Despite the outrageous prices and rude patrons, I still prefer to watch movies where they were intended to be seen: in the movie theater. The prices are offset by the occasional critic’s pass or my penchant for sneaking into other movies, and the talkative patrons are nothing new to someone who cut his movie-loving teeth on the ghetto theaters of the Garden State. Sometimes, the audience experience is the best thing about a movie. Other times, it can elevate the experience by creating the perfect mise-en-scène for the feature. I love the community experience the googolplex provides. The problem is, most moviegoers today don’t know their talk-back-to-the-screen etiquette. Murmuring with your friends and screaming commands at projected images works well at Snakes on a Plane or The Far from Fantastic Miss Fox, but not at The Remains of The Day. As a result, people stay home in droves.
Taking a page from the ’50s and the early ’80s, Hollywood angled to get your asses back in theater seats by returning to one of its worst gimmicks: 3-D. It’s on every cartoon and every other horror movie nowadays. I once joked that Hollywood was going to start turning old 2-D movies into 3-D movies just to get your money. I didn’t think Disney would take me seriously, though: Witness the limited engagement return of Toy Story and Toy Story 2, both in pristine new copies not unlike the ones already on your DVD shelf. The only difference is the new version allows you to get a Woody in your lap and a Buzz in your head without sniffing amyl nitrite. Toy Story 2 turns 10 this year, but bringing out Pixar’s first full-length feature seems timed to coincide with the sudden re-emergence of Disney’s first full-length animated feature from the sadomasochistic-sounding “Disney Vault.” “Buy our first again, see their first again! Money money money!!”
I chastise Disney, but their ploy worked. I plopped down 12.50 for the 7:30 showing of the Toy Story 3-D double feature. I’d already seen both tales of Woody the cowboy and Buzz Lightyear on the big screen, and I own them on DVD. Anybody who knows me must giggle at the irony of me putting on 3D glasses, but I admit I went for the nostalgia factor: Disney double features (and 3-D for that matter) were part of my youth.
I expected to find the theater filled solely with this idiot. Instead I was met with scores of little kids and their parents. I avoided them at all costs and sat in “the grown-up row,” a row of people in my age bracket and a young couple around 21 or so. Directly behind me, two boys around 15 were discussing their Toy Story love. “This movie is my childhood!” one enthusiastically said to the other. One had a Woody that, in the course of him playing with it, fell into my seat.
“Sorry!” the teenager said to me. As I handed him back the Woody doll, I noticed that, directly behind him, there was a guy around 40 dressed like Buzz Lightyear. Just before I could shout “to insanity and beyond!” the lights went down. I checked my inventory of movie theater junk food (Twizzlers, popcorn with extra carcinogenic imitation butter and, since I’m watching my figure, a large Diet Coke) and got comfortable in my chair.
I put on my 3-D glasses to watch Disney’s animated rules for the double feature. An animated Woody showed us that we could get concessions, go pee and stretch our legs (in that order) during the ten minute intermission between features. “Where would I put the popcorn, on the toilet?” I asked. Before I could contemplate further, I was met with an enormous, souped up Disney logo in 3D. This was followed by the Pixar logo, also in 3D. I squinted behind plastic glasses that made me look like Roy Orbison with a tan, taking in as much of the effect as I could. As the title card came up, the audience cheered. The teenagers behind me were especially enthusiastic, but at least Woody stayed in his row this time.
Feature One: Toy Story
Toy Story, my second favorite Pixar movie, plays like an episode of Battle of the Network Stars. Toys by Mattel, Hasbro and other companies exist side by side, given voice by several former sitcom stars from various networks.
Buzz Lightyear, voiced by Home Improvement’s Tim Allen, shares top character billing with Woody, voiced by Bosom Buddies’ Tom Hanks. Cheers’ John Ratzenberger, the De Niro to Pixar’s Scorsese (he’s been in every Pixar cartoon thus far), plays a piggy bank named Hamm, Roseanne’s Laurie Metcalf plays the motherly type, and Designing Women’s Annie Potts plays a horny Little Bo Peep. Ernest creator Jim Varney plays a sweet Slinky Dog, and Don Rickles plays a hot-headed Mr. Potato Head. Only in a cartoon could Don Rickles be meaner than a toy soldier played by R. Lee Ermey, Full Metal Jacket’s DI.
Hanks’ Woody is Andy’s favorite toy. Andy features him in several Perils of Pauline-style rescue scenarios, pitting him against the evil Dr. Porkchop, portrayed by his piggy bank. Some of the things Woody says when you pull his string are a tad disturbing (“Somebody’s poisoned the water hole!”), but he still saves the day, receiving the cheers of the saved and the lovin’ of Little Bo Peep.
After one such scenario, director John Lasseter delivers a montage of Woody and Andy playing, set to the vocal stylings of Oscar’s own Susan Lucci, Randy Newman. Newman sings “You’ve Got a Friend In Me,” the best of his Pixar-written songs and the theme of the Toy Story franchise. Throughout this double feature, I would hear it sung by Newman, Hanks, the teenage boy behind me, and a presumably sober Robert Goulet. Newman is always the best conduit for his sound-alike songs, but the teenager gave him a run for his money.
