10.16.2009

You've Got a Friend in 3D

While Pixar has been a pioneer in animated films for almost 15 years, 3D technology is something it can't stake claim to inventing or even reinventing. 3D has been around for eons and even its latest iteration has already been utilized by both animated films and live action movies. But the studio was wise to utilize the technology while also continuing its ongoing reign in animation.

Disney Digital 3-D has become more and more commonplace in not only Disney's animated films, but also some of its live action fare. Up was Disney-Pixar's first film foray into 3D, and one that I regrettably missed. In advance of their second offering, Toy Story 3, next summer, the studio went back into the series to offer up a double-feature of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 which is in a limited run (that actually has been extended).

Because neither movie was made with 3D in mind, there aren't many effects that purposely lend themselves to 3D. For the most part, Pixar has utilized the technology to add depth and vibrancy to movies that already had a large dose of it. However, those attributes are amplified significantly by the 3D rendering. Sure there are some "coming atcha!" scenes that translated nicely but there weren't any gags already in place to exploit the technology and forcefeeding those into the films would have undermined movies that delivered as much subtlety and nuance as they did razzle and dazzle.

And that is largely where 3D filmmaking is going. Last year I saw the U23D presentation which expertly mixed purposeful three-dimensionality with more immersive depth enhancement. The movie sought more to put you on stage than to just throw things at the viewer. Also, the preview for Disney and Robert Zemeckis' take on The Christmas Carol really showcased how well this film utilized every fiber of 3D technology and could end up being the best use of if yet. Clearly, filmmakers have finally found a way to resurrect the technology in a way that enhances the art. Since Pixar has never been about overt gags anyway, typically eschewing those for both story and the advancement of their art, it only makes sense that they would continue to let the stories do the talking.

As far as the movies go, there isn't a lot to be said here that hasn't been said in the many years since both first arrived on-screen. The movies really looked amazing on the big screen again, with enhancement that really made the movies seem fresh again. (Though back-to-back, it's evident how much the original animation technology improved from film to film.) With high definition televisions and Blu Ray technology invading homes, it's becoming more difficult for movie theaters to compete when it comes to visual clarity and vibrancy. 3D technology looks to be their best bet for reeling audiences in. (I would not have even considered going to see a 2D double-feature of these movies.) It also dawned on me that the sequence in Toy Story 2 where Woody attempts to retrieve his detached arm from a sleepy Al's pocket may very well be a landmark sequence in the history of animation. The detail of Al's skin and beard, and the cheese puffs, along with the framing, camera angles and drama of the sequence all add up to a very important moment in film history. So many competing film studios owe their livelihood to sequences like this.

Between the films, there was a cute 10-minute intermission that treated viewers who stuck around with trivia, bonus clips, and other odds and ends, all narrated by the characters. Some of this stuff has been available on DVD special features but was still a clever way to keep people engaged. And a trailer for Toy Story 3 played at the front end, clearly pointing towards another highly-anticipated Pixar event. (Based on how well-received stylized affairs like WALL-E and Up were, the third Toy Story film is a lock for big success next summer.)

While Pixar has dazzled both critically and artistically with every film they've released since the first Toy Story, and introduced a pantheon of characters that would've made Uncle Walt proud, for many there remains no more cherished a duo of icons than Woody and Buzz. Finding Nemo can speak to the love that young parents, the kind who were barely adults when Toy Story came out, have for their newborn families. WALL-E reminded us all to cherish everything from the ground we walk on to the loves of our lives. And Up recently went to the opposite end of the spectrum by focusing on a hero in the twilight of his life.

But the Toy Story films remind us about the purest of emotional connections: friendship. And by using toys as the protagonists of the story, the films created a deeper connection for many of us because it taps into that pure joy every child has for their playthings. Whether it is reminding us of our own wide-eyed youthful innocence or the connection we now make watching our own children grow before our eyes. And with good distance now between now and the release of that first Toy Story film, we are starting to see these Pixar films gain some serious nostalgic impact, much how the Disney Renaissance era films have had the last 10 years.

When I was younger, a few of my earliest toys were discarded at some point. Shortly after, I made a vow to not let that happen again. So when sports and girls started shoving aside G.I. Joes and Transformers, I made sure they didn't go far. In fact, some now adorn the mantles of my man cave, as not only a full embrace of my youth, but also an acknowledgement and acceptance of my enjoyment of these things even as I contemplate career issues and mortgage payments.

Now I have a confession to make. Some of those old toys are still in storage, in my in-laws basement. They have been gradually making their way to my house with each trip down. Buzz Lightyear and Woody are sadly stashed away in one of those bins, a cruel and ironic fate that perhaps marked a certain defeat of my own innocence a few years ago. Anybody who knows me could tell you that even after 35 years, I'm one of the last people to ditch childhood nostalgia. (I mean, I run a website about Disney and another about the '80s!) But as we grow, we are victims of things as varying as perception, semantics and real estate.

So as if it is the plot of one of their many adventures (of course, when we aren't watching), I am going to make sure they find their way back home, and into the great wide open. Not only as my friends, but hopefully to one day have a friend in my own children.