The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Toy Story 3 was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
All movies are manipulative. Filmmakers use fictional stories, characters and events in order to draw out an emotional response from the audience. Even movies that are supposedly based on true events or people are twisted to fit a vision that is designed to make the audience connect to what is on screen. Whether the ultimate emotion that the filmmakers are looking for is happiness, sadness, horror, despair, or a combination of them all, the means to reach that goal is manipulation.
And there is nothing wrong with that.
Every art form is based in artificiality. Anyone who claims otherwise is a pretentious idiot. It’s the skilled filmmaker who can manipulate an audience without making them realize they’re being manipulated. An even more finely skilled filmmaker can pull that off and make the audience not care when, after leaving the theater, they inevitably realize they were manipulated. Such is the case with the creative team at Pixar. For fifteen years, they have put forth characters and stories based in the ultimate artificial environment: computer animation. With every single film, they have not only breathed life into these artificial characters and worlds, they have hit an emotional truth. They have masterfully manipulated audiences into laughter, tears, and, no matter how far flung the premise, recognition of themselves in the characters on screen. With Toy Story 3, they have honed this skill to a fine point, crafting a film that stands with the best they have produced.
In this new adventure, the toys deal with the stress of an unknown future as Andy (voiced by John Morris) prepares to leave for college. While Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and Buzz (voiced by Tim Allen) try to prepare everyone for retirement to the attic, their plans go awry. Woody is plucked by Andy and put in his college box, while he puts the rest of the toys into a garbage bag that he intends to place in the attic. When Andy is sidetracked, his mother assumes that the bag is trash and places it on the curb to be picked up. Woody leaves the college box in order to rescue them, but they manage to escape on their own. When Woody tries to convince them that Andy was really trying to put them in the attic, the rest of the toys refuse to believe him. They make the decision to throw themselves into a box of donations going to the local daycare center. In a mix-up, Woody winds up going with them. At the center, they meet a stuffed bear named Lotso (voiced by Ned Beatty) and a Ken doll (voiced by Michael Keaton) that seem exceedingly helpful. They paint a picture of the center as nirvana for unwanted toys with new children constantly coming in to play with them. But Woody doesn’t trust this idyllic portrait and he and the others soon discover the dark side of Lotso’s paradise.
Easily the biggest advantage that the filmmakers have is the well-known characters. These are characters that the audience already knows and loves, so there is immediate shorthand that allows them to do away with any extraneous opening scenes to introduce them all. They are allowed to jump right into the action and explore an emotional story about how love can be a double-edged sword when the possibility of rejection is brought up. The toys love Andy, but having been basically ignored for the last few years, their belief that he still loves them is waning. Their heartbreak at believing that he has thoughtlessly thrown them out is palpable.
Lest this sound overly heavy and dramatic for an animated film, rest assured, it’s also very funny. As usual, the supporting characters of Mr. Potato Head (voiced by Don Rickles), Hamm, the piggy bank (voiced by John Ratzenberger), and Rex, the dinosaur (voiced by Wallace Shawn), get off some great one-liners that play off their clearly defined personalities. The Ken doll is the butt of several gags that portray him as the ultimate metrosexual, obsessed with his closet full of clothes. Lotso has a henchman that is referred to simply as Big Baby, a creepy walking baby doll with an eyelid that is stuck half-closed. Played as a spoof of a horror-movie villain, the film wrings unexpected chuckles out of this character’s distressing appearance. Combined with references to films as diverse as Cool Hand Luke and The Ten Commandments, the gags move fast and furious as the film takes a turn into the prison escape genre.
But no matter the plot, the success of the film lies with the characters and their relationships. This is where the film gets kicked up a notch from good to great. The history these characters have on screen had already made me love them, but the wave of emotion I felt during the breathtaking climax and poignant resolution took me by surprise. For a little over ninety minutes, I was manipulated into believing cartoon characters on a screen were real, and the laughs that leaped from my throat and the tears I shed (yes, actual tears) were not for a movie, but for a group of old friends that I had missed more than I realized.
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