We learn about the secret life of toys: When no one’s in the room, they come alive and interact in their own toy society, with Woody as their leader. The toys have their own personalities based on the actor voicing them. Woody is all Jimmy Stewart/Gary Cooper aw-shucks, the piggy bank is kinda Cliff Clavin, and the Slinky Dog is earnest. The dinosaur is a worrywart for a variety of reasons, the least of which is the upcoming birthday party for Woody’s owner.
The party is a source of neuroses for Andy’s existing toys. Andy will get new toys, and the old toys will get sent to the toy box at best, the Island of Misfit Toys at worst. Andy’s family is moving in a week, and any replaced toy may get sold or thrown out. Dinosaur Rex (Wallace Shawn, currently seen explaining capitalism to Michael Moore) is especially paranoid about the wrapped boxes he sees entering the house. Slinky Dog craps a coil after seeing an extremely long box, and Mr. Potato Head hopes for a Mrs. Potato Head. Woody shows no fear because he’s been Andy’s favorite toy for years and doesn’t expect that to change. How wrong he is.
Enter Buzz Lightyear, a spaceman figure with delusions of grandeur. All the other toys are aware of their status as toys. Woody knows he’s a toy impersonating a cowboy, not a real cowboy. But Buzz thinks he’s an actual spaceman, which becomes as big a source of aggravation for Woody as Buzz’s sudden ascent to the top of Andy’s favorite toy list. Woody may be reminiscent of Gary Cooper, but his jealousy turns him into Jack Palance with a quickness. Buzz quickly endears himself to the other toys with flashy equipment like a state of the art Tim Allen voice box, a laser light and glow in the dark features. Woody feels threatened, which Mr. Potato Head chalks up to “laser envy.” When Andy’s Mom tells Andy he can only choose one toy for his latest excursion, everyone knows he wants a Buzz, not a Woody. Woody decides to trick Buzz into becoming temporarily lost so Andy will take him instead.
Woody’s botched attempt to get rid of Buzz sends Buzz out of the safety of Andy’s room and Woody into the doghouse with his fellow toys. When Andy comes to take Buzz to Pizza Planet, a space-themed restaurant calibrated to support all Buzz’s delusions, he can’t find him and has to settle for Woody. Meanwhile, Mr. Potato Head, an extremely vocal critic of Woody, becomes drunk with power now that Woody has been excommunicated from the room.
From here, Toy Story becomes a set of well-done action pieces punctuated by a few moments for character development. Woody needs to find Buzz to prove he didn’t kill him, and bring him back before the big move. The adventure takes our heroes to Pizza Planet, where they meet a bunch of three-eyed zealots in thrall to a creature called “The Claw,” on an exciting last reel rocket and car chase, and into the clutches of the film’s villain, Sid.
Watching the film for the first time in several years, I was struck by how light Toy Story is in comparison to some of the Pixar features that followed it. It has its moments of emotional pathos, but they’re snarky rather than dramatic. For example, when Woody realizes he’s being replaced in Andy’s life, his shock is punctuated by Randy Newman calling Buzz a punk on the soundtrack. And when Buzz finally realizes that he is no Space Ranger, Toy Story gives him a comedic drunk scene in drag. (“I’m Mrs. Nesbit!”) A darker heart or more complex emotions are not part of Toy Story’s equation. There is plenty of adult humor present, but this may be the only Pixar movie without an adult agenda.
This isn’t a criticism, merely an observation. It was sweet and refreshing, and it led me to question if a 3-D re-release of something like The Incredibles (my favorite Pixar) would bring out an audience as full of joy as mine.
That 40-year old audience member Buzz Lightyear yelled out “to infinity and beyond!” The couple next to me spent more time watching the movie than making out. The kids cheered and applauded something I’m sure they’ve seen 100 times before. The teenage duo behind me, bless their hearts, said the film’s best lines with such infectious glee (Woody: This is the part where we blow up! Buzz and the teenagers: NOT TODAY!) that only a Grinch would have been offended by them talking back to the screen.
When the lights came up, I turned around to see a field of faces adorned with those dopey Real 3-D glasses. They didn’t seem disappointed. The screen told us we had ten minutes to do the aforementioned buying, peeing and stretching. Whilst doing so, those who remained were treated to Toy Story trivia provided by the film’s stars. I stayed in my seat while a steady stream of children made their way out of the theater. People answered trivia questions out loud, and though I’d just seen the damn movie, my old brain wouldn’t fire on a few of the questions.
Feeling ancient, I left the theater to answer nature’s call. I was soon joined by one half of the dynamic duo seated behind me. “Nice Woody,” I said, as he stood at the urinal next to me. I saw the panic in his face disappear when he realized I was talking about the doll. Woody stared at me from atop the adjoining urinal, perilously close to falling onto the floor or worse. “There’s a snake in my boot!” I imagined the doll saying.
