Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Toy Story of Terror

The Toy Story of our lives

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Toy Story That Time Forgot

A few weeks ago, Pixar announced that Toy Story 4 is officially in production, with the dream team of John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, and Andrew Stanton advising the writing duo of Rashida Jones and Will McCormack. (I don’t doubt the talents of the latter two, but I still smile a little at the thought of that meeting: I’d like to think that it consisted mostly of four big, nerdy guys in Hawaiian shirts being inexplicably charmed by Jones’s pitch for the franchise.) Like many fans of what I’ve come to see as the best series of children’s films ever made, I’m tickled, but cautious. It’s not so much the fear that a mediocre fourth movie would undermine my feelings for the first three—heck, I’ve been through that process before. Rather, it’s the fact that a perfectly fine arrangement already exists, in the form of the animated shorts about these characters that Pixar has continued to produce. I’m not sure I need to see Toy Story 4, but I’d happily accept a run of shorts that went on forever, if it means we get more miniature masterpieces along the lines of Partysaurus Rex.

The nice thing about the Toy Story shorts is that they meet a particular need while leaving our memories of the movies untouched. Much of the appeal of these films comes from their almost frightening emotional resonance, and while it’s unfair to hold a short cartoon to the same standard, I love these characters so much that I’m glad just to be treated to a few brief vignettes of their lives. As we learned from Cars 2, cleverness alone can’t sustain an entire feature, but it’s more than enough to fill six minutes, and the format of the animated short allows Pixar to revel in a few crucial aspects of the franchise—its ingenuity and humor—while not having to strain for the intensity of feeling that the movies achieve. In that regard, it’s revealing that the longer specials, Toy Story of Terror and last night’s Toy Story That Time Forgot, tend to hit beats that we’ve seen before: the villain in the former feels more than a little like his counterpart in Toy Story 2, and the latter introduces an army of toys who don’t know that they’re toys, of which Buzz drily notes: “Incredible, isn’t it?”

Toy Story That Time Forgot

More than anything else, this is what gives me pause at the prospect of Toy Story 4. The first three movies seem almost inevitable in the emotional ground they cover: the series gradually became a meditation on growing up, and now that Andy has gone off to college, it’s hard to envision what remains to be told. Still, I’ve been surprised before, and if anything, Toy Story That Time Forgot serves as a reminder of how much feeling can still be plumbed from these characters and their situations. For most of its length, it’s a cute diversion, maybe a notch below the best of the shorts so far. (It lost me a little during its long middle section, which takes place entirely within the plastic world of the Battlesaurs: a lot of the fun of these stories arises from the element of scale, with the toys’ adventures set against the baseboards and table legs of the larger everyday world, and we lose this when the action unfolds in artificial surroundings.) Yet by the end, I was unexpectedly touched by its message, like that of The Lego Movie, which implies that toys find their greatest meaning when they surrender to a child’s imagination.

Obviously, it’s hard to separate my response from my own experience as a father, which is a fairly recent development—my daughter wasn’t even born when Toy Story 3 was released. And I see a lot of Bonnie in Beatrix. She’s just arriving at the age when she starts to tell stories involving her toys that I couldn’t have anticipated: she’ll sling her Hello Kitty purse over her shoulder and announce that she’s taking the train to work, or explain that Mr. Bear needs to have his diaper changed, and she’s already beginning to spin private narratives using the figures in our plastic nativity set. And even if my feelings have been shaped by where I happen to be in my own life, I can’t help but think that if there’s one last region for the series to explore, it’s here—in the strange closeness that emerges between a child, her toys, and her parents. (So far, the series has only given us hints of this, notably in the form of the intriguing clues, which can’t be dismissed, that the little girl who gave away Jessie the Cowgirl grew up to be Andy’s mom.) Toy Story has a lot to say about small children, but it’s been oddly indifferent so far to families. That’s the fourth movie I’d like to see, and I’ll tell this to anyone who wants to listen, even if it means I have to take a meeting with Rashida Jones.

