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movies / June 21, 2010

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Seriously, it beats me how people managed to develop such an appetite for sloppy sentimentality. With each successive hit feature, Pixar tests the limit of that appetite, and finds that there is no limit. Audiences drink up vats of Pixar’s patented corn syrup in animated film form, smack their sticky lips, and beg for more. Please, Pixar, could you make the characters even rounder and smoother and cuter, like a vast array of babies’ butts? Could everyone find out that everyone loves everyone else, and then all rescue each other ten or twelve times, with lots and lots of preaching along the way? Our tears, could they be jerked harder, to the point of actual pain and bruising this time?

Sure, says Pixar, and the ticket-money washes in like the tide.

Since this deplorable trend has been manifest for some time—our enabling of Pixar’s worst tendencies, I mean—it’s no surprise when they follow twee Wall-E with the grossly lugubrious Up and then top it all off with a sickening wallow like Toy Story 3. So why would I subject myself to this torture? Two reasons:

1) Michael Keaton as the voice of Ken Doll. I always liked Keaton and remain fascinated by the way he’s sabotaged his own career and squandered his great comic gifts. Keaton as Ken Doll looked funny in the previews, which gave me the faint hope that Pixar might stress the comedy over the sniveling in Toy Story 3. Curses, foiled again.

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2) The Pixar team is doing state-of-the-art animation, God damn them all. I’ll bet animation-lovers used to go see Disney movies with a similar grinding of teeth, enduring saccharine woodland creatures and soppy moralizing just to see the gorgeous images and experimental effects.

(Some indication of how rival animators must’ve felt about Disney can be gathered from an old Tex Avery cartoon featuring Screwy Squirrel—a short-lived, unlovely creature in Warner Brothers cartoon history, with shrewd eyes and a huge, perpetually stuffed nose that makes him talk like an adenoidal tough from Brooklyn. Screwy meets another squirrel in the forest and inquires, “Hey, what kinda pitcher is dis?” The other squirrel is a Disney-esque animal with big round eyes and a tiny nose, coyly hugging its own fluffy tail, who lisps sweetly, “This is a picture about me and all my furry forest friends, Danny Deer and Sammy Skunk and Wallace Woodchuck and…” While he’s still listing his friends, Screwy walks him behind a large tree, and BAM! POW! CRUNCH! the noise of a terrific skull-busting beating ensues. Screwy emerges alone, and says to the audience, “You wuddena liked that pitcher anyway.”)

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The professional critics, of course, can’t gush enough about Toy Story 3, which has a supernaturally high rating of 98% on the Rotten Tomatoes site, a score that should be reserved for the second coming of Jesus Christ artfully caught on film by the world’s best cinematographer. These godforsaken critics especially loved the last fifteen minutes, which I’m now going to describe, so if you want to go see Toy Story 3 and be surprised by the most mawkish conclusion since Davy & Goliath, stop reading now, go away, and drop dead.

The last fifteen minutes features college-bound Andy dropping off his box of old toys—our heroes—to a darling little girl named Bonnie. This is maudlin but might have been bearable if he’d just gotten back in his car and driven away. But no, Andy stays. And stays. And stays. He introduces each toy separately to Bonnie—here’s Buzz, here’s Jessie, here’s Rex, etc.—describing them all in detail. Then he hesitates over giving up Woody, whom he wuvs most of all. Then he and Bonnie play with the toys, in that gruesomely cute way children are imagined to play with toys by clueless adults. Then that nauseating Randy Newman song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” plays for the five-millionth time.

And critics and audiences sob over this in unison.

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It’s an “instant classic,” bawls Richard Corliss of Time, and A.O. Scott of The New York Times slobbers that it’s “a long, melancholy meditation on loss, impermanence, and that noble, stubborn, foolish thing called love” that is “moving in the way that parts of Up were.” So you’ve been warned.

It’s not like any of that “meditation on loss” is subtext, or anything, either. It’s text all the way, with the toys from the first two installments back again, arguing incessantly about the meaning of their existence and how they should end their days now that their kid, Andy, is grown up. Woody the cowboy (voice of Tom Hanks) is pathologically dedicated to Andy, and yells fifty times over that they’re Andy’s toys and they all have to stick with Andy and wait for Andy even if it means living in a box in the attic forever and ever and ever and ever and ever. Suddenly BAM! POW! CRUNCH! there’s the noise of a terrific skull-busting beating and Screwy Squirrel comes out and says—no, that’s just wishful thinking.

Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Rex the dinosaur (Wallace Shawn) and the others are in favor of fulfilling their toy-function with other children and getting donated to a day-care center called Sunnyside. This situation seems idyllic at first, till the head toy at Sunnyside, Lotso, short for Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty) goes all Cool Hand Luke on them, with his folksy Southern drawl and easy sadism. And the day-care children play pretty rough with their toys, a lot like actual children do, but not like the phony Pixar lead kids, so Andy’s pampered pets can’t take it and decide to bust out.

