Friday, July 02, 2010

Toy Story 3: Some thoughts

(There are mild spoilers below.)

Watching Toy Story 3, I think I'm getting a clearer understanding of Andrew Stanton's contribution to Pixar. While most people are comparing the latest Toy Story to the two previous films, it seems to me that the new Toy Story relates most closely to Finding Nemo and Wall-E, two films directed by Stanton. Stanton is listed as one of the writers on the latest Toy Story.

Toy Story 3 resembles Nemo in that it is about moving to a new stage of life, where old relationships cannot stay the same. Marlin has to loosen his grip on Nemo in order for Nemo to grow. Andy has to let go of his childhood in order to become an adult; the toys have to accept that their time with Andy is over. Both films (and many of the Pixar features Stanton has contributed to) deal with separation.

Stanton was adamant about Wall-E not being an ecological fable, yet Toy Story 3 takes the characters to a dump, an endless stretch of society's garbage. It's the kind of place that Wall-E would work. Clearly somebody at Pixar is uncomfortable with the detritus cast off by our consumer society, and based on Wall-E, I'm guessing that it's Stanton. I wonder, too, if it isn't a subversive cry from the heart, disdaining the endless merchandising that Disney grinds out in the wake of Pixar's creations.

At some point, I very much hope that somebody writes a book about the Pixar brain trust similar to John Canemaker's book on the nine old men. While most of the attention has focused on John Lasseter, I suspect that others in the company have had an enormous effect on the shape of the films. Cars, directed by Lasseter without contributions from Stanton or the late Joe Ranft, is the least interesting Pixar feature for me. I think Wall-E is a mess, but at least there are ideas in it; Cars is hollow. I'm looking forward to John Canemaker's book on Joe Grant and Joe Ranft for learning more about Ranft. I wonder if Stanton and Pete Docter will ever come out from behind the Pixar public relations machine to emerge as individuals. We may have to wait until they are retired or dead before people are willing to speak openly.

I found Michael Sporn's comments on the film interesting. I agree with him, but I think what Toy Story 3 is was inevitable. I can't remember if I wrote about this for this blog or for Apatoons, but there is a difference between character and personality. In a single dramatic work, characters change. They start in one emotional place and at the end, the events of the plot cause them to grow into something else. However, as soon as characters are used repeatedly, whether it's for sequels or series, they can no longer change without threatening the aspects that have made them popular with audiences. They are reduced to personalities -- a collection of traits to be trotted out for the audience's satisfaction. Homer Simpson can never really learn anything, or if he learns something it has to be forgotten by the start of the next episode. If he does change, he's no longer Homer Simpson.

The Toy Story characters have become personalities due to their sequels and the forthcoming shorts. As a result, changes have to be superficial, like Spanish Buzz. That's not growth, it's a quirk. The only characters who really change in this film are Andy and Ken. It's a shame that Andy is dropped from the film when he discovers that his toys have been donated. There's no sense that he's upset or conflicted. He doesn't attempt to recover the toys. It's only at the end that we get any insight into his thoughts and while they're poignant, I think the film missed an opportunity by not giving him more screen time, especially since he seems to be written out of the series. That provided a real opportunity to take Andy in new directions without hurting the franchise.

I wonder if Pixar will receive any flak from the gay community over Ken, not due to how he acts but how other characters react to him. The bookworm's reaction to seeing the high heels and the toys' reaction to his handwriting are less than generous. Still, Ken is one of the few characters in this film who grows, coming out of the closet by going into his closet.

Is there anyone making films now, live or animated, who relies as heavily on sentiment as Pixar? I've stopped following Hollywood films for the most part, but I'm guessing the answer is no. Pixar is clearly filling an audience need, one that Hollywood used to dish up regularly. The fact that other studios (like Disney) are not capitalizing on this seems odd to me.

There's no question that Pixar has leveled off, though certainly at a high level. It seems all animated features have also leveled off in that while there are good films and bad, there are no real surprises and no new directions. Nothing stays the same forever and things could possibly get worse, but I do wish that somebody would go deeper into character. There's uncharted territory there for animation; theatre and live action have proven how rich that area is.


Eric Noble said...

I would like to see more character in animation too. Nice analysis of Andrew Stanton. I think it might have been a good thing if we saw more of Lotso's character. Perhaps give him a character arc of his own, to a place where he can be a sort of anti-hero. I know Pixar will never go for it, but it's a thought.

Daniel said...

Hey Mark,

These are great comments, and your post is well written. Can you give me some examples of rich characters from animation that have set the bar for you personally? I'm just curious.

Michael Sporn said...

Perhaps, the stable of known characters couldn't change. You've rightly compared them to The Simpsons - tv series characters. That's what the Toy Story characters have developed into.
But I wonder if Woody didn't grow in Toy Story 2 when he learned his roots as a marionette TV star and found his female and horse companions?

However, there were new characters that could have/should have grown in this film. Ken (who was painted as metrosexual not gay since he loved Barbie), Lotso (who went out of his way to not change - typically black not gray villain) or some of the other new characters.

Floyd Norman said...

Very insightful post. It's amazing how we wrestle with story and these wonderful characters. It's a challenge and a delight.

I was totally energized by my move up to Pixar in 1997. I was already finding myself frustrated at Disney. Pixar appeared to be learning Disney story telling while ironically, Disney was forgetting it.

I continue to love Disney films even today. Regretfully, they no longer appear to know who they are.

Anonymous said...

FYI, Stanton is also credited for writing Toy Story and Toy Story 2 as well. Not to mention A Bug's Life. And there were numerous contributions by both Stanton And Joe Ranft (credited as Co-Director of Cars) on "Cars." Please stop oversimplifying contributions to the creation of these films. Remember, it was Lasseter who clarified "The Incredibles" and pointed Bird in the right direction (according to Bird himself). It is a collaborative effort.

Mark Mayerson said...

In any collaboration, people bring different things to the mix. I was merely pointing out that two strong elements in Toy Story 3 are also strong elements in films directed by Stanton. I would be happy to retract my feeling that Stanton is responsible for those elements if Pixar ever allowed the specific contributions of individuals to be recognized.

And FYI, Stanton's name is nowhere on the credits of Cars.

Anonymous said...

Stanton contributed a lot to Cars, of course. This was, of course, before Pixar started crediting the "brain trust" as such.

Mark Mayerson said...

What's your source for that information?

Anonymous said...

Working on it when I was there a few years.


Pixar is filling the sentiment vaccuum because everyt
other movie has stuff blowing up every three seconds.

We'll talk.

Ryan Cole said...

"I wonder if Pixar will receive any flak from the gay community over Ken, not due to how he acts but how other characters react to him. The bookworm's reaction to seeing the high heels and the toys' reaction to his handwriting are less than generous."

Thing is, that's not really gay, that's more drag queen territory, which the whole idea behind that notion is to turn heads and create shock value.