Films are complex creatures, visual chimeras. The urge to tell a story in celluloid (or digital) form sets in motion an achingly slow gestation period, more often than not resulting in the trauma of miscarriage or abortion. Years of pitches and rewrites and accountants and budgets and hawking trailers round distributors. They are the result of a multiplicity of technical disciplines and imaginative flashes made against all the odds. Here is the Hollywood film producer, Art Linson, reflecting on the bitter sweet experience of movie making in his autobiography A Pound of Flesh:
...as you read this, there are busloads of new people arriving (in Hollywood), bubbling with movie ideas, sated with mediocre film school educations, punished by years of watching MTV, just waiting to rape, pillage and taunt an industry that is already burdened by taking itself way too seriously.
Nevertheless, with a little luck there can be a bright side to all this producing stuff. As you boldly weave through the Hollywood roadblocks, building relationships and learning the talk, you may stir up some surprising results. In a town where cynicism is a breakfast food and competition is severe, you just may make a difference. You just may be the one...the one to bring something rare and noteworthy to the screen
The fact that any film comes to light in the dark of a cinema is incredible. The director, John Huston, famously quipped of making his film The Bible, " I don't know how God managed, but I'm having a terrible time." Thus, for a director to create a single film of consequence is a huge artistic achievement. To create a series of films that holds the imagination of the public without sacrificing quality or integrity is to approach a cinematic nirvana.
Even the most celebrated film franchises tend to lose their artistic mojo the longer they go on. Coppola's The Godfather trilogy is an example of this. Yet every film in the Toy Story series has been lavished with the praise of cinema aficionados and lost nothing of its popular appeal. This has been particularly true of Toy Story 3. For example, my fellow priest blogger, Stephen Wang, recently posted an evangelical review of the film on his eclectic blog, Bridges and Tangents. It is worth reading for his infectious enthusiasm. Disney/Pixar, the makers of Toy Story, are presently surfing a tsunami of critical acclaim.
Therefore, my muted response and reservations about Toy Story 3 feel like heresy. There are many things to admire in this film, but few things to really love. I admired the technical ingenuity and the occasional moments of visual beauty, but for most of the film I felt I was being manipulated emotionally, that I was becoming the toy and that the director, Lee Unkrich and his team were pulling my strings. My heart strings were plucked but in such a heavy handed way that they were never going to sing. For example, when Woody, Buzz and co. face their mortality with a new solidarity I believed the film was edging towards a new emotional depth. But my belief was ill-founded. It appears that "too much reality is hard to bear" in the world of animation and a cheap deus ex machina trick lifted the film clear from exploring more adult ideas around the meaning of death. Toy Story 3 possesses none of the poignancy or refinement of Disney/Pixar's 2009 Up with its honest consideration of death, loneliness and the slow bleed of loss.
The introduction of a new character, a teddy gone bad called Lotso offered an opportunity to explore the shadow side of the cuddly toy industry. Lotso is Darth Vader in pink fur, "a Care Bear gone over to the dark side" as the film critic, Jonathan Romney, puts it. Yet Lotso's psychological back story is treated in too perfunctory a manner to make his evil nature credible. He is reduced to a pantomime villain with his inevitable comeuppance hurtling down the highway. That Lotso is not psychologically persuasive may not matter to my six year old nephew, but it should cross the minds of adults who make exaggerated claims for the film.
In the final analysis, the problem with Toy Story 3 is the toys. In 1995, when they were first introduced to the public in Toy Story, they were fun and exciting. Everybody wanted to play with Buzz, Woody, Rex and Mr and Mrs Potato Head. I thought these toys were real characters who would develop their own unique character traits with time. But they didn't. They have remained psychologically static. Their emotions are plastic, their responses to the world they experience, wooden. They have become a huge disappointment. Their batteries have run out and I, for one (and, I think, I am the only one!), have become bored of them.
Toy Story 3 is being promoted as the film that will make you cry this summer. My survey of friends suggest that tears are raining into buckets of popcorn throughout the land. I didn't cry. But, I did want to weep for a film that, if it had been more daring, could have taken audiences to an artistic infinity and beyond. But, hey, that's film making for you!