Monday, June 21, 2010

Toy Story 3 and the magic of Pixar

If you're somewhat familiar with this blog, and what it's been covering so far, you might be  shocked to see that I'm writing about an animated "kids" movie, from a studio that specializes in animated "kids" movies. This is not your average cult, exploitation, horror, science fiction, fare.

What it is though, is a near perfect example of almost everything about movies that has made them the most enduring artistic love and obsession in my life. Sure, I love music, literature, and fine art, but when it comes to question about what I would bring with me on a desert island, I'd forgo those things in favor of a few of my favorite films.

I went to see Toy Story 3 last night. I walked out with the kind of wonderful emotional confusion that can be the result of tangling with the rare beast that is a truly GREAT movie. I'm using great in the sense of having a secure and well deserved place in film history that will insure future generations of film geeks, film students, directors, writers, animators and actors, most important of all, your everyday, average film goer will look at with reverence and gratitude. This is the kind of film that sets the standard for what people are talking about when they describe a film as "classic". This isn't great in a Felini, Godard, Welles sense, but in an It's A Wonderful Life, Wizard Of OZ sense. This film, and the two previous entries in the trilogy are going to become the kinds of films that are part of family rituals, with people sitting down together to watch them as a kind of special event that helps signify and bolster the bonds they have and are even still building on.

The story is fairly simple, and I'm not going to get into too many details, because I basically went into it blind, knowing nothing about it. Andy, the kid Woody and Buzz have been serving as loyal toys, is now seventeen and headed off to college. The toys are all very worried about what's going to happen to them. Are they going to the attic, the trash, maybe even college with Andy if they're lucky? The answer to that question is what compromises the film's plot. And although it still contains the kind of humor, action and fun which helped to make the two previous films so great, this one is much more a meditation on very adult themes. Loss, death, moving on, letting go are all the things at the heart of this movie. Some of the critics have described it as a much "darker" film than the others, and that's true in a sense, but in another sense it's not really true at all.

It's not "dark" in the sense of being foreboding or depressing or anything like that. What it is, and what is one of the things that makes it such a truly great film is that it is earnest and sincere without ever being pandering or manipulative. Sure, those are probably darker themes than the first two films, but in a trilogy about a child's toys, trying to aid him in his journey, where else could you possibly expect this to go? And that's the kind of honesty which is so often lacking in much more high brow, lofty films which are supposed to actually be "dark" and "adult". It's essentially the difference between Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan and A.I. I liked A.I., it's themes were very interesting and one's I often enjoy, and it was beautifully shot and performed, but it wasn't a GREAT movie, specifically because there were a number of points at which it was clearly being manipulative, and not honest. This film is honest, sincere, heartbreaking, joyful and beautiful. I don't really think of this as a "dark" movie at all, because there's no malice here. Everything any of these characters does, even the antagonist, is perfectly understandable given their situation. And the heartbreak of loss tends to be at the center of a number of those situations. As an adult, you've had those heartbreaks, and you've had those moments of letting go, you've been through those struggles, and very few of us are ever dealing with any of them in any way other than the best way we know how at that time. If you were a kid who was seven or eight years old when the first film in the trilogy was released, you're in your twenties now, and these films and these characters have been with you through a good deal of your life. Now at a time when really putting down childish things is going to start to play a vital role in your life, they're there, in a way that you can relate to as someone in their twenties.

It gives me a good deal of hope to know that a generation of kids is being communicated with in this honest and loving a fashion by at least one of the many companies who are communicating ideas and messages to them. There's a whole lot of love in these movies, and I find that extremely admirable and hopeful.

Because it does deal with the inevitable logical conclusion of a child growing up, and does so with this level of care and quality, it becomes the last chapter in the much larger story of the Toy Story franchise. Not only are all three of these films excellent as self contained narratives, with their own stories and their own strengths, when you see this third film, and come to understand where it stands with the stories and themes of the first two movies, it starts to become clear how brilliant it is on that level as well. These three films do tell a much larger story than any of them alone, and it's also as good a story as the singular narratives they each tell.

Here's where I start veering off into the kind of territory that is going to be blasphemy for the world of film geekery. In terms of sheer film making quality, and beauty of imagination, specifically because of how fantastic this last film in the trilogy is, I'd put the Toy Story trilogy up against Star Wars or any of the other great trilogies in film history, any day of the week. That might seem like a bold, shocking statement to a generation of people to whom the original Star Wars trilogy was the gold standard. But consider where this film comes from and it's overall lineage, and it starts to get less shocking.

