I’ll get to Toy Story 3 in a minute, but first I wanted to tell you about something else I’ve been thinking about today. We’re designed to search for patterns, so I guess it’s no surprise that you can’t see a lot of movies without noticing trends. Sometimes it’s something minor, like a stylistic trick you see repeated or an actor who keeps popping up. But when two movies open a window onto the same little slice of life, it can change the way you experience both. That happened to me the other day when I came across For Neda, an HBO documentary about Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman who was killed by a government gunman during the protests that followed Iran’s last election. As it happens, I’d just seen Women Without Men, one of the characters of which was a fictional forebear of Neda: a strong-willed young Iranian woman who defied taboos and risked death half a century ago to protest an illegitimate regime. Women Without Men was a little too underdeveloped and For Neda a little too didactic for my taste, but as I watched one and thought of the other, they melded into a kind of double exposure. Like Astaire and Rogers, in that quote about how he gave her class and she gave him sex, each movie made me appreciate the other more: The art-house film gave the documentary historical perspective, and the doc made the fiction film feel more urgent.
And now for our feature presentation. I always feel grateful to movies that don’t let me down, so if Toy Story 3 had feet, I’d be kissing them now. This lovely little movie never thinks too much of itself or too little of its audience. The characters keep looking to the past, but unlike Cars, which is still Pixar’s only major misfire, Toy Story 3 is no emotionally hollow exercise in nostalgia.
We pick back up with Woody and pals when their owner, Andy, is about to go to college. Like jilted exes, each of the toys has its own way of dealing with rejection, and the filmmakers don’t gloss over their anger or pain. There’s also some scary stuff involving an evil daycare center where the toys get pressed into bondage by a cartel. A nightmare vision of toddlers from the point of view of their battered and beheaded playthings, that bit is an extended take on one of Pixar’s first shorts, 1988’s Tin Toy, but much better looking, of course, since the technology has improved so since then. As Ed Gonzalez pointed out, this part of the movie is also “practically a statement on gentrification,” showing how the privileges enjoyed by the haves depend on the suffering of the have-nots, though a feel-good resolution undermines that message.
But Toy Story 3 isn’t, like some kids’ movies, just a flimsy envelope wrapped around a pious message. This is a film about living in the moment that leads by example. The filmmakers give us plenty of action, laughs, and interplay between old friends and new, and they do it all with a precise and loving attention to detail. They play with genre, giving us a bit of film noir, a heaping helping of great-escape, and the whacked-out Monument Valley western that opens the film, complete with a fight on the top of a trainful of orphans. And they make it all look amazingly lifelike. The toys’ movements and faces are so expressive that I never got tired of the visual joke when they assumed their positions on the floor or in a toy box to fool the humans, limbs akimbo and faces back to their bland, factory-issued expressions. Their surfaces are marvelously realistic looking too—not just the sleek plastic that was the easiest to mimic with early computer animation, but the nubby fur of a well-loved teddy bear or the grimy, battered tin of a toy telephone. And we’ve all see a doll like Big Baby, with its lumpy cloth legs and permanently half-closed eye.
My favorite new character is little Bonnie, a human child who becomes the new keeper of Andy’s flickering flame. Watching her spin stories for her dinosaurs and dolls to act out, I wondered how many kids play that intensely with anything other than a video game these days. Maybe Toy Story 3 is unrealistically nostalgic after all.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.