October 4, 2009

Toy Story 1 & 2 in 3D (10/04/09)

Lettergrade: A (for both movies, but not really for the 3D)

It's rare that I pass up the chance to see a re-release of a beloved older movie, and that's doubly true when we're talking about movies that are as much fun as much as the two Toy Storys. Disney / Pixar decided to convert the pictures for the recently resurgent 3D craze and have put them back into theaters for two weeks only, ending October 16th. The occasion, says Disney, is for the 15th anniversary of the first film, although some simple math reveals that the 1995 picture is only 14 years old presently (Toy Story 2 is celebrating 10 years, though). The real reason likely has more to do with the fact that Toy Story 3 is due out next June, and a release like this is probably a big boost to public interest and merchandise sales. Whatever the motives, it's a treat to get to see the movies in a big theater and with an audience again.

Now that Pixar has released ten theatrical features - each, it seems, more visually sophisticated than the last - it is interesting to open the time capsule, re-experience the first and third movies they made (A Bug's Life fell between them), and examine the spark that kicked off this monstrous computer animation wildfire that has dominated children's features for most of the last decade.

Ah, 1995... Tim Allen's comedic talent seemed limitless, Tom Hanks had just won back-to-back Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, and only the year before The Lion King marked the high point of Disney's traditional animation renaissance of the 1990s (arguably) and eclipsed Aladdin and Snow White And The Seven Dwarves as the highest earning animated film (a title it still holds!). What in the world was this all-computer-animated movie that this semi-obscure San Francisco company was putting out?

As the endeavor seemed risky at the time, the Pixar folks latched onto the growing trend of getting well-known celebrities to lend their voices to animated characters, only on a much bigger scale than had been done previously. Not only did Toy Story count on Hanks' and Allen's popularity to drum up audience interest, but it also recruited highly popular voices like those of John Ratzenberger, Annie Potts, and famed insult comic Don Rickles in order to both attract wide demographics and to give the very plastic-looking screen characters some built-in life and personality. Another unusual selection was that of Randy Newman to write the film's songs and score. In addition to his rock albums, he had only scored eight films at that time and nearly all of them were dramas. He had never written songs aimed at a younger audience prior to that, nor had he had a scoring assignment that required him to write busy, punctuational music the likes of which a picture like Toy Story needed -- attributes which have both come to define his career in the years since.

Watching the first Toy Story again for the first time in years, I was struck by the emotional complexity of the writing. Just in case you you're new to the movies, the idea is that when children turn their backs or leave the room, their toys come to life: They talk shop, complain about the job (sometimes), and they freak whenever a birthday or holiday rolls around as it means that new toys will be heading to the toy chest and might replace one of them. That's what happens to Woody (Hanks) who is pushed from his role as Andy's favorite and the leader of the toy family when the pompous and deluded Buzz Lightyear (Allen) arrives. After suffering indignity upon indignity, Woody's jealousy leads him to attempt to push Buzz out an open window, but a series of events winds up getting them both lost out in the real world.

While the picture as a whole is still undeniably solid, the first part felt a little unsure of itself to me this time, almost like the filmmakers had introduced too many celebrity toys and then didn't quite know how to balance them all. A curious thing I was reminded of is that Rex repeats several of Cripin Glover's lines from Back To The Future for no clear reason. Perhaps they attempted to get Glover to do the voice himself at one point, but in any case the final performance was done by The Princess Bride's Wallace Shawn. Also, I was struck by what a dick Mr. Potato Head is pretty much throughout the picture, but hey, it's Rickles.

During the first section, there are many rapid-fire jokes that wink at the camera a bit and feel like the product of a writer's room rather than an organic screenplay. The story really begins to work when Woody and Buzz get left behind at the gas station, go to to Pizza Planet, and then on to Sid's Room, a den of horrors for lost and mangled toys. The visual style seems a bit crude by today's standards, but there are still some stand-out sequences, like the whole rocket chase toward the end of the picture.

