Everyone has in their mind those franchises that return to the screen repeatedly until they finally kill whatever goodwill the original fostered, or they just run out of original ideas. Shrek demonstrated admirably just how wrong things can go, even if the latest incarnation is marginally better than the unfunny-by-numbers third outing.
It was, therefore, with a sense of trepidation that I attended a press screening of Toy Story 3, having loved the first two movies almost unreservedly.
I’m not entirely sure why I worried about Pixar. With the odd exception (Cars), it’s like finding a golden ticket in a Wonka Bar of cinema, a hallmarked guarantee that you’re not about to see a rehash or rushed production that simply milks the brand it’s previously established.
I’ve seen many arguments from other reviewers about where this comes in the greater pecking order of Toy Story, but, frankly, it’s irrelevant. Because wherever it comes for you, this movie is utterly brilliant on so many levels.
The first movie dealt with the fear, for a toy, of being lost, the second expanded on that in terms of being stolen and abandoned, and the third focuses on the worries of being made obsolete and an uncertain future.
What slightly took my breath away was, from the outset of the story, Pixar had no qualms about collateral damage. Some well known characters from the previous stories don’t make it, I’m sorry to say. But these changes are more to do with making space for new ones and the altered general dynamic of the toy family with the addition of Jessie.
With Andy off to college, the toys face the prospect of being either sent out of sight into the attic or thrown out with the garbage but, through a quirk of fate, they end up being dispatched to a day care centre, in what turns out to be a brilliant homage to prison movies. What seems like an idyllic setting for the toys is soon revealed to be a harsh environment where, in an odd Animal Farm-like way, some toys are more equal than others.
At this stage of the story Woody is split off from the rest, and meets a group of unusual thespian toys who are owned by a young girl.
These scenes represent my only regret of the movie, because they’re so wonderful, yet painfully short. The animator in charge of putting character into Bonnie does an exceptional job of observing the face and actions of a young child. It’s both charming and yet totally memorising. But also some of her toys are great, including the Timothy Dalton-voiced Mr. Pricklepants (no relation), who asks Woody if he’s “professionally trained” after giving such a natural performance as a lifeless toy. I wanted more of Mr. Pricklepants and friends but, alas, in the telling of this toy story, there just isn’t enough time.
The other engaging new character is Ken, as in Ken and Barbie. Nobody plays plastic quite like Michael Keaton, I’ve concluded, and his Ken provides some of the funniest moments of the entire running time. For hardened geeks, Ken is presented as ‘Animal loving’ Ken circa 1988, although we do get to see some of his extensive costume options including the unforgettable astronaut spacesuit. His pre-destined love of Barbie, and how they eventually cement that relationship through adversity, is a classic love story of which only Mattel Inc. can be truly proud.
It should be pointed out that Mattel stupidly refused to allow Barbie in the first Toy Story movie, so her role was taken by Bo Peep, who, along with Wheezy the Penguin and Etch, didn’t survive into Andy’s adulthood to be in this adventure. So, Mattel, you have Bo Peep’s blood on your hands in retrospect.
Much has been written about the emotional content of this movie, and it’s difficult to ignore that there are some really touching moments that are designed to illicit a strong response. What’s really interesting is that these are unlikely to upset the younger audience, because they’re mostly about parenthood and its ultimate consequences, when you have to let go of your own offspring.
For adults who don’t feel confident about public emotional outbursts, the 3D glasses have an additional purpose: to hide your uncontrollable blubbing. I was stuck afterwards as to how powerful some of the heart string grabbing moments were, and how relatively un-manipulated I was left feeling. Pixar gets away with this purely on the basis that the whole exercise avoids the sort of syrupy sentimentalism that American movies often deliver, and its exceptionally deft storytelling.
Which is where I want to end this review, because I’d much rather you stopped reading it and went to the cinema to see this movie.
Where many movies have failed spectacularly to deliver or execute this summer, this one almost compensates for those misfires by hitting all the right notes, in precisely the right order. Pixar should give seminars to other filmmakers on the telling of a story, engaging the audience, creating character empathy and seamlessly gluing all that together. It’s that good.
Toy Story 3 is a master class in all those disciplines, and one that many filmmakers could well take.
Toy Story 3 is released in the UK – at last! – from today…