Saturday, 31 July 2010

'Toy Story 3' review: Pixar falling short of greatness...

Pixar have created a big problem for themselves. Their last two features, 'Wall-E' and 'Up', have been universally heralded as masterpieces and sit comfortably alongside the greatest animated films ever made. Of course, the studio was already well ahead of its American competitors before that - at least artistically. Films such as 'Ratatouille', 'The Incredibles', 'Finding Nemo' and the original 'Toy Story' are easily up there with the work of international masters, such as Miyazaki ('Spirited Away'), Ocelot ('Kirikou and the Sorceress') or Chomet ('Belleville Rende-vouz').

After a filmography that only really boasts one dud (the 2006 film 'Cars'), the California based animation studio have set the bar remarkably, even dauntingly, high and, with 'Cars 2' on the way and now operating under full Disney ownership, the honeymoon period could be set to end for the team that pioneered the now-dominant CGI animation art form. It is with this concern in mind that I went to see the latest entrant into the Pixar canon: 'Toy Story 3'. But does it live up to, or even surpass, the lightness of touch, the wit and the sophistication of last year's 'Up'?

In a word: no.

This is not to say that 'Toy Story 3' is not charming and funny. It is. There are plenty of endearing new characters (notably "Mr. Pricklepants" voiced by Timothy Dalton) and it is fun seeing Woody, Buzz and the gang again. But whereas the question at Pixar has always seemed to be "where can we go next?" - with them constantly pushing at boundaries (both technical and narrative) - this sequel feels as though it has been inspired by accountants and people eager to sell a few more Buzz Lightyear figures this Christmas.

Well, maybe that's a little harsh. There are some good new ideas in the film, which sees the toys being donated to a nursery. The animation of the toddlers is amazing, with the animators doing a terrific job of capturing their movements. In this respect, the film is as detailed and lovingly put together as anything they have produced. Michael Keaton is fun as Ken - the male counterpart to Barbie - as is Ned Beatty as "Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear". The gags are perhaps broader than usual, with lots of in-jokes (a Totoro toy is prominently featured), film references ('Cool Hand Luke' is explicitly quoted) and sight gags, but 'Toy Story 3' on the whole stays true to the Pixar tradition of dealing with genuinely adult themes, such as loss, death and even mid-life crisis. And it must be said that the opening sequence, which takes us into a childs imagination as he plays with the toys, is brilliant.

But whilst Jessie the cowgirl's story in 'Toy Story 2' was genuinely quite moving, helped in no small way by a splendid Randy Newman song ("When She Loved Me"), the tearjerker moments in this sequel feel forced and contrived. 'Up' reduced all except the most hard-hearted to floods of tears in its opening moments and justly received plaudits for doing so in such an elegant way, and it feels almost as though this feat has gone to Pixar's (collective) head. One wonders what great sorrow will befall Lightning McQueen next year. Maybe his tyres will deflate to the strains of a string quartet or his lady-car will take a tumble off a cliff and explode. Whatever they do it won't work: because I don't care about a talking car and, it turns out, care only a fraction more for Mr and Mrs Potato Head et al. The prolonged curtain call that ends the film feels similarly manipulative and calculated as the action which proceeds it.

Far be it from me to go on a Kermodeian rant about 3D, but I have to say that the novelty (and it is a novelty) is really starting to wear off now. I have enjoyed a few 3D titles over the last year and have been impressed by the way that the most recent films have used the technology to create depth rather then to make stuff pop out of the screen. But I am no longer impressed because I have now been there and seen it already. I saw 'Avatar' and now I'm over it. Now all I am noticing is the increased admission price (over £20 for my girlfriend and I) and the splitting headache upon leaving the cinema. The 3D is tastefully implemented in 'Toy Story 3', but you gain precisely nothing from seeing it this way.

If I sound unenthusiastic about 'Toy Story 3' it is only because of Pixar's own exceptionally high standards. Without doubt it is fun film and - along with 'Inception' - it is the must-see blockbuster movie of this summer. But am I wrong to expect a little bit more from Pixar? However much of a good time 'Toy Story 3' is, it doesn't hold a candle to any of their previous three films. Personally, I enjoyed Disney's return to hand-drawn animation, 'The Princess and the Frog', quite a bit more. And with sequels to 'Cars' and 'Monsters Inc.' in the pipeline, could Pixar's golden age be behind them? Or do they have another 'Up' in them? I hope for the latter, but on this evidence there is some cause for concern.

'Toy Story 3' is rated 'U' by BBFC and can be seen almost everywhere in 3D and 2D versions.

1 comment:

  1. I see what you're saying, though I enjoyed Toy Story 3. I, too, was concerned going in to see it that it was going to be a bit of a Shrek-style cash-in, but I thought that Pixar's talent and integrity shone through. I am very concerned, however, to see them making more sequels. I can make allowances for Toy Story, but not for Cars (which I didn't hate, by the way).

    A quick google gives me optimism, though: apparently, there's something in the pipeline called 'Brave', that sounds interesting. My fingers are very much crossed.