The beauty and wonder of film has always been its ability to form an emotional connection with its audience. Whether it's through the hatred we feel for despicable villains, the excitement we feel watching silver screen heroes, or even the love we feel for an on-screen beauty. Certainly the strongest emotion the cinema has ever invoked is crying. We cheer at an amazing action sequence, gasp at a dramatic moment, and laugh at a wacky situation. But these are all emotions we feel frequently throughout any given day. However, we don't often cry. So when a film makes us shed a tear, it's touching a precious nerve.
By now you've heard the tales of tears shed during Toy Story 3. Typically, the media seems to be missing the point in their throwaway analysis of the hows and whys of these teardrops. What the film achieved, and what Pixar seems to achieve with every film, is that wondrous emotional connection with its audience. The reason why people like me got choked up during multiples sequences in the third act of the film is because I care about the characters. I cared about the them halfway through the first film; at this point, I feel like I own these toys too. The sad reality is that Hollywood just doesn't get how to make that connection anymore. This isn't about certain sequences tugging at the heart strings, it's about our investment in the total story. This is what removes our disbelief from the equation and connects us with these characters' every exploits.
Ironically, much of the plot of Toy Story 3 is about emotional attachment or the dwindling lack thereof. Andy is heading off to college and has long given up on playing with his toys, who just want to have that emotional attachment of a child playing with them again. The characters brave their new world all in an effort to either connect back to Andy or to find a happy new connection. Along the way thought they also learn about their own connections with each other.
The film largely takes place at Sunnyside Daycare, where the toys end up in an unfortunate mix-up. Andy decides to take Woody with him to college with the rest of the gang headed for the attic. However, the toys first end up in the garbage and then at the new daycare center. At first Sunnyside presents the ultimate nirvana for the gang as they will always be played with and never outgrown. But soon enough they learn that the center is prison. Woody frustratingly leaves to return to Andy's college-bound box but eventually returns to help rescue his friends. In his travels, Woody meets Bonnie, one of the more well-behaved, imaginative Sunnyside kids and her loyal, if not quirky toys. The third act of the film is a tour de force of prison-escape drama and edge-of-your-seat suspense before settling into a poignant homecoming.
The core gang returns, with courageous sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) and brave space ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) at the lead again. (They wisely don't overdo the buddy-film theme that the first two films largely centered around, as it would have undermined the importance of the other characters.) Though the leads have always been an essential part of the success, with Allen and Hanks both delivering top notch vocal performances, I've always felt the appeal of the Toy Story films was how well those supporting characters were fleshed out. Jesse the cowgirl (Joan Cusack) and Bullseye the ever-loyal steed have become an essential part of the gang since the second film. Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Rex (Wallace Shawn) and Slinky Dog (Blake Clark, doing an almost indistinguishable replacement performance for the late Jim Varney) have amazing chemistry, especially when you take into consideration that their voice work is typically not recorded simultaneously. (Mrs. Potato Head, Barbie, and the Squeeze Toy Aliens round out the toy refugees.) As expected, the voice work of all the actors contributes greatly to the personality of the characters and strengthens the movie's emotional core.
Excellent new characters are introduced as well, led by Lots-O-Huggin' Bear, expertly voiced by Ned Beatty, who transitions from grandfatherly to dastardly so smoothly. He's joined by Ken, the comedic highlight of the movie. Michael Keaton oozes fun voicing Ken, who seems to have spent just a little too much time in his "Dream House." Ken gets the movie's biggest laughs as he manically dashes from smooth-talking fashionista to poker-playing menace with Keaton's trademark aplomb. Bonnie's toys make an all-too-brief appearance and convincingly convey a familiar yet slightly askew charm, meant to mirror that of younger Andy's relationship with his own toys. Timothy Dalton hams it up as Mr. Pricklepants, a Shakespearean stuffed-hedgehog in a hysterical role that if it had been extended longer could have stolen a lot of Ken's thunder.
Longtime Pixar jack-of-all-trades Lee Unkrich gets his first full time directing gig with Toy Story 3. (He previously co-directed Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo, and also did editing on many early Pixar films.) Unkrich does the most with his opportunity as he gets to engage the toys in more epic, kinetic action than the previous two films. (The opening sequence alone takes the action to purposefully ridiculous levels, a beautiful and whimsical segment.) He also mixes that up with smart camera direction and knows when to touch those emotional nerves during key sequences like the garbage incinerator and Bonnie's front yard. He wisely never overplays the hand and doesn't allow the characters to dwell too long forcing poignancy into melodrama. Kudos to Michael Arndt, who wrote Little Miss Sunshine and is new to the Pixar fold, for crafting a screenplay in keeping with Pixar's storytelling legacy. (Unkrich, John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton concocted the story.)
Computer animation has progressed significantly over the years to the point where it's becoming more difficult to distinguish advances made in the medium. Additionally, studios like Pixar have wisely eschewed most efforts towards realistic animation style, instead pursuing the same artist efforts that first put Disney Animation on the map. However, the Toy Story franchise has always leaned more towards realism than say the exaggerated qualities of Up or The Incredibles. In the 11 years since Toy Story 2, the animation technology has improved vastly and here allows the animators to do a wonderful job animating Andy and Bonnie. They thankfully take some stylistic liberties and avoid the Robert Zemeckis school of lifeless animation. Beyond the eyes and facial features, you have to marvel at how well they animated the movements of a 17-year old. Additionally, the animation of Lotso's Plush was as exceptional an achievement as Sully's fur in Monsters Inc., the cheese puff sequence in Toy Story 2, and all the underwater innovations in Finding Nemo.
Pixar still makes the best looking computer-animated films. But the studio has created its legendary run of both critical and box office success because of its stories and scripts. Its why their films have recently (and quite adeptly) wrestled with live-action films for Oscars and Best-of-year lists. Toy Story 3 is going to be doing the same for 2010, too. Admittedly it's been a terrible year for Hollywood (largely its own doing), but Toy Story 3 already stands at the top of the heap. So when you read stories about Hollywood's lack of creativity with remakes and sequelitis, they are certainly not referring to Pixar.
Toy Story 3 succeeded because it didn't take advantage of its audience or go for the easy laugh or cheap thrill. It never let go of the connection its predecessors created and only sought to take the connection to new levels. When the toys each turned to each other when there finally seemed no escape from impending doom, you could feel their emotional kinship for each other. That's the first time I started losing it. I felt their fear even though I knew they had to survive, and I admired their caring for each other. And by the end, when Andy passed the torch to young Bonnie, it was as touching and enjoyable a farewell as one could ask for. No amount of machismo could prevent me from crying at this bittersweet farewell, because Pixar and the Toy Story filmmakers long ago made me care about the characters and their stories. That's why I, too, found it hard to say goodbye.