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.
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.”)
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.
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.
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.
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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