Pixar Animation's first film was the wildly successful and deeply beloved Toy Story. It was the film that put them on the map with the general public. They'd done some animated shorts before, which had attracted enough attention for Disney to develop an interest in them, but it was Toy Story, Woody, Buzz, their kid, Andy, and the cast of other toys which made Pixar a powerhouse. Here's another fact to consider, Pixar has had 11 consecutive films open at number one in box office receipts. We all know ticket sales are certainly not a good indicator of quality, which is not what I'm suggesting. But, it does show that the movie going public, and not just the "family" crowd, have developed a pretty enthusiastic desire to see Pixar films, and a rock solid trust in the quality of film they're going to make. Take a look at some of the beloved titles on that roster and you start to get some idea as to why Pixar has been able to pull of that previously unthinkable feat. The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, Cars, Up, Ratatouille, A Bug's Life. Not all of them are great films, definitely, but there sure isn't a BAD film in the lot. Sure, maybe Cars and Monsters Inc. aren't top quality stuff, but that's because we're inevitable comparing them to films as great as the Toy Story films, WALL-E, Ratatouille, and Up. A middling quality Pixar film is bound to be one of the better films released in it's year (unless it's a really good year for film). A high quality Pixar film has come to be a thing of real beauty.

The rest of the Hollywood studios could certainly learn a thing or two from Pixar. It's possible that the complexity of computer animation makes it necessary, but one thing is certain, they take the time to make their films right. I've been reading stories about the coming of Toy Story 3 for about three years (though I could be wrong about that). A teaser trailer without any scenes from the movie was released last year with Up. It seems to take them an average of three or four years to go from the point that the studio actually decides it's going to make a film, to then delivering it to the theaters. In a number of cases, the directors or writers have been working on the ideas for years before that. Pixar has become a brand, but it's not the kind of brand marketing experts and companies have become so good at creating in the last twenty years. Pixar has become one of the most trusted brands in American business, by taking their time, getting it right and delivering the highest quality films they can. Luckily for us, the people at Pixar seem to be a good deal more conscious about what they're attaching that name to, and making sure it is the highest possible quality than basically every other studio producing feature length films today. They seem to be extremely weary of tarnishing the name Pixar by cranking out some piece of crap simply because the name itself is generating box office success. It's a good thing too, because it's easy to see when a film is too quickly patched together without any real care for the material, and the audience loses faith. How many other companies can really be described that way today, no matter what their product is? Not many.

What do you get when you take your time and get it right? Toy Story 3 is on track to have the biggest June box office performance of all time. It will beat Transformers 2, which people stopped watching thirty minutes after it began. That film, a mess of bigotry, stupidity and absolutely no real desire to communicate anything but "send me your money", is being dethroned by something so much more real it almost makes me want to shout.  Pixar doesn't do big, cutesy viral campaigns or e-mail lists for everyone who's ever bought anything Pixar. They don't have to do any of that. They deliver the goods, every time, and they get rewarded with customer loyalty. It's the kind of extremely simple premise which seems to have disappeared not only from the film industry (if it ever even existed there), but from American business in general.

We're living in times that in many ways are very cynical. I'm not lamenting that fact. I think these are times in which we should be cynical. At the same time, it's good not to forget why we should be cynical. We should be cynical because, in these times, we've become so sophisticated at manipulation through media, whether it's politics or business, that we're rarely ever getting anything that's sincere, honest, and made with the kind of quality that only the love of quality itself can produce. Everywhere we turn, there are people trying to convince us to accept the cheap (and I don't mean inexpensive), easy alternative. We're presented with a framework that suggests we can completely accept this kind of cynicism because the only other alternative we have is a doe eyed, ignorant naivete which doesn't take good account of reality. Toy Story 3 and Pixar, in it's history, are in their own way, small proof that this is a false choice. We can have, and handle a kind of honest sincerity that is available to us only because we take full account of reality. I've avoided saying things like this in my reviews, but I'm saying it now because I think it means something in the context of this film. It's the reason I think the Toy Story films are important films. Not just important to film history like Felini, Godard or Welles, as I alluded to before, but important culturally. We need to be reminded of these things, and that's one of the many ways storytelling has been so important to speaking to the better parts of human nature since cave men started drawing on walls to help them remember who they were and what their lives were actually about.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments should be respectful. Taking a playful poke at me is one thing (I have after all chosen to put my opinion out there), but trolling and attacking others who are commenting won't be accepted.