the technical skills.

Pixar is the gloss of modern technology smeared over the draconian Disney dictums of "production value" in animation equalling realistic surroundings for the same old conservative stories, characters, themes and dialogue. Toy Story 3 has nothing the first film didn't except more celebrity voices, bigger environments, more characters onscreen at one time, more complicated camera angles and movements - everything bigger and louder and more - everything that a public ignorant to the unique joys of animation has come to expect from an animated movie, which amounts to it being more like a live action "real movie." Is a film whose priorities included casting Timothy Dalton for the voice of an English accented toy really concerned with good animation? Pixar's sole concern in terms of developing their abilities has apparently boiled down to impressing people with literal huge piles of realistic garbage - first in Wall-E, and now in Toy Story 3's climactic landfill sequence. Wow, mom! Look at all those photorealistic cans and bottles!

The revolutionary technical accomplishment of the first Toy Story all but cemented into place the continuation of what Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi termed the "CalArts style" - a mess of Disney cartoon cliches inbred at the California college he founded decades ago - into the age of computer animation. With digital characters being pre-rendered puppets instead of drawings created from scratch on pieces of paper, keeping characters boringly "on-model" has never been easier. Furthermore, their facial expressions and physical acting gestures are from the same Disney playbook of flailing arms, cocked eyebrows ("attitude") and hands placed on hips with arms akimbo. Literally nothing you haven't seen before, but Disney already taught people a long time ago to expect nothing new from animation.

While Toy Story '95 demonstrated some insight into rendering characters composed of three dimensional shapes and giving them weight, Toy Story 3 has only succeeded in completing the generic character animation checklist within this no-longer-new medium. One pointless subplot involving Buzz Lightyear™ exists solely to have him snap from pose to pose, yet that's what almost every character is doing if they're not frantically waving their arms around like they're in a third grade play. There's little difference between any two characters in this movie beyond their plot-driven functions - the celebrity voices plod through sarcastic one-liners all written in the same glib sitcom tone for an easy paycheck. Then when the story needs to get emotional, Tom "Mr. Sincerity" Hanks makes a speech about the values of friendship, etc. There's nothing resembling real emotions or personality in this movie, only the incessant lip service of them. Like every cartoon made since hack writers stole the industry from the artists, this one would rather blather on and on and justify it's expensive voice "talent" budget than anything else.

All three Toy Story films are at some point stories of abandoned toys seeking home. What distinguishes this one from the others is teddy bear villain Lotso Hugs (real actor Ned Beatty...more production value) and the writers expend a lot of effort proving that bad guys just have hurt feelings. Apparently they will also pretend to reform just in time to stab you in the back, so who knows, kids? The toy antagonist of Toy Story 2 was a bitter collectible cowboy doll who had much the same motivations, yet was accompanied by a human villain whose motivations actually had some depth - a grown adult collector of rare toys consumed with the post-childhood life of nerdy toy obsession. Consider also the first film's villain, a future juvie case named Sid who delighted in mutilating playthings. Both examined the dark sides of people's relationships with toys, whereas Toy Story 3 reasserts the materialist ideal that toys-equal-childhood-equals-happiness-itself. Lotso is a two dimensional heavy whose real purpose is add a Southern labor camp / prison escape movie parody to this second retread of the toys-separated-from-home shtick.

When the time finally comes for the scenes of toys scampering through our giant sized world, they're easily the film's saving grace. The micro view of everyday surroundings has been a staple of animation since those old cartoons when objects in a room come to life at night, which is all these films are an update of - plus the product placement. Pixar is well practiced at them by now and there's some good scenes of Woody™ escaping through gigantic rooms like Richard Matheson's Incredible Shrinking Man. One of the uncanny effects of the more realistic, less stylized environments afforded by improved CGI is that when Woody™ is for instance clinging to a kite and blown majestically over the roof of a building, everything from the sky to the trees around him look real. They might as well have shot everything in live action except the toys and composited them together a la Roger Rabbit.

In the aforementioned, much-heralded climactic garbage dump sequence the toys are dangled inches from a roaring fire for as long as possible as if we don't know they're going to be saved at the last second. This kind of thing was old hat back in 1987 with Disney's very very CalArts The Brave Little Toaster, of which future Pixar honcho Joe Ranft was a writer on and whose lamp character "Lampy" is a dead ringer for Pixar's mascot. But hey, now it's got more realistic flames and trash than traditional 2D animation can do, so bask in the march of technology and squeeze your little child's hand tight. If there's one storytelling technique Pixar made sure to copy from Walt, it's killing Bambi's mom. Always a cheap shot and always effective.

If Pixar films are so hip, why are they easier to identify for their heavy handed moral pontification than even the sappiest Disney films of the 80s and 90s? Grown ups seemingly love the constant repetition of positive messages for the kids because it gives them something they can engage with in lieu of compelling animation: The Incredibles is about self esteem, Up is about old age, Wall-E is environmentalist, ad nauseam. This is a more corrosive inheritance from Disney than any unthinkingly overused designs and we still haven't fully shaken it off since Yogi Bear started cleaning up the environment in the 70s. Incidentally, watch for Yogi's new CGI abomination in which he will invariably protect Jellystone Park from evil land developers.

Toy Story 3 is an overlong commercial for itself whose lectures about hurt feelings and abandonment issues are at least mercifully interrupted a few times by good chase sequences that only occur when the characters shut their overpaid celebrity voiced mouths. Which is what kids want in the first place, not the lessons. If we're to assume Pixar the same moral authority with our children as Disney, we should remind ourselves that their commitment to unnecessary sermonizing is the direct parentage of their parent company - the same that gave generations of toddlers more misleading ideas about life than anyone. "Disney Princesses" have almost completely ruined an entire gender. Movies like Toy Story 3 which preach the Disney version of pastel consumerist childhood are the reason adulthood continues to be an ever less popular concept.

Oh yeah, there's a 2D short which precedes the feature as well. It's comprised of stock animation expressions and poses, and contains a very valuable lesson about getting along with people who are different than you. Imagineer that.