I can’t be sure yet, but the Back to the Future series may have just been dethroned as my favorite cinematic trilogy.
The new candidate has some similar circumstances. Like Robert Zemeckis in 1985, the Pixar gang were relative unknowns when they released Toy Story in 1995 and changed the face of family entertainment. Like Universal with Back to the Future, Disney demanded Toy Story sequels. In both cases, a trilogy was never part of the original plan. And in both cases, now that I’ve seen all three movies, I can’t imagine watching just one without the other two to complement them. In both cases, the three films really come together to make a complete experience.
I remember being extremely excited to see Toy Story when it was coming out, when I was in third grade. I didn’t know why; the movie just looked really cool. I remember seeing it in the theater, the first movie I saw since moving to Connecticut. I remember trying to quote the entire movie to all my school friends over the next few days.
Most importantly, I remember that unlike some other movies I liked at that age, Toy Story remained just as awesome over the years.
Much like the other studios that try to emulate Pixar’s success by rushing out cookie-cutter computer animated movies with celebrities phoning in parental bonus jokes, I didn’t realize what it was that made Toy Story so special. I thought Buzz Lightyear was cool, I thought a cranky Mr. Potato Head was funny, I thought Sid’s room was scary; I didn’t even notice how emotionally connected I became to what, on the surface, seemed to be the most fake thing imaginable: a digitally-created image representation of plastic representations of cartoon people.
I didn’t consciously notice how Pixar managed to make them seem so real. And how much they made me care about them.
Pixar later released A Bug’s Life which I also enjoyed, but not as much as their first effort, so by the time Toy Story 2 came around in 1999, it’s not like they had the reputation they have today. I hoped it’d be decent at best, a nice check-in with some funny characters.
I still to this day remember crying in the theater at Toy Story 2. That’s not something a seventh grader likes to admit.
It wasn’t Jessie’s song that did me in, although that came close. No, it was when Woody, after making the decision to abandon his friends and Andy, saw the marionette version of himself on the TV screen singing "You’ve Got A Friend In Me".
At first I was just blown away by sentimentality, with this throwback to the first movie happening in a way I didn’t expect. Any other sequel would have done that as a quick gag and never spoken it again. But Toy Story 2 made it a turning point in Woody’s character arc. And it made me realize that, dammit, I don’t care how fake or fictional it is, I care deeply about these characters and their friendship.
Toy Story 2 ended with the following exchange, as Woody looks out the window as a still-growing Andy:
Buzz: “You still worried?”
Woody: “About Andy? Nah, it’ll be fun while it lasts…besides, when it all ends I’ll have old Buzz Lightyear to keep me company…for infinity and beyond.
The Toy Story series, and indeed much of Pixar’s work, deals with issues of abandonment, loss, moving on…and how to find a happy ending anyway. Toy Story 3, in that regard, is a natural conclusion to the saga, and still manages to surpass expectations.
When the first film opened with a Woody-centric playtime sequence, and the second with a Buzz-centric video game sequence, it seems appropriate that this film opens with an elaborate fantasy sequence featuring all the main characters, referencing all the playtime sequences from the series up to that point. We then get a montage of Andy playing with his toys over the years (videotaped by his mother, who no doubt wonders why he doesn’t have more HUMAN friends to play with), set to the series theme song, which cuts off hauntingly at the line “Our friendship will never die.”
We then see that in the eleven years since the last movie, the toys have seen a lot of changes, lost a lot of friends to garbage trucks and garage sales (including Woody’s former love interest Bo Peep, revealed in a moment that establishes early on that this movie won’t pull any punches), and now have a much sadder life of hoping to be played with, trying any scheme they can to try and get Andy to notice them. Through a complicated series of events (but not one that feels forced or contrived), they end up at Sunnyside Day Care, a world that seems idyllic until they realize they’re stuck with the toddlers.
From there, the movie takes turns being hilarious, tearjerking, action-packed, and terrifying. To be honest, where the first two movies made kids want to hug their toys, this one might make them want to lock a few of them up and shove a heavy dresser in front of the closet. Still, there’s probably nothing scarier here than in some other Pixar films, and the fun parts are just as frequent, with just about every character getting a Crowning Moment of Awesome–even the Pizza Planet Aliens (or LGMs, for the three of us who watched the Buzz Lightyear cartoon show). There are some fun new characters, some of whom are played by Pixar alumni–every other review has already mentioned Michael Keaton’s fantastic performance as Ken, and Bonnie Hunt and Richard Kind also have brief roles. The always-entertaining Timothy Dalton (who played one of my favorite villains in cinema history in a little flick called Hot Fuzz) also has a very brief but delightful role as a thespian porcupine. The only thing stopping the laughs and the thrills is the parade of tears, which in my case flowed like a freaking river.
At the time, I thought Toy Story 2 was the perfect place to end the series–happy, with the knowledge that it won’t last forever, but enjoying it while it lasts. It turns out I was wrong; Toy Story 3 is a MUCH more perfect conclusion to the series. The last five minutes are spent quite literally saying goodbye to all the beloved characters we grew up with. During the final scene, I kept hoping Pixar had something REALLY damn funny for the credits sequence, because I wasn’t walking out of the theater with THAT many tears on my face. (Fortunately, they did.)
I was in third grade when I saw Toy Story. I’m now a year out of college seeing Toy Story 3. I’ve grown up with these characters, and I could not ask for a better sendoff. I hope Disney does the sensible thing and doesn’t ask for a Toy Story 4, because I can’t imagine this film being topped. But if Pixar does make a fourth one, no matter how unnecessary, I know I’ll be first in line to see it.
Now, I only saw the film in 2D, but I’d like to check out 3D version. (And I’m looking for any excuse to see the flick again.) Like all their films since A Bug’s Life, Pixar included a short with the movie, entitled Night and Day. It’s not necessarily my favorite of their shorts, but it is a brilliant concept, and the result is one of the most creative and original pieces of animation I’ve seen in years.