In Pixar movies, our consumer crap loves us. Whether it's toys, cars or trash robots, Pixar plays to our fantasies that our mass-produced semi-durable possessions have deep inner lives. But Toy Story 3 takes this theme to a new place.
Oh, and there are spoilers in this review. TOY spoilers!
Toy Story 3, out today, is an awesome continuation of Pixar's most famous saga. Director Lee Unkrich and company have managed to find one more new spin on the over-arching theme of the Toy Story series: the emotional relationship between toys and their owners. Toy Story, of course, is a fantasy in which seemingly inanimate lumps of plastic, metal and fabric come to life and have intricate social lives. It takes place in "our" world, except that nobody's ever noticed that all of the toys are running around and talking the moment they seem to be unobserved. (It's not a work of stark realism.)
This time around, the toys' owner, Andy, is all grown up and off to college. Somehow, amazingly, his toys are all intact and in perfect condition, but Andy himself has become obsolete. Andy decides to put the toys into storage in the attic — all except for Woody the cowboy, whom he wants to take to college. But through a series of miscommunications, the toys all end up at a day care center instead, and it turns out to be too good to be true. Unlike in previous Toy Story movies, you're not sure what to root for this time around — should the toys make their way back to Andy, just so he can stick them in his attic? There's no possibility of a happy reunion between Andy and his beloved toys, so what resolution do you hope for?
It's sort of the dilemma hinted at in Toy Story 2, where Jessie the cowgirl tells Woody that she had an owner who got tired of her and left her behind. The possessions that love us so fervently can get their hearts broken when we no longer need them. It's the whole "Velveteen Rabbit" scenario.
What's great about Toy Story 3 — and what was hinted at at the end of Toy Story 2 — is that the toys' love for each other turns out to be greater, and more important, than their love for Andy. The toys may have been enlivened and animated by Andy's imagination, as we glimpse at the start of the movie in a flashback to Andy's childhood. But they realize early on that it doesn't matter who plays with them, as long as they get played with, and as long as they're together. And by the end of the movie, Woody is forced to make a choice between loyalty to an owner and loyalty to his fellow toys. When Woody chooses, it's incredibly moving and — as often is the case with Pixar movies — I got all choked up despite myself.
By the way, Toy Story 3 is probably not quite as brilliant as Toy Story 2. But it's still so great that it puts every other movie I've seen so far this year to shame, and it's yet another reminder of how creatively bankrupt the rest of Hollywood is in comparison to Pixar. The idea of having interesting characters who face real challenges and make defining choices seems like kind of a radical one, but you never know, it might work for other people.
Much like Wall-E and Eve's relationship in Wall-E seems far more meaningful than anything the humans in the movie experience, the toys in Toy Story 3 have long since outstripped the fickle Andy's capacity for loyalty and affection. We've gone beyond fantasizing that our possessions can become as attached to us as we are to them, and now we're on to imagining that our possessions love each other, too. In fact, their love for each other can redeem our callowness and self-obsession.
I can't help wondering if artificial intelligences, a thousand years from now, will be as fascinated with Pixar movies as Wall-E is with Hello Dolly. Perhaps future A.I.s are Pixar's other target audience, besides today's kids and parents. Among the first movies made entirely by computer, they celebrate the idea that seemingly soulless items mass-produced by humans actually have more of a spark than their creators. Films like Wall-E and Toy Story 3 celebrate our semi-irrelevance, as our creations become more meaningful than we are.
Of course, at the end of Toy Story 3, those toys still need to be played with, just like Wall-E still wants to serve humanity. But they've also learned that no human will ever love them as much, or as meaningfully, as they love each other. Humans will grow up, leave them, even die, but their plastic souls will go on.