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Toy Story 3 (2010)

WARNING: A TOY CHEST FULL OF SPOILERS

“When I was a child I spake as a child,” 1 Corinthians 13:11 begins, “I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things.” Sound advice. But what if you are the childish thing? That’s the dilemma of “Toy Story 3.”

Pixar’s “Toy Story” is essentially “The Godfather” of children’s movies—critically and popularly acclaimed, redefining the genre, with a lot of time between second and third installments—so one holds one’s breath with this third installment. No one wants another “Godfather III.”

We don’t get it. We get a fun and funny adventure movie with bittersweet moments, but also moments when the people at Pixar had to choose between the daring thing and the safe thing, and, despite their daring over the last few years with “WALL-E” and “Up,” chose the safe thing. It’s hard to fault them. The daring thing is almost too daring for adults, let alone kids.

The movie opens in the insane world of a child’s imagination. A train robbery is being foiled by Sheriff Woody (voice: Tom Hanks) and his gal Jessie (Joan Cusack), but the train robbers, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), blow up the bridge, leaving the train full of screaming orphans (troll dolls) on a collision course with disaster! So Woody rides his horse next to the train, hops on, and applies the brakes. Too late! The train plummets into the chasm... only to be lifted up by, ta da!, Buzz Lightyear! (Tim Allen) The bad guys are about to be brought to justice but instead bring out their attack dog with force field. Ah, but the good guys have a dinosaur (Wallace Shawn) who eats force fields! Ha! But then the baddest guy of all, Hamm the Pig (John Ratzenberger), arrives in his giant pig spaceship and unleashes the monkeys, the barrels of monkeys, and the monkeys grab our heroes and hold them and stretch them every which way until... we’re out of Andy’s imagination and into his world, where his mom is filming his playtime adventures with a camcorder. It turns out, too, that this particular playtime was a long time ago. The toys are now sitting in the dark of the toy chest, where they haven’t been played with for a while, and Andy’s about to leave for college.

(A quick aside: I know this is a kid’s movie but you do have to wonder about Andy. Dude’s 18 and he still has a chest full of toys? In his room? And he’s taking Woody, his oldest, bestest toy, to college? That’s a guy who’s never getting laid. Or a guy who will eventually work at Pixar.)

His mom wants him to divide his things into one of four possible destinations—college, attic, daycare center, and trash—and she suggests the daycare center for the toys. Andy, affronted, unable to throw away what was once precious but is no longer relevant (we’ve all been there), sets Woody aside and puts everyone else into a trash bag for the attic. But it’s mistaken for trash-trash and taken to the curb. The toys affect a breathless escape, but, affronted by Andy’s treachery, and over the protestations of Woody, who saw all and remains loyal, happily get into the box destined for daycare. They want to be played with again.

I love that idea, by the way: Toys desperate to be played with. (We’ve all been there.)

The place is called the Sunnyside Daycare Center, with a sign outside featuring both sun and rainbow. Inside, our friends are greeted by friendly toys, including Lotso (Ned Beatty), a purple bear whose fur is worse for wear, and who walks with a cane, but who still smells like strawberries. He shows them the sights and takes them to another room, the Caterpillar Room, guarded by Big Baby, a plastic doll with one eye creepily half-closed. “Here’s where you folks will be staying!” Lotso says. But it’s a trap. They’ve been put in the toddler room and when the toddlers arrive, they do what toddlers do. They destroy. This is survival of the craftiest. Lotso and the others want to live as long as they can, and someone has to be sacrificed to the toddlers. For Buzz and the others, escape becomes necessary.

It’s a familiar scenario. Too familiar? It’s reminiscent of both “Toy Story 2” (the escape from the clutches of Al, the toy collector), and that great “Simpsons” episode where Maggie and the other babies in the daycare center devise a “Great Escape”-like plan to get their binkies back. But it works here because the director (Lee Unkrich), and the writers (Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Unkrich), get all of the details right. The initial escape attempt, through the inevitable slanted window above the doorway, is a veritable Rube Goldberg contraption, while the movie allusions—including the “night in the box” schtick from “Cool Hand Luke”—are subtle enough to not get in the way. Plus the dialogue is great. “Let's go see how much we're going for on eBay,” a dejected Hamm says at one point.

