Third Time, Not As Much Charm

I should probably declare myself by now: I am no longer a Pixar idolator. Indeed, I think I could credibly describe myself as a Pixar critic.

Toy Story 3 is the third Pixar feature in a row that has been hailed as an instant masterpiece and that I’ve found myself substantially disappointed by. It’s the fourth that my son has not been particularly desperate to see again. (And my son is a total movie hound.) I know I’m way in the minority here, but I think something has gone terribly wrong with the Pixar formula.

The original Toy Story is one of the great movies of all time. It’s right up there with Singin’ In The Rain and The Philadelphia Story. It’s genius. And not only because of what it did with new technology or because of the fantastic premise. It’s a wonder of story-telling, a complex plot with two fully-developed protagonists with very long arcs. And it’s a wonder of moral story-telling – a story with several overlapping moral messages that hit the audience on multiple levels (Simplest: play nice with your toys! More profound: play nice with the new toy! Most profound: you are also a toy – but that’s ok! Now play nice!) There was a huge amount of external and internal drama, and both were closely intertwined. Like I said: it was great art.

The sequel was a great deal of fun, and was, if anything, more gut-wrenching in terms of the internal conflict than was the original. And it had a much more complex villain than the first movie did. (I’m referring to Stinky Pete the Old Prospector – Al, the toy store owner, is a villain roughly on Sid’s level from the first movie.) All of this made the movie much more . . . grownup. Which was the first glimmer of what has since blossomed into a serious problem.

The protagonists of the original movie – Woody and Buzz – were characters that kids could connect with as well as adults. Woody was dealing with cool new kid/sibling rivalry type of stuff. Buzz was convinced he had superpowers. Even though on another level Woody’s jealousy is really the jealousy of a parent feeling squeezed out of a kid’s life by his or her spouse (don’t tell me parents don’t get jealous of each other over who the kid prefers – they do) and even though on another level Buzz’s existential crisis won’t really hit home for a child, they both work on a child’s level as well. That’s part of what made the movie so magical – that it worked on both levels, profoundly so.

But in the second movie, the one protagonist – Woody – has internal conflicts around an entirely adult question, namely: in order to avoid the pain of loss and abandonment, will I wind up sheltering myself so that I miss out on life itself? I’m not really sure that crisis – or Jessie the cowgirl’s heartbreaking backstory of abandonment by her true love – can fully make sense to a child. But I loved the movie anyway, because that crisis spoke to me, and because I still thought the movie worked both for kids and adults – the adventure story of the gang trying to save Woody made perfect sense and worked for the kids, as well as for the adults.

The change was a harbinger of what was to come, however. Finding Nemo – which I loved – has two protagonists, the father and the son, each on their own journeys, but the father is the more substantial protagonist, occupying more of the screen time and undergoing the more profound changes. It’s really his movie – Nemo’s journey to self-reliance is something of a subplot. The Incredibles – which I also loved – has similar problems. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl are the real protagonists, and while the kids have a role in the action, they’re supporting cast, not stars – indeed, the only kid who really moves the plot is the antagonist: Buddy, who grows up to be Syndrome, the super-villain. And then, after the enjoyable fluff (beloved by kids) of Cars we get a run of kids’ movies that are quite plainly made for adults: Ratatouille (the moral center of the film is the grownup food critic, Anton Ego), WALL-E (a bit more complicated – Wall-E himself is a character kids identify with, but the movie runs into so many problems once we leave earth that I’d have to devote another essay, which in fact I did), and Up, a film my son disliked (except for the talking dogs) precisely because there was nobody for him to latch onto (except for the talking dogs) – the protagonist is a grumpy old man who needs to resolve his feelings of loss and his relationship with his own childhood, and the only kid character in the movie is nothing but a prop for his internal drama. Sorry for shouting, but that’s just unconscionable in a movie supposedly made for kids.

And now we have Toy Story 3. What can I say? I enjoyed myself. I laughed a lot. The new toys – particularly Mr. Pricklepants – are great. The whole scene with the thespians in Bonnie’s house is wonderful – particularly because you get a sense that the personalities of her toys relate to the personality of the kid (and she is bursting with personality). Mr. Tortilla Head was surreal genius. Other little things please as well: Buzz’s “Spanish mode” is inspired; little touches like having the toy phone unable to talk until the phone is picked up; stuff like that.

But. There is no internal conflict at all – only external conflict. And the external conflict is with . . . an abandoned teddy bear who turned the day care center into a prison? Where none of the toys actually want to play with the really little kids? Really? Not even the phone, who was built to be played with by preschoolers? What’s going on here?

I remember, at the end of Toy Story 2, that Stinky Pete was left strapped to a backpack with a Barbie doll who says to him he’ll really like her owner, because she’s an artist – and then she turns her head to reveal the hideous drawing on her face. Stinky Pete recoils in horror, but we’re supposed to laugh that he’s getting his comeuppance – he’s been afraid to be touched, and now boy is he going to be touched, good and hard. In the first movie, Mr. Potato Head complains about being gummed by “Princess drool” (Andy’s baby sister) and that he’s only supposed to be played with by children aged 3 and up; again, it’s a laugh. But now, we’re supposed to believe that the toys really hate to be played with rough by kids who aren’t old enough to play any other way? Sid was a sadist – that’s why he didn’t deserve toys. But what’s wrong with these two-year-olds? Why are they cast in the role of the monster in this movie?

Of course, we get a good kid to contrast with these little hellions – the aforementioned Bonnie, who is truly adorable. And alone. Hmmm. And people complained that The Incredibles was elitist because part of its message was that exceptional individuals should be allowed to excel, not held back to salve the rest of our feelings. But the message of Toy Story 3 is that in a world populated by no-neck monsters, only one little child really deserves to play with these toys we’ve grown to love.

Andy gives a speech at the end of the movie, as he donates his beloved toys to Bonnie, that absolutely made my flesh crawl because of its utter and complete inauthenticity. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie where a character so obviously stood up and delivered the author’s message point-blank to the audience, and in a fashion so completely implausible for the character in question. (Actually, does Andy even have a character? He had one at age seven. Does he have one at age Seventeen? Not that I can see.) In any event, the speech is about how terribly important it is for Bonnie to appreciate his toys. If he’s going to give them to her, that gift is a sacred trust. These toys are special. She needs to take care of them. They are important.

Let me quote somebody who knows better:

YOU! ARE! A! TOYYYYY! You aren’t the real Buzz Lightyear! You’re – you’re an action figure! You are a child’s play thing!

Bonnie is important. The toys are props. They owe her loyalty and devotion. She doesn’t owe them anything.

At the end of this movie, the boys at Pixar come off like the protagonist of The 40-Year Old Virgin with his six-million-dollar-man action figure that he can’t give up. They may be scared of giving up their toys, worried that the next owner won’t take proper care of them. But why should we care?

I could complain about a lot of things in this movie. How does the monkey manage to get to the security desk every night? Where did Woody and the gang get the decoy potato to start their jailbreak? (Jailbreaks have to be worked out down to the tiniest detail or they lose the only basis of audience interest they have.) How exactly did Lotso wind up turning Sunnyside into a prison – what was his leverage? (Compare his setup to, say, the big empty warren that the rabbits encounter early in Watership Down – very similar situations, but the latter is so much more persuasive.) But, as people complained about my criticisms of Wall-E, this is stuff that only bothers you if the movie as a whole isn’t working. And I could complain about the writing (which is pretty leaden and on-the-nose for the first half-hour, though it gets better – and then gets worse again). But the heart of the matter is that, once again, we’ve got a movie for the inner child rather than the actual children – and the inner children are getting less and less charming with each movie.