‘Toy Story 3’ Concludes an Ever so Brilliant Pixar Trilogy

Toy Story 3 movie poster

I could never bear to give my stuffed animals away. They were a huge part of my childhood, and the thought of letting them go forever seemed so horrifying. Society expects you to give up on little dolls and stuff as you become an adult, and I honestly find that to be kind of bogus. Am I really supposed to stop playing with these plush friends of mine because society expects me to? Am I supposed to permanently kill off the childlike wonder inside of me so I look normal and hopelessly embittered like everybody else? Doesn’t this seem cruel?

In the end, I didn’t need to give my stuffed animals away. They got eviscerated by a rat that ended while they sat in a trash bag in the family garage. The rat wanted their stuffing, and he (or she) left behind a lot of rat poop which had to be disposed of carefully because it spreads disease. However, all the Eeyores I have collected over the years were fine as they continue to get preferential treatment ever since I got my first one back in the 1980’s.

It was inevitable these cuddly friends of mine would never get the same amount of attention as the years went by. The dilemma of what to do with these things we grew up with brings about strong emotions and uncertainty, and this is what Andy faces in “Toy Story 3.” Coming 11 years after its predecessor, young Andy who had given much love to these toys is now a young adult about to start college. His mother tells him he can either donate his toys to a nearby daycare center, or they can just go up in the attic. Despite Andy not having played with them in years, he is reluctant to let his toys go.

The majority of the toys from the first two “Toy Story” movies are back including Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Rex, Slinky Dog, Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head, Bullseye and Hamm who has always been one of my favorites. Many, however, have since been donated or thrown out including Woody’s girl, Little Bo Peep. So, while Andy clearly has favorites among the toys he grew up with, it doesn’t make them feel anymore safe now that he is leaving home.

Woody (Tom Hanks) tries to keep the other toys’ spirits up even as he reminds them they knew this day was coming and that they might as well make the best of things while preparing for attic mode. However, an error occurs which has them getting donated to the nearby Sunnyside Daycare Center. At first, the toys don’t feel too bad because they are back in a position where they get to be played with on a regular basis. But despite the warm welcome from other toys, it quickly turns into their worst nightmare as they deal with kids who are not nearly old enough to take care of them. Instead of treating them with love, they get flung all over the place like they were frisbees, painted on, and contorted into positions which would make us cringe uncontrollably. Remember the scene from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” where one of Richard Dreyfuss’ children smashes a baby doll to smithereens? Jessie, Buzz Lightyear, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head and others get it just as bad here.

Now the third movie in a franchise is typically where a series goes off the rails or “jumps the shark” as some would say. After bringing something fresh and original to audiences everywhere, filmmakers end up relying on the formula which made the previous two movies so good. As a result, number three can come across as a regurgitation of our favorite moments to where it rings hollow because, even if they presented the characters in a slightly different context, it’s still the same old thing. The realization of this is always disheartening and depressing.

I’ve got good news though; “Toy Story 3” manages to escape this unfortunate trap and it proves to be just as inventive, imaginative, funny and heartwarming as its brilliantly made predecessors. Once again, Pixar shows they are not willing to rest on their laurels, and they keep their focus on the story as always.

When I was young, I always loved to believe my stuffed animals had lives of their own and did things I was never a witness to. I could see them taking out the Chevy Suburban my family used to have while the rest of us slept at night. To think they would be comfortable for the rest of their existence just sitting in my room didn’t seem particularly fair, and they deserved a night on town and a few beers. The great thing about the “Toy Story” movies is they understand how far our imaginations can go with this belief, and they play upon it in ways which are hilarious and endlessly entertaining.

Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack and the always dependable Pixar regular John Ratzenberger among others are back voicing their beloved characters. Slinky Dog, originally played by the late Jim Varney, is voiced here by Blake Clark, and he makes the transition almost perfectly seamless.

We also get to see Barbie (Jodi Benson) with her biggest role in any of the “Toy Story” movies to date as she finally gets to meet the man of her dreams, Ken (Michael). Director Lee Unkrich and screenwriter Michael Arndt have a lot of fun playing around with the Ken we think we know, and they love hinting at the kind of person we think he might be. It’s funny to think Mattel didn’t want anyone touching Barbie when the first movie was made, and now it is unthinkable not to include her.

One of the prominent new characters in “Toy Story 3” is a strawberry scented bear named Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, but he’s called Lotso for short. Pixar always makes ingenious casting decisions in regards to the actors they pick, and casting Ned Beatty as the voice of Lotso is further proof. This cuddly and stain resistant teddy bear looks warm and affectionate, and Beatty’s voice makes us feel at home when Lotso first appears onscreen. But Lotso soon turns out to be a deceptive toy who thinks nothing of sacrificing the stronger toys to toddlers who are quicker to destroy than love them. All of what Lotso does here is powered by his feeling of resentment over being forgotten and quickly replaced by his owner. Now he manipulates the daycare center so he can live in comfort while the other toys suffer helplessly.

In terms of movies this sequel satirizes, it combines elements of “The Great Escape” and “Mission: Impossible” to show how challenging it will be for Woody and the gang to break out of Sