Toy Story 3 is an animated children’s film and only the third animated film ever to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The odds are against TS3: firstly, it’s up against stiff competition from heavyweight films with art house sensibilities and undemanding ‘based on a true story’ crowd-pleasers. Secondly, it’s an animated children’s flick. It is highly unlikely that TS3 will walk off with the little nude man next week, but if it did it wouldn’t be the worst film Big O’s ever gone home with.
If you haven’t seen it, the plot is pretty much like the other two: Andy’s favourite toys, Woody and Buzz Lightyear, along with assorted other playthings, come to life when no one’s looking, invariably wind up far from home and have all sorts of adventures trying to get back. This time, though, the stakes are higher. Andy is all grown up and leaving for college – thanks to a misunderstanding, the toys wind up donated to a hellish day care centre instead of in storage. Even if they do make it back, only confinement in the attic awaits them. They elect for the lesser of two evils: far better to spend years in a box in case Andy has kids, than to endure endless abuse from preschoolers.
Unlike almost anything associated with Disney, TS3 is not a cynical exercise in cutesy schmaltz so saccharine it could cause diabetes. It does, however, have a strong emotional core and imparts basic morality lessons with a lightness of touch that is rare in any movie. It is also not afraid to depict children as utterly horrible: the main threat to Andy’s toys comes from a group of destructive tots too young to ‘play nicely’. The ‘bad’ toys in this film are only in conflict with Andy’s lot because they too are in fear of the ‘age inappropriate’ games. At moments like this, the animation is astonishing in its realism and its subtlety (does Buzz Lightyear’s face always freeze into that expression when someone’s around, or are we imagining the hint of rictus terror around the eyes?). The depictions, from the toys’ point of view, of their maltreatment are visceral – tongues are dragged across faces, heads repeatedly bashed against hard surfaces, bodies pulled apart. Take that, 127 Hours!
TS3 has a fantastic script and wonderful characters. Lotso, as in Lots O’ Love the teddy bear, is a stand out as the villain with a tragic past. He runs the day care centre like a prison top dog – a metaphor the film has a lot of fun with to great effect. (He’s voiced by Ned Beatty, known to most movie buffs as the ‘squealing piggy’ from Deliverance. Feel free to add your own inappropriate prison joke here.) The source of Lotso’s simmering rage is evident. The wonderful thing about day care, he tells the new arrivals, is that when the children move on new ones come to take their places. Having no owner means never being abandoned, never having your heart broken.
Lotso is a dark, complex character by any measure. Humiliated by the personal rejection of being replaced by an identical bear, he lies to his friends, telling them that they too have been replaced. Pretty heavy, even in a ‘mainstream’ film. His forebear (no pun intended) is Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man. Not only does Lotso look like Welles, he shares Lime’s amorality. Lime’s famous line, as he looks down from on high at the crowds (“Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?”) is mirrored by Lotso. “You think she’s special?” he spits at Ken as Ken tries to save Barbie. “There are millions just like her!”He even rejects his own chance at redemption, accepting Woody and Buzz’s help to save himself from a landfill fire before consciously deciding to abandon them to the same peril.
But of course, amidst the darkness, TS3 is a kids’ film. It is inventive, energetic, witty, clever and sophisticated without going over the head of its intended audience. The lighted panel on a vending machine in a dark corridor makes it the perfect substitute for a neon-lit gambling den in a back alley. The pen-ink scribbles left on a baby doll’s limbs by numerous boisterous kids are an obvious stand-in for prison tattoos. Ken spends most of his time trying to convince everyone that he’s ‘not a girls’ toy’, but confides to Barbie that until her arrival he’d been lonely because ‘no one else here really cares about clothes’. Mr Prickles, a snooty toy hedgehog voiced by former James Bond Timothy Dalton, treats each playtime as a round of improv theatre.
For all its charm, humour and verve, TS3 is a poignant film with a bitter sweet ending. The toys have a new awareness of how fleeting a kid’s childhood really is and how uncertain their future will always be. Andy gives the gang to young Molly, but it won’t be long until Molly is deciding whether to donate them or put them in the attic. Lotso’s words hang heavy in the air: “You’re plastic – made to be thrown away!”
If a movie this rewarding, engaging, thoughtful and nuanced isn’t worthy of an Oscar, what is?