Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mad about the toys


Toy Story 3 - Review

You don't need me to tell you it's good. The critics are hardly divided. I've read a grumble or two about the gender imbalance in the power structure - like that don't reflect real life. The stereotyping is an in-joke that is far more toy related than gender specific. Ken does squeal at one point 'I am not a girls' toy' but turns out to be far more vain and vacuous than Barbie. It's not going to make little girls feel like they don't belong in an adventure and I'm not going to waste my feminist angst on number crunching over a series I absolutely adore.

This last Toy Story film pulls together every thread from the first two with meticulous care. It's Pixar so you know it's going to be witty and tight and play your emotions like they were Mozart. But it's also much better than that. There is not a cynical pixel in this film. It is made with great respect and affection for the children and adults who will see it and the world they share with their toys or their remembrance of toys past. It's quite a radical film because it introduces small children to a number of sophisticated and complex social concepts.

Andy's toy box is both a functional workplace and a healthy democracy. Woody the cowboy is the nominal head by virtue of being Andy's favourite toy. But he's not a viceroy. He's the one who calls meetings and makes suggestions but decisions are always made by consensus. If Woody fails to convince, as he inevitably does to serve the drama, he defers with reasonably good grace. Everything these toys do is the result of talking a problem through and facing its consequences together. They are a community of equals whose common concern is to preserve their 'village' from external threats.

The first Toy Story film (1995) begins with the toys facing an annual threat - Andy's birthday. The older toys fear obsolescence, and with good reason in a throwaway society. There is also the possibility that any powerful new presence could disrupt the social harmony. High-tech toys that could potentially corrupt the affections of a child are being produced all the time. The difficulties occasioned by Buzz Lightyear's appearance may well have justified the military precision with which the Andy's birthday offensive was carried out. The genius of the Toy Story trilogy is that the anxiety played out in this long exposition is sustained over the three films.

When we meet these characters, Andy is young and the toys are new. They survive a house move in the first film and a garage sale in the second. By the third, the toys have have been through an awful lot together and have experienced the loss of a number of 'good friends' who are mourned with some poignance. They are still a strong team but they are aware that they face their greatest challenge yet - redundancy.

Toy Story is an Upstairs/Downstairs melodrama. The characters are in service to a master who, in their case, is benevolent. As in the Harry Potter series, parallel worlds intersect but only one is aware of the other. It echoes the tales of Coppélia and Pinocchio who come to life initially to assert their own identity but ultimately contribute to the betterment of humankind. Andy's toys have a decent but not uneventful life. In the first film they come face-to-face with Sid, the evil kid from next door who cannibalises toys. They are moulded by this experience to always look out for each other.

Andy is on his way to college at the beginning of Toy Story 3. He must clear his room for his younger sister Molly. There is a certain disgruntlement amongst the toys as they are no longer played with and, although a toy box is safe, it ain't exactly purposeful. The toys retain Andy's affection but not his interest. The great Toy Story conceit is that there is always a diasporic separation beginning with a misunderstanding, followed swiftly by an accidental fall from a window and completed by the meteoric capacity of Andy's mother to produce cardboard boxes.

The challenge in Toy Story 3 begins in the traditional way, with a cardboard box and a black marker destination. But the stakes are higher this time because there may not be an actual Andy to get home to. The toys arrive in a dystopic day care community ruled by a very large and exceptionally damaged strawberry-scented bear.

Abandonment has been a theme in Toy Story from the start. The favoured toys hide or protect the broken or less played with as well as they can. The second episode focuses on Jessie's betrayal by her beloved Emily but is resolved when she is reunited with her 'wood' family. The final chapter deals with a much darker cause and effect scenario. A trio of toys is left out in the countryside where their young owner falls asleep. Their leader Lotso, the strawberry-scented bear, guides them home to find he has been replaced. He pushes the trio on until, soiled and battered, they find shelter at a day care centre.

Lotso imposes a regime of abuse tempered by his own experience. Andy's toys are sent to a room where they are shocked to find themselves in the 'age-inappropriate' hands of toddlers. Some commentators have chortled at the supposed middle-class outrage expressed by the toys but why shouldn't they object to a) being treated badly b) directly observed poor management? They don't tolerate it for a minute. They immediately organise and act. This is a great message for kids.

The crisis is just about as fearsome as a crisis can be and the resolution just about as satisfying as a resolution can be.