Here the Pixar fellas realize that they have an opportunity to parody prison-break movies like The Great Escape, which has only been done five or six times in animated features in recent years (Chicken Run, Madacascar, et.al.). It’s definitely the best part of the movie when all the characters are running and leaping onto various moving vehicles, because then they don’t have time to talk about the burning issues of loss, impermanence, and that noble, stubborn, foolish thing called love. Any lulls in the action, though, and it’s instantly back to toy philosophy of the most glutinous Hallmark-card kind.

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What’s so distressing about all this, as I keep pointing out, is the tremendous talent of the Pixar team getting wasted on nostalgic goop, forever presenting idealized 1950s suburban culture as the norm. Superficial contemporary trappings like iPods and day-care centers and the occasional non-white minor character shouldn’t fool anybody—this is Papa Disney’s American Neverland, same as it ever was. And just like in the old Disney films, the beautiful Pixar imagery and imaginative humor and eerie inventiveness drags along with it a load of ideological crap, like a splendid thoroughbred horse hitched to a manure wagon and forced to haul it around the track. Fight the propaganda, people! Fight it!

Michael Keaton as Ken Doll is only given a few minutes of screen time to display the essential weirdness of Ken, showing off his Dreamhouse to Barbie (Jodi Benson) and modeling his many outfits (astronaut! karate blackbelt! ‘70s hipster in fringed vest!). Then he has to start learning lessons about true friendship or commitment or something.

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More and more screen time devoted to shameless bathos means less and less devoted to laughs and the genuinely memorable oddities and scares that delight right-thinking children. In Toy Story 3, all the good stuff is shoved to the margins. The new character of Big Baby, for example, is terrific, but he only gets a scene or two. He’s a pre-verbal goon enforcing Lotso’s rule, and he looks exactly like those old life-size plastic baby dolls with the eyes that blinked, except one eyelid always did malfunction and droop down in a sinister way. Is there any child who had one who wasn’t vaguely creeped out by it? That was the toy you suspected would come to life some dark night, if any of them did, and suddenly turn its bulbous head and blink at you. There’s a shot in Toy Story 3 of Big Baby sitting on a swing-set seat, staring at the moon, that really is genius.

But what’s the good of genius if you don’t use it right? I’ve been reading up on the revolution in children’s literature that took place in the 19th century, when authors like Lewis Carroll rebelled against the Victorian tradition of force-feeding kids endless sanctimonious sermons in storybook form. That’s where Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland comes from; it’s like an extended hallucination, or a series of Monty Python skits done in animal costumes, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a moral to the story. You wouldn’t think anyone would want to go back to oppressive Victorian piety, the worst piety of all! But regression is the name of the game for a lot of Americans lately, and it’s uncanny how rarely we go back to retrieve anything good from our collective past.

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26 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. Gustavo Arellano  |  June 21st, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    Hey…Screwy Squirrel was good—better than that bastard Goofy…

  • 2. vortexgods  |  June 21st, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYpkKDiVfyU

  • 3. Joshua  |  June 21st, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    Goo, goo, gaa and gaa.

  • 4. doug  |  June 21st, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    Er, there’s quite a few godawful “reimaginings” of Alice in Wonderland out there, you know. It’s a bit of a cliche, actually.

  • 5. frizzled  |  June 21st, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    The Screwy Squirrel cartoon:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61uQwlUUMeE

  • 6. mijj  |  June 22nd, 2010 at 4:20 am

    >”… and how they should end their days now that their kid, Andy, is grown up. Woody the cowboy (voice of Tom Hanks) is pathologically dedicated to Andy, and yells fifty times over that they’re Andy’s toys and they all have to stick with Andy and wait for Andy even if it means living in a box in the attic forever and ever and ever and ever and ever. ”

    .. i have a sneaky suspicion this flick is about programming kids into the correct attitude to a life of permanent unemployment.

  • 7. Snake  |  June 22nd, 2010 at 8:14 am

    This is easily the smartest review I’ve ever read. I mean really? Who should I blow to get your job?

  • 8. Keshet  |  June 22nd, 2010 at 10:51 am

    Eileen – you write ’em, I read ’em.

  • 9. Not as ugly as you.  |  June 22nd, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    Can some one please takeover beating my kids for me? I get so tired that I need to work in shifts.

  • 10. TareX  |  June 22nd, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    Eileen: Did you know that I am a troll paid pennies to surf the internet and make accuse reviewers like you of being overly critical and thinking about it too much and not just enjoying? Well, that’s me! Here I go:

    The smartass critic who won’t go with the flow, regardless how correct the flow’s direction is.

    Toy Story 3 was simply incredible. If you want to stand out by being a “hey I’m not as impressed as the others” reviewer, you won’t be the first who’s done that before. So join the others in an unfortunately long line of D-bag movie reviewers.

    Convinced enough to go watch this piece of crap, my fellow commenters?

  • 11. perdita  |  June 22nd, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    Pixar films often remind me of sentimental children’s books, or worse, earnest and worthy ones, that similarly, get tons of critical acclaim from adults but far less from real, breathing kids. Does anyone ever excitedly pick up a book with a Caldecott or Newbery Medal stamp on it? Only those same parents and grandparents that take their kids to the movies, I guess, and think it’s the kind of safe, wholesome stuff that they should be reading/watching. I watched ‘Up’ in the theatre with my 5 year old, and I was surrounded by bored kids — but the grownups all thought it was marvellous. And of course they’re the ones who buy the tickets and the merchandise, and write the reviews.

  • 12. GARY  |  June 23rd, 2010 at 12:16 am

    that kid is creepy

  • 13. mfoster  |  June 23rd, 2010 at 8:21 am

    Notice how Screwy Squirrel sounds like he was up all night doing rails?

  • 14. FrankMcG  |  June 23rd, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    The big thing about the Pixar movies was that they were some of the first children’s animated movies to not be completely painful for adults.

    Unfortunately, way too many adults started thinking it was masterful storytelling: the same adults who would go later go on to slurp up every Harry Potter and Twilight book.

    Toy Story was probably one of their weakest, right up there with Cars and Ratatoullwhatever. The moral of the story is “Kids, don’t ever throw away any of your old crap, EVER.”

    Why they chose to revisit this worn out franchise instead of coming up with something new is kinda sad.

  • 15. RecoverylessRecovery  |  June 23rd, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    What IS it with this American fascination towards animated film? And I’m speaking of the ‘ADULTS’. Is REALITY that bad that you people choose to turn your backs to it and embrace CARTOONS instead? What the hell is wrong with you? You can’t shed a single fucking tear for the poor Iraqi 14 year old that gets gang-raped & executed (along with her entire family) by YOUR beloved ‘troops’ yet just watch Buzz Lightyear catch one of his little hairless polymer testicles on Woody’s strings and your hearts skip a beat.

    Do me a solid; find yourself an indian, apologize for everything and then deed him his land back.

    Do it NOW.

  • 16. Rediska  |  June 23rd, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    To RecoverylessRecovery:

    That was the most awesome thing I’ve read on the interwebs so far. ever. end of discussion!!!

  • 17. ItsACartoon  |  June 23rd, 2010 at 8:39 pm

    Wow. Um… you do know this is just a cartoon? Ever just sat back and laughed at one? Kinda what it’s for. Then again I guess Toy Story 3 did warn us of the possible apocalypse. Yay god!

  • 18. CapnMarvel  |  June 24th, 2010 at 10:43 am

    The funny thing is, my kids (who are now 5 and 8, respectively) no longer want to watch Pixar films, either. One time through ‘Wall-E’ and ‘Up’ was enough, and neither of them have ever wanted to finish watching the ‘Toy Story’ movies. You know what they like? Lately, it’s the original ‘Karate Kid’, ‘Coraline’, and ‘The Fantastic Mr. Fox’ that shares their attention alongside Spongebob. Hell, they even raptly watched damn near all of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ with me about a week ago before finally having to call it a night during the freakout sequence at the end.

    When even kids can’t stand the falseness of Pixar films, you know they lack integrity and meaning.

  • 19. RecoverylessRecovery  |  June 24th, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    “When even kids can’t stand the falseness of Pixar films, you know they lack integrity and meaning.”

    Respect!
    :-)

  • 20. gramps  |  July 7th, 2010 at 2:48 am

    Lugubrious? Maudlin? You got you some fancy words there, miss movie lady.

  • 21. wunsacon  |  July 9th, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    I loved 1 & 2. But, I just watched “3” and am very disappointed. Here’s the story: Members of the group separate, reconnect, separate, reconnect, separate, reconnect. Boring.

  • 22. RecoverylessRecovery  |  July 12th, 2010 at 12:39 am

    “…Here’s the story: Members of the group separate, reconnect, separate, reconnect, separate, reconnect…”

    Damn Pixar and the implicit sexual undertones of their movies!

  • 23. Esn  |  July 13th, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    If you’re looking for a fun “toy story” animated feature without all that pesky mopishness, you would like this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Town_Called_Panic_%28film%29

    It should’ve won the Oscar.

    (but for God’s sake, watch it in the original French with subtitles)

  • 24. emj195  |  July 20th, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Toy Story 3 Jigsaw IN BIG SCREEN –> http://newgreenways.net/toy_stroy_3.htm

  • 25. kris  |  July 21st, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    not only do pixar films teach us important lessons like “wait forever and ever for andy to want us” so that we will learn to submit meekly to being unemployed, they teach us to submit meekly to the idea that girls are boring and uninteresting and boys do things and get speaking roles. i think only 10% of pixar characters are girls. don’t give a shit? have a daughter or a little sister and then watch kids’ movies thinking about her impressionable little mind the whole time. then let me know if you like the messages she’s being sent about her worth. i.e., she has none.

  • 26. burt bacherach  |  March 23rd, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    I thought toy story was fucking awesome, but Eileen’s right. I’m a moron.


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