As good as the first picture is, 1999's Toy Story 2 manages to top it in nearly every category, above all, story. The jokes this time brim with originality and confidence, and the some sequences, like Jessie's song, are still as good as any the company has done. Although Pixar has since made pictures that have lapped it several times over in terms of visual beauty and sound design, I will maintain that they've never matched it in terms of content.

2 finds Woody having nightmares about becoming old and unwanted after a rip in his arm causes Andy to go to cowboy camp without him. Through a series of events, Woody winds up in the penthouse apartment of a toy collector with some other toys inspired by the same 50s TV show: Jessie The Yodelin' Cowgirl (the brilliant Joan Cusack), Stinky Pete (voiced by Kelsey Grammar, rehashing his Sideshow Bob persona a bit), and Bullseye The Horse, who does not talk. Each represents a different way of dealing with hurt and neglect. Bullseye goes after affection like a needy puppy, Jessie, having been owned and discarded by a girl in the 70s, is wounded and cautious about letting anyone else in again, while Stinky Pete, having been trapped inside his packaging for the whole of his existence and never played with at all, seethes with an unctuous rage that erupts in a startling way during the picture's third act.

Thematically, the picture quickly becomes a very philosophical look at the ideas of aging and, I guess, death. Will Woody choose to stay with the collector's items and have immortality behind a glass case in a Japanese museum, or will he decide to fill the purpose for which he was made, and risk being damaged or discarded someday? Pretty heavy stuff for an animated film for children: Let's see one of those crappy Shrek sequels try to get anywhere close. While Woody rediscovers his roots and lets his value go to his head, the other toys from Andy's room, led by Buzz, stage a rescue mission to go out into the world, Dirty Dozen style, and bring Woody back.

So many scenes in this movie are pure brilliance... Buzz encounters another Buzz toy in Al's Toy Barn who, like him in the first movie, has yet to realize that it's not the _actual_ Buzz Lightyear but a mere action figure. The movie further exploits the notion that the Lightyear toy line is a shameless knock-off of various Star Trek and Star Wars standards by introducing a maniacal Emperor Zurg toy who has a climactic face-off with both Buzzs late in the picture ala The Empire Strikes Back. Several sequences like the scenes where the toys cross the street under traffic cones, where Woody attempts to retrieve his detached arm from the sleeping toy collector, and the whole chase scene at the end, also still rank among the best that Pixar has done.

During the screening, I was thinking that there isn't anything especially enlightening about seeing the two movies back to back like this, and I believe that's true, but the comparison does highlight the advancements between the two like the much more thoughtful use of sound, and the more confident handling of the story material. By Toy Story 2 they really had the "secret world" formula down: A formula that they attempted one too many times in 2001's Monsters, Inc., which still holds the title of my least favorite Pixar flick, and awkwardly tried to modify again for 2006's Cars, although the sort-of twist in that one is that cars existed in the place of humans, ala Planet Of The Apes.

As I've written about previously, I'm very much _not_ a fan of 3D, particularly with older movies like these two which were not produced with the effect in mind. I find the 3D effect to be minimal and almost non-existent, and therefore the glasses only serve to make the picture dimmer and less-clear, and the colors less vibrant and effective. That opinion remains pretty much unchanged by this, although the opening of part 2 did kick five kinds of ass in 3D. Still, if given the choice, I'd rather see the movie in 2D, looking bright and crisp.

The two Toy Storys represent classy, expertly done CG animation at its best -- before everyone and his uncle starting making them en masse, junking the genre up with such disposable trash as the Ice Age trilogy, Space Chimps and pretty much every CG picture that Dreamworks Animation has put out (with the exception of Shrek 2 and Kung Fu Panda). In a way, Toy Story 2 ends so perfectly that I'm dreading the third picture's release. Regardless, however, these movies are a wonderful part of recent film history and getting out to see them in a theater is a lot of fun and a trip worth making.

My review of Up

My review of Monsters Vs. Aliens

My review of Kung Fu Panda

My review of Shrek The Third

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