Feature Two: Toy Story 2
Director John Lasseter returns for Toy Story 2, but the sequel isn’t up to the standards of the original. Ten years ago, I sat in the same theater to see this, and I had, with one exception, the same reaction I did in 1999. The sequel feels like a TV movie, and the new characters are not as charismatic, but overall I still liked the film. The audience reaction here was more muted than in Toy Story, and the duo behind me were more reserved and selective in their line readings.
Toy Story 2 broaches the question of what happens when kids put away their childish things, and whether said items are better off preserved forever as collector’s items than as objects of a child’s love. I was more interested in Toy Story’s toy dilemma: Are kids who destroy their toys sociopathic? Sid destroyed his toys, but the ones who were mutated seemed to gather a self-sufficiency that Andy’s toys did not have. While Sid’s fate is left unresolved, my guess is, after being scolded by Woody, Sid never played with a toy again.
The sequel’s villain is Al from Al’s Toy Barn, a spoiled toy retailer who needs a Woody to complete a collection he can send to a Japanese museum. The submission will earn him beaucoup dollars. Al is a precursor of Pixar’s problems with fat people: He’s a slob who’s covered in Cheetos dust at one point and at another is dressed in a ridiculous chicken outfit. In keeping with the sitcom casting, Al is voiced by Newman from Seinfeld, Wayne Knight.
Al kidnaps Woody after he accidentally winds up garage sale fodder. Though Woody’s arm has been ripped, Andy’s Mom put him on the shelf so he wouldn’t break further. Woody finds another broken toy up there, a penguin named Wheezy who should have sounded like Isabel Sanford. It’s Wheezy’s garage sale fate that sends Woody out into the yard to save him, and into Al’s grubby clutches.
Through Al’s chicanery, Woody discovers he was originally based on a Howdy Doody-meets-Gunsmoke-style marionette show. Woody meets Stinky Pete the Prospector, who is trapped in his box as a collector’s item and voiced by Hamm the Piggy Bank’s Cheers co-star, Kelsey Grammer. He also meets Jessie, the Yodeling Cowgirl, voiced in almost maniacal fashion by Joan Cusack, and an horse with ADD named Bullseye.
Meanwhile, Buzz and the other toys launch a rescue plan to save Woody. Using the Speak and Spell and the Etch-a-Sketch, Buzz figures out that the man they saw was “the chicken from the TV commercial,” and the team sets out to find Woody. Along the way, they meet an entire aisle of Buzz Lightyears, one of whom is as delusional as Buzz was in Toy Story. The delusional Buzz traps our Buzz in a box and joins the unsuspecting team. After an action sequence involving an elevator and vents, the team finds Woody. Unfortunately for them, they’ve found a friend who is thankless toward their efforts. After watching several episodes of Woody’s Round-Up, Woody gets a big head and decides, with some goading from Stinky Pete, to abandon Andy and go to Japan.
Stinky Pete turns out to be a villain in his own right, preferring to have Woody stay with them as a set in this museum, but Jessie is problematic as well. She runs the gamut from overly enthusiastic to extremely bitter, and during my first viewing of Toy Story 2, I really didn’t like her. At one point, she jumps on Woody, and my mind flashed back to Raquel Welch in her cowboy hat, sodomizing that guy in Myra Breckinridge. That happened this time as well, but I found myself softening a little to Jessie. Originally, I’d found Jessie’s song, the Randy Newman penned “When She Loved Me,” sung by Sarah MacLaughlin, to be a whiny melodrama that made me nauseous; this time, I was actually moved by it. The duo behind me, both of whom were sniffling with no shame whatsoever, shamed me into feeling some emotion for the character’s lament. It was an encapsulation of the series’s theme: that toys, like us, are nobody until somebody loves them.
Of course, Woody comes to his senses and returns to Andy’s room, but not before being run through not only every Western cliché in the book, but the airport’s baggage claim system as well. A few Star Wars jokes also get thrown in, to honor Pixar pal and co-creator George Lucas. These sequences are fun to watch, and there are a few new 3-D effects thrown in, but my interest was less engaged this time around. Jessie, Stinky Pete and Bullseye just aren’t as interesting as Woody’s original gang.
Toy Story 2 ends with Wheezy the Penguin serenading us with the best Robert Goulet imitation since Will Ferrell on SNL. My movie-going experience ended with me asking both the couple and the dynamic duo if they were looking forward to Toy Story 3.
“Absolutely!” said the teenagers. “Eh,” said the male half of the couple, who was probably pissed that his girlfriend actually wanted to watch the movie. I left with a headache from the 3D glasses (which I stole from the theater—shhh!) and a nostalgic feeling that went well beyond this double feature, back to the double features of my childhood. The community experience was well worth the money and the headache.
The Odienator loves animation, and hasn’t been able to perceive 3-D since 1985.
Pixar Week will run October 4—10 at the House. For more information on the event, please see here.