But I particularly like the way they use familiar, sometimes generic toys for specific jobs. Thus the warning system for the bad guys, their eye-in-the-sky manning the security cameras, is one of those screaming monkeys with clanging cymbals. On the periphery you have a Fisher-Price chatter telephone, delivering cryptic warnings to Woody, or giving up the good guys at just the wrong moment. (Dude can’t stop chattering.) Lotso and company use the instruction manual for Buzz Lightyear to essentially reboot him back to his factory-model personality, while Ken (Michael Keaton), all ‘60s lingo and fashion, insists, in late-night poker games with the more manly toys, “I’m not a girl’s toy! I’m not! Why do you guys keep saying that?”

But the most brilliant use is Big Baby. Huge and lumbering, with a lazy eye like Forest Whitaker, Baby is the silent enforcer, a terrifying figure. Until she opens her mouth. Then out comes the gurgle or sigh of an infant. Big Baby really is just a baby.

The escape plan is a team effort, full of betrayals and counter-betrayals (is that a “Star Wars” homage with Lotso and Big Baby?), and our guys wind up riding the garbage truck with Lotso to the landfill, where they are put on a mechanized path to incineration but are saved at the last minute by the most unlikely of deus ex machinas.

It’s here, particularly here, with its echoes of “WALL-E,” that I wondered if “Toy Story 3” might not say something deep and meaningful about our consumerist society, our throwaway culture. Doesn’t happen. The lesson is there for anyone who wants it, but it remains in the background, while in the foreground we get more palatable lessons about loyalty and teamwork and going home.

Except what’s home for these guys? That’s the dilemma their adventures obfuscate for 90 minutes. In many stories, we start out in a safe place, we go off on a dangerous adventure, we get back to the safe place a little wiser. But these guys don’t have a safe place anymore. Or they don’t have a place where they are both safe and useful. They’re safe but no longer useful at Andy’s, and they’re useful but not nearly safe enough at Sunnyside. The toys go back home, in essence, so Andy can make the decision he should’ve made at the beginning: where their new home is going to be.

(Another aside: One wonders what resolutions Pixar toyed with. Leaving our friends in the landfill? Incinerating them? Imagine Woody’s plastic face melting off like the Nazis at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” A moment of trauma for the kids in the audience but a lesson for a lifetime about what happens when we throw things away.)

Can we watch these movies and not think about our own toys? I used to have reams of stuffed animals to whom I gave names and personalities. Pooh Bear was the small but tough leader. Old Snoopy, the first stuffed Snoopy I owned, was big and dull—his parts couldn’t move well—and he tended to stay on the periphery. his tongue hanging out. New Snoopy, his replacement, was cute and playable—his parts moved, he could dance—but he eventually lost an ear or an arm (or an ear and an arm?) in a fight with a sibling. The most memorable, in his own way, was King Kong (Real name: Chester O’Chimp, 1964, Mattel), the stuffed monkey with the plastic face and the felt hands, who had a pull string and voice box, and said things like “Let’s go the zoo and see all of the wild people!” and “I’m just a little chimp! Duddly duddly dum.” He, too, eventually lost an arm. Whatever happened to them? What landfill did they wind up in? It’s sad just thinking about.

Can we watch these movies and not think about ourselves? What happens when we are no longer useful? What the toys go through in “3” is essentially what we will all go through. First we’re useful; then we’re not; then we’re taken to a home where we may be abused. We live in a throwaway culture where we’re the last thing thrown away. “Toy Story 3” doesn’t want us to think about this too much, of course, so it gives us its bittersweet ending, where Andy finally, reluctantly, takes his childish things and gives them to Bonnie, shy Bonnie forever hiding behind her mother’s legs, where they will be both safe and useful. It takes a long time to get there. In Andy’s reluctance to let go, one sees the reluctance of Pixar itself, which began its empire with Woody and Buzz and Hamm and Rex (my personal favorite: always so excited; always so wrong), and finally has to put away its childish things.

This ending is both mature (in letting go of childish things), and not (the implication that the childish things, now with Bonnie, carry on to infinity and beyond). It’s a kind of a lie, but it’s a forgivable lie since it’s the same lie we tell ourselves every day. Yes, experience is fleeting. Yes, kids grow up and go out into the world. But we live forever.

—June 19, 2010

© 2010 Erik Lundegaard