Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Child's Plaything

Evaluating the films of Pixar poses a unique dilemma, as the pictures have praise so readily heaped at their feet that any critic using superlatives must preface the review with something on the order of "Sorry, but I really do think it's that great". In addition to this, since the film's target audience is allegedly children (I would argue that the 'target audience' is really said children's parents, who must take their kids to the latest family fare as surely as they must buy into the latest fad, but I digress), this forces some to attempt to render any effort of examining the film critically in the positive or negative sense moot with the reminder that "It's just a kid's movie". Third, any dissenting opinion generally incites one, if not all, of the following comments: "99% of people like it, therefore the 1% who don't are wrong", "It's just for kids" or "You have no soul/hate children/just want attention/are insane" and so on. Pixar Studio's unique place in modern culture - at once regarded as high art by critics and loved by audiences - creates this flaw in the evaluation of their movies.

All Pixar is wrought with compromise, and the latest installment in the Toy Story franchise is no different. What I find so frustrating about Pixar is that all their films contain hints of what they are capable of if they weren't forced to create art with hundreds of millions of people's expectations in mind, and if ever a film illustrated the folly of giving the people what they want (or what men in suits think they want), Toy Story 3 is it. It begins with a stroking of the audience's nostalgia by providing a literal recreation of the first film's opening sequence, but making it a large scale action set piece invalidates the original's point, which is that imagination is the most exciting thing of all, but that's not even the real problem: the sequence is just mindless, unimaginative spectacle. This proved to be the tipping point that, instead of treading new ground, Pixar is content to simply rehash what has come before.

It's a shame that the plot never becomes anything more than hodgepodge of the first two, because the concept is inspired: Andy, now leaving for college, winds up donating the toys to a local daycare, and the toys band together and believe in each other and work with one another to escape from it (of course, it was a misunderstanding that led to the toys being donated - it would be too harsh for Disney to admit that a young man has no use for hunks of plastic anymore). This would seem to open the door for ruminations on the nature of love and mortality, but as usual with Pixar there is a wide gap between the kind of movie the film's makers wanted to make and what is actually presented on the screen. I respect that they try to lend weight to the characters that have become so iconic, but the fact is that by not exploring the toys' existential crisis more in depth Pixar actually trivializes the suffering they're attempting to depict (and, in some cases, Pixar even plays said suffering for laughs - such as when Barbie™ is abandoned by Andy's sister). It feels as though Toy Story 3 wants to be a much more serious movie than it can possibly be, more serious than it's allowed to be, and this makes much of the largely low brow humor seem disingenuous, as though it wandered in from a different movie. While the first two films had clever writing, Toy Story 3 relies on toilet humor (literally, in one instance) and lowest common denominator pop culture references to provide cheap laughs.

Never has the need for compromise in the work of Pixar been more evident than in the picture's climax, which has already become a famous sequence in its own right. The toys, through a convoluted series of misadventures (no, really) find themselves on a conveyor belt that leads to an incinerator, and this sequence is some of the most effective imagery Pixar has ever created; the flames are animated so vividly that you can almost feel the heat (and I saw it in 2D). This sequence culminates in the most fully realized individual moment in any Pixar film, as the toys fall in to the incinerator and interlock hands with one another, and Woody, always the hero thinking up clever ways of escape, realizes he is powerless and accepts his implicit fate. Only it's not implicit, as a literal Deus Ex Machina comes in to save the day, morphing the sequence from an examination of mortality and family into just another cheap thrill in literally the blink of an eye. Coming from someone who grew up with these films (I was 7 when the first came out), it's impossible to deny this sequence's effect, but it's devoid of any real consequence because it's not even a remote possibility that Pixar will kill the toys, even though that's probably the most fitting ending imaginable. After this, we're given an embarrassingly saccharine ending where Andy gives the toys to a neighbor's child, playing with them one last time before moving into adulthood. It's one of those moments like Pauline Kael described in her review of The Sound of Music, where you can hear all the noses blowing in the theater at once. This is yet another of Pixar's manufactured sentiments, a cheap and borderline insulting attempt to package the depth of human experience in a nice little bow.

All of Pixar's films contain brilliant, fully realized moments, but for every moment they force you to step back and marvel at their artistry there are many more moments that are compromised, mechanical, and banal; context is everything. While Pixar attempts to create art in an environment that exists only to stifle it, they - unwittingly or not - take part in the great lie that we have always told, and will continue to tell, children: that things will always turn out alright in the end if you just have faith, stick together, and believe in each other. The bad guy will get his comeuppance and all will learn a valuable lesson. It's the Disney way.