John Lasseter and Pixar Animation Studios brought us the original Toy Story in 1995. It seems like only yesterday that we met Tom Hanks’ ‘Woody’ and Tim Allen’s ‘Buzz Lightyear.’ Although, to be honest, those were simpler times. The internet was not omnipresent, cellphones were not yet handed out like lollipops,”‘texting” wasn’t even a word, and tweets were cute sounds you would hear at the pet store. Even the second installment, Toy Story 2 (1999), arrived before the Y2K nonsense, 9-11, and our most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, I guess you could say it was a different time – and a very different world.
But here they are again, ‘Woody’ and ‘Buzz’ and their gang of loveable toys all tangled up in a new adventure, every bit as wholesome and moralistic as the two that preceded it. Parents everywhere say Whew! and thank you!
The themes haven’t changed much. Abandonment is a big issue with toys apparently and it’s the main source of conflict in Toy Story 3, which has already grossed $1B worldwide. This time around young ‘Andy’ is all growed up and heading off to college. After some nagging from his mom (Laurie Metcalf) to clean up his room and decide what to do with his old toys, ‘Andy’ singles out ‘Woody’ – of course – and the rest are headed to the attic. Or are they? As is the case in all three Toy Stories, tough choices have to be made and allegiances either strengthened or severed. There is a box of stuff headed to a local daycare and ‘Buzz’ and the rambunctious cowgirl ‘Jessie’ (Joan Cusack) think they can get the crew in it.
‘Woody’ warns them that “Daycare is a sad and lonely place for washed up toys who have no owners.” But they are dead set against the attic. So off they go.
Loyalty, devotion, and frienship are also consistent themes in all three of these wonderful stories, and this film, released also in Imax 3D, stirs up challenges for our heroes to pick carefully where they want to end up and who their friends really are.
The toys end up in Sunnyland Daycare Center, and it appears they may have found the perfect new home. A soiled teddy bear named ‘Lotso’ (Ned Beatty), welcomes the new inventory (“Just you wait, you’ll find that being donated is the best thing that ever happened to ya.”) and proceeds to lay out the groundrules: they are to inhabit the ‘caterpillar room’ while he and the tenured toys hold sway in the ‘butterfly room.’ It becomes apparent quickly that the ‘butterfly room is the place to be when the toddlers charge into the ‘caterpillar’ room and go a few steps beyond playing with poor ‘Buzz,’ ‘Jesse,’ ‘Rex,’ and the gang. ‘Lotso,’ backed by an overgrown, banged up ‘Big Baby’ doll (this character freaked out my 11 yr old a little), who has a droopy eye and a penchant for stoic intimidation, has imprisoned the new toys. We learn later through a flashback that poor ‘Lotso’ was forgotten on the side of the road by his child owner and he grew a hard heart.
The ensuing jail break is a blast. A toy car who’s seen it all and has the inside scoop on the joint warns them of a toy monkey whose maniacal fixed gaze and at-the-ready cymbals never leave the surveilance monitors. “The monkey is the eye in the sky. If you don’t take out that monkey, you ain’t goin’ nowhere. Wanna get outta here? Get rid of that monkey!”
Newcomers ‘Ken’ and ‘Barbie’ come real close to stealing the show. Their meeting is superb. Ken (Michael Keaton): “Love your legwarmers.” Barbie (Jodi Benson): “Nice ascot.” He then laments to her that “Nobody here appreciates clothes!” and proceeds to put on a fashion show in front of ‘Barbie’ in his tricked out walk-in closet – it’s a world class chuckle for sure.
What is so great about Lasseter’s story here (also credited to Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, with screenplay by Michael Arndt) is how clearly virtuous the characters are allowed to be, especially the female toys. As the breakout appears to be crumbling it is cowgirl ‘Jessie’ who has the stones to stare down ‘Lotso’ and shout “This isn’t a family, it’s a prison. You’re a liar and a bully!” followed by ‘Barbie’ who rises above her pay grade (and hair color) and adds “Authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force.” Take that, ‘Lotso!’
But all this girl power does not come at the expense of chivalry. In all of these films, the relationship between ‘Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head’ could not be sweeter. Perfectly voiced by Estelle Harris and the legendary Don Rickles, the tandem are always looking out for one another, lifting each other’s spirits, searching for each other’s missing body parts and accessories, and just flat out giving marriage a good name. No apology is made for the fact that he is her hero and that he absolutely adores his wife. ‘Andy’ even says to the girl receiving the donation box “Gotta keep ’em together cuz they’re madly in love.” Simple stuff -rare in films today.
And then there’s ‘Woody’ – once again beautifully voiced by the one and only Tom Hanks. I must admit, after having sat through so many of the bombardment of annual animated films, I get a little weary of all the major celeb voices cast to play the characters. In a lot of instances I actually find it distracting to either always be reminded of a certain actor or to be constantly scratching my head wondering “who’s damn voice is that?” But Hanks is ‘Woody.’ They are one in the same and the day he decides to no longer lend his voice to our hero is the day I’m certain Lasseter will know the story is over.
“We’re all in this together,” ‘Woody’ says to the gang as the end appears near, the film taking on a surprising moment of spiritual communion, of faith and belief.
Faith and belief. As a parent, it’s nice to have faith in some of Hollywood’s gifted storytellers. Faith that our kids’ best interests are in mind and a belief that being virtuous is still celebrated today just like it was all the way back in 1995, and maybe even to infinity and beyond.