This review will contain moderate spoilers.
My favorite toy as a kid was the Red Dragon Thunderzord, an eight-inch robot that could transform, through a series of clever twists, into a brilliantly articulated dragon that could fly around the room (with my assistance), demolish a Lego castle, eviscerate Stretch Armstrong, and wipe out his plastic army men without breaking a sweat. As of this writing, the zord is standing on my shelf…a nostalgic replacement I purchased from eBay a few years ago. The original has long since been lost…boxed up, thrown away, or donated. Who knows.
Over the past week, I’ve had the pleasure of rewatching Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story films, and I was struck by the realistically bittersweet ending of the last entry, in which Woody and the gang decide to stick with Andy, rationalizing that it’ll be fun while it lasts. And as we must expect, at the outset of the third installment, most of Andy’s toys have already disappeared – sold at yard sales, donated, or lost to the years – the sad and logical extension of all the perils built into the first two films. But a few favorites (of both ours and Andy’s) remain – cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), dinosaur Rex (Wallace Shawn), piggy bank Hamm (John Ratzenberger), and the Slinky Dog (Blake Clark). But Andy is 17 now and hasn’t played with them in years; he’s about to leave for college, and his mom insists that he box up his toys for donation, attic storage, or the trash.
Through a series of mishaps and miscommunications, the toys are donated to a local daycare center. They meet the leader of their new community, Lotso (Ned Beatty), a plush, warm-sounding, purple “huggin’ bear” who tells them that being donated is the best thing that’s ever happened to them. He limps onward with a cane, giving them a glorious tour of their new home, and for a brief moment, it looks like Sunnyside Daycare might be a wondrous retirement for these toys. But Woody – steadfast Woody – won’t have it. He wants nothing more than to get home to Andy, even if there’s nothing his owner would rather do than box him up in the attic. While this may have just been his prejudice talking, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s right. The daycare center turns out to be a dystopian nightmare, with new toys thrown into the toddlers’ room to be smashed and mutilated by hands too young to play with them properly. Only the chosen few get a chance with the older kids, whose playtime might be a bit more stimulating than being shoved into a gaping nostril. Lotso is effectively a Stalinist overlord, ruling the daycare center with an iron fist (and a kindly silver tongue), even enforcing his very own Berlin Wall (a children’s bathroom) patrolled by a huge, lazy-eyed baby doll (which is somehow much more creepy walking around on two legs than on all fours). The toys are locked in cages and guarded by night, and any misbehavior is rewarded with a trip to “the box” (you don’t wanna know). And it’s at this point that Toy Story 3 becomes one of the best prison escape films I’ve ever seen.
The plan is intricate, and utilizes all of the toys to great effect (did you know Mrs. Potato Head can use her missing eyeball for remote viewing?). It has all the slickness of a joyful heist film, but is peppered with many downright harrowing character moments (a scene in which Buzz is held down and has his battery compartment forced open made me physically uncomfortable).
Lotso is a remarkable villain. He is a merciless and brilliantly developed tyrant, and his past is not that dissimilar from Jessie’s. Like that poor cowgirl, he was abandoned by the girl that he cared for deeply, but unlike Jessie, it completely destroyed him. When Lotso faces off with Woody over a precarious trash dumpster, he furiously screams, “You are a toy! A piece of plastic!”. This moment eerily echoes the speech made by Woody to Buzz in the first Toy Story, but when Woody said this, he was just trying to knock some sense into a deluded space cadet. He was defining his life and the purpose of his existence. The tragedy of Lotso is expressed brilliantly as he screams the purpose of his existence: “We’re all just trash! Waiting to be thrown away! That’s all a toy is!”
Ned Beatty’s vocal performance completely sold me on this theme (mature and nihilistic though it was for a G-rated film), and it is followed by one of the most viscerally terrifying scenes I’ve ever experienced on film. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it, but director Lee Unkrich crafts an intense, fast-paced, and visually brilliant sequence, and manages to hit every believable and jarring emotional beat that the situation demands. The scene is also punctuated brilliantly by Randy Newman’s score (which shines throughout the film).
In the 15 years since the first Toy Story, Pixar’s animation has progressed immeasurably, but time and again, they have proven that their greatest strength is their understanding of character and story*. Pixar has crafted an absolutely gorgeous film here, but it is not about plastic toys – the soulless, lifeless, disposable pleasures of youth. It is a film about life, love, friendship, and loss; hope, despair, and finding one’s purpose. It is funny, exciting, surprisingly poignant, and easily Pixar’s finest film**. I’m a little wary of giving this film a perfect score, since I may well have handicapped myself by revisiting the first two films immediately beforehand. This might better be considered a rating for the entire trilogy, and not just its brilliant send-off – but I can’t help it. I’ve seen this movie twice and I wouldn’t change a thing.
FilmWonk rating: 10 out of 10
*This is one area in which Pixar has consistently beaten Dreamworks, and I was given a stark reminder of this during the end credits (minor spoiler), in which Buzz and Jessie dance to a Spanish-language version of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”. It could just be a throwaway gag, but it’s not. It builds on what’s come before. It’s a character moment with some surprising weight to it. And no amount of Shrek and Donkey dancing over Smash Mouth can touch moments like these. Well done, Pixar.
**Narrowly edging out The Incredibles for me.