Thursday, August 12, 2010

Our Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3. Joyful nostalgia looking back; a sense of new adventure looking forward. Being taken care of, played with, loved. The power and the sheer delight of imagination. The whole gang is back together again! And the circle is now complete. Plus a Totoro cameo, declamation on popular sovereignty, and a thespian hedgehog. ★★★★★

This movie outing was so long delayed, but I'm glad that we finally saw Toy Story 3!

Last night, we almost thought we couldn't find a movie theater in Beijing that was still playing the film, but I persisted in searching, and finally turned up a couple places that still had showings, including one in 中关村. While we were on the subway (a looong subway ride from 永安里) one of our friends who arrived first thought that there weren't any good seats left and suggested we go to another nearby theater. (He neglected to mention that the new place was not playing Toy Story 3). But when the rest of us got to the subway station, we returned to the first theater to double-check the arrangements. It turns out that there were seats -- and in a theater seating only 88 people, the view from the "back row" was actually quite good.

I'm surprised that the movie theater experience in China isn't easier, more popular, grander. Yes, DVDs are available cheaply on the sidewalks, but for an experience that transports you into another world? One could imagine really doing a good job at it, and the whole theater industry being extremely well received as it is elsewhere in the developing world. Too bad the cinema is so controlled -- instead of being about delivering the best possible experience to the audience, or showcasing and sharing the best films in the world, it has become another national tool of propaganda and protectionism. The limited selection of films, plus the stunted state of Chinese film-making both contribute to an apathetic feeling. It's just like the sad state of (CC)TV here -- not all that pleasant; not well-produced; patronizing, propagandizing, and not very original. And still it holds a monopoly. So I don't really watch TV when in Beijing.

Anyhow, back to Toy Story 3:

As Phil noted, this really was a movie for us – for kids of our generation, who watched the very first Toy Story while we were growing up. We were the ones who were introduced to Woody the Sheriff and Buzz Lightyear; who laughed at the antics of Rex, Hamm, and Mr. Potato Head, a stalwart toy we actually owned; who cheered on the Army Men's bravado and Slinky's optimism and good cheer. A few years later (wow, was it 1999? That's over a decade ago...) we were the posse who excitedly showed up at the theater for the sequel, where those characters appeared alongside new ones. We feigned nonchalance at this old cartoon for younger children, but simultaneously bore grins of happy memory.

And now, in 2010, comes this new film. It was like seeing a bunch of old friends and finding out where they are now, a decade later. We're rounding up the gang again! A sense of nostalgia permeates the film, even as the audience's attention is caught by new adventure -- and some novel dangers. Part of it is because Andy is going to college, a time of transition that any adult can identify with, and his toys are facing the prospect of life-after-adolescence. (A note of empty-nest syndrome is also struck near the end of the movie). Part of it is because the colors and scenes of childhood play are particularly evocative, recalling that time in all viewers' lives. But for a particular age of viewer, Toy Story 3 recaptures childhood in a way that 40-year-old critics can't imagine -- it's not only a childhood that is called up, but our childhood that came at the same time as these movies. This was one of our cultural touchstones, and for some of these children, the memories of playtime might even have involved the same toys as featured on-screen. (Thanks, Disney juggernaut! Luckily I didn't have that meta level of nostalgia to deal with.)

It’s hard to think of something we grew up with as a “classic” as opposed to something contemporary and new and simply “us.” Toy Story has always been the “new” cartoon—not exactly Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny caliber, but certainly very beloved. But I suppose in the Pantheon of Cartoon Classics, Toy Story (1, 2 and 3) will assume their place -- not only because of their historical role as the first CGI movie to be released, but because of their cultural resonance and their plainly-good story-telling.

One thing I particularly enjoyed were the numerous references to past movies: familiar traits or incidents or characters that brought a knowing chuckle. This was done in a subtle and natural way, unlike the heavy-handed "references" that George Lucas tried to pound into the Star Wars "prequels." (In those movies, the attempt to evoke nostalgia completely flopped, because the milieu, the setting, the very *sense* of the movies was different, and the spark of recognition was too contrived and too forced. Not to mention that it flew in the face of established canon, a universe that fans had read about and populated and created by their participation. Lucas displayed such utter disregard for the fan universe, which is regrettable. Once a concept is out there in the public sphere, it also partly belongs to the users who nurture and expand and grow it, and the releases that you make to support that growth cannot be so easily swept aside for convenience.)

Yet despite the familiar feeling of the Toy Story characters and our delight at seeing old friends once again, there were still surprising new things about characters uncovered in the course of the film. Por ejemplo, Buzz tiene una modalidad española!

Now if we shed the nostalgia for a moment and take it as a movie on its own terms, it was still by all means an excellent movie. Gripping storyline, with scenes of great emotive force. The audience's horror at the toddlers bashing and smashing the toys in the playroom was great; and there was the right kind of magic in Woody's rescue by a new girl and his interaction with a new posse. Alert: Totoro sighting!)

The movie overall is quite a feel-good piece, and while a couple of friends claimed that they almost bawled during the film, I can't say that I was really close to tears. It was just ... very pleasant, very delightful, and emotionally evocative. It's not only a goodbye as the toy chest closes and everyone is sent to the attic, but leaves you with something new, too, as a different child begins the cycle of play again.

Toy Story is pretty complete now—we've really come full circle, with Andy playing, then growing up, then back to play, but handing off the duties and the new years of fun to another fellow traveler.

Play ... In this world, "play" is best expressed when the sense of imagination is alive. He had it. And she has it. That idea of play, beyond just the physical, to mental worlds of creativity, is very much a theme in this film, too.

So now that the circle is complete, I think we can happily end the saga of Toy Story. The tale of Andy's toys does not really need any more telling. Sure, new adventures are always nice, but the life mission of these toys has been fulfilled, and anything new will simply be an interim adventure, the next in a series of adventures. The contours of a toys' life are known -- the potential and the possibilities, explored.

Eventually, the universe might be expanded, if Pixar feels there's another story to tell (or another wave to capitalize on). But at least for now, the frame of a toy's life has been laid out, and we can take our leave from Toy Story with a sense of joy. Thanks to this last film in the trilogy, we can step away from that world, too -- at least until we hand it over to our children.

However, if the franchise were to continue, I suppose they could refresh things by creating new stories of toys somewhere else in the world, like China, with an array of East Asian toys -- some kind of distinct toy experience. Or perhaps an immigrant or refugee story, as a lone toy in a war-torn country is separated, and then seeks to be reunited with his owner in America. So yes, I suppose other stories can be told. But that is for a time in the future.

It's gotta be an ensemble cast!

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