Toy Story 3 was released on DVD and Blu Ray recently, and the story is more or less already written. Building on more than a decade of good will and countless rave reviews, Pixar has its biggest hit yet and almost certainly the highest grossing movie of the year. More impressively, Pixar has managed that rarest of achievement: capping a trilogy with nearly universally satisfying results. Nearly.
On particularly bold days, I often declare the first Toy Story to be among the very greatest films ever made. Few films can claim to be so masterful or revolutionary. It’s got everything going for it: it was the first feature length computer animated film, and it sports perhaps the finest screenplay ever written for a family film.
Perhaps the film’s greatest scene features Buzz Lightyear finally faced with the inescapable truth of his existence: rather than a mighty galactic space ranger, he is merely a toy, a child’s play thing. To the plaintive Randy Newman tune I Will Go Sailing No More, Buzz makes one last futile grasp at the sublime, leaping off a banister in a desperate attempt to fly out a window and escape the maniacal Cid’s house. Instead, he tumbles helplessly to the stairs, losing an arm in the process. The scene ends with Buzz confronted by his now supposedly meaningless existence.
Kind of a downer, right?
Toy Story 2 was by many accounts one of the greatest sequels of all time, and a brilliant and deliberate compliment to the film that spawned it. Naturally, the writers as Pixar intimately understood the distinguishing scenes of the first film, and they subtly repeat Buzz’s existential crisis with the cowgirl Jesse. To Sarah McLaughlin’s performance of When She Loved Me, another perfect Randy Newman song, Jesse recalls her abandonment and heartbreak at the hands of her owner Emily. Growing up like all young girls, Emily inevitably loses interest in the fiercely devoted Jesse. Like Buzz before her, the truth of Jesse’s existence intrudes, laying waste to her hopes, dreams, and entire reason for being.
Again, kind of sucky.
These two scenes elevate the first two Toy Story movies to rare heights. Toy Story 3, for me, lacked such a transcendental moment. There was an attempt at it, to be sure, when a flashback reveals Lotso, a cruel teddy bear/dictator, was driven mad when his owner Daisy replaced him. However, this scene, rather than generating sympathy, is used as a device for alienating the audience from Lotso. Where the crises of Buzz and Jesse achieved profound melancholy, Lotso’s behaviour is irrational and unfair, and therefore his scene is a trigger for audience contempt. The greatest scene of the greatest animated film of all time is payed hollow tribute.
To call Toy Story 3 a failure would be ludicrous. But where the other Toy Story films sailed their absolute highest, Toy Story 3 stumbles. Regardless, judged on its own merits, Toy Story 3 is a wonderful experience, as legion of children and children-at-heart have attested. But when matched against my own indefatigable admiration and youthful nostalgia for the original entry in the series… well, what could possibly satisfy? This must be how all those Star Wars and Indiana Jones fans feel.