Written by nevalalee

December 3, 2014 at 9:38 am

Toy Story of delight

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Toy Story of Terror

Breaking Bad may be over, but last night, my wife and I watched what emphatically ranks as a close second in our most highly anticipated television events of the year: Toy Story of Terror, the first of what I hope will be many Pixar specials featuring the characters from my favorite animated franchise. Not surprisingly, I loved it, even if I’d rate it a notch below the sublime Partysaurus Rex. It’s constructed in the usual shrewd, slightly busy Pixar manner, with complication piled on complication, and it packs a startling amount of plot into a runtime of slightly over twenty minutes. A big part of the appeal of the Toy Story franchise has always been its narrative density: these aren’t long movies, but each installment, especially the latter two, is crammed with ideas, a tradition that the shorts have honored and maintained. And although it may not rank among the greatest holiday specials ever made, it gave me a hell of a lot of pleasure, mostly because I was delighted, as I always am, to see these characters again.

I’ve spoken frequently on this blog about the power of ensembles, which allow a television show to exploit different, surprising combinations of characters, but I don’t think I’ve really delved into its importance in film, which operates under a different set of constraints. Instead of multiple seasons, you have, at best, a handful of installments, and often just one movie. A rich supporting cast can lead to many satisfactions in the moment—think of the ensembles in Seven Samurai, The Godfather, L.A. Confidential—but it also allows you to dream more urgently of what else might have taken place, both in the runtime of the movie itself and after the story ends. When a great ensemble movie is over, it leaves you with a sense of loss: you feel that the characters were doing other things beyond the edges of the frame, pairing off in unexpected ways, and you wish there were time for more. (It’s no accident that the franchises that inspire the most devoted fanfic communities, from Harry Potter to Star Trek, are the ones that allow fans to play with the widest range of characters.)

Toy Story of Terror

And I don’t think I’ve ever felt this so keenly as I have with the characters from Toy Story. Over the course of three films and a handful of shorts, the franchise has created dozens of memorable characters, and it’s remarkable how vividly even briefly glimpsed figures—Wheezy, the Chatter Telephone—are drawn. Part of this is due to the fact that toys advertise their personalities to us at once, and you can mine a lot of material from either underlining or subverting that initial impression, as in the case of Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear, who stands as one of the most memorable movie villains of the last decade. But it’s also thanks to some sensational writing, directing, and voice acting in the established Pixar style, as well as the ingenuity of the setting and premise itself. At its best, the franchise is an adventure series crossed with a workplace comedy, and much of its energy comes from the idea of these toys, literally from different worlds, thrown together into the same playroom. Andy’s bedroom, or Bonnie’s, or any child’s, is a stage on which an endless number of stories can be told, and they don’t need to be spectacular: I’d be happy just to watch these toys hanging out all day.

That’s the mark of great storytelling, and as time goes on, I’ve begun to suspect that this may be the best movie trilogy I’ve ever seen. I’ve loved this series for a long time, but it wasn’t until Toy Story 2 came out that it took up a permanent place in my heart. At the time, I was working as an online movie critic, and I was lucky enough to see it at a preview screening—I almost typed “screaming,” which is a revealing typo—packed with kids. And I don’t think any movie has ever left me feeling happier on leaving the theater, both because the film itself was a masterpiece, and because I knew that every child in the world was going to see it. Ten years later, Toy Story 3 provided the best possible conclusion to the central story, and I don’t think I want any more movies, as much as I want to spend more time with these characters. But the decision to release additional shorts and specials was a masterstroke. For any other franchise, it might have seemed like a cash grab, but I can’t help but read it as an act of generosity: it gives us a little more, but not too much, of what we need. And it makes me a little envious of my own daughter, who, if all goes according to plan, will grow up with Woody, Buzz, Rex, and the rest, not just as beloved characters, but as friends.

Written by nevalalee

October 17, 2013 at 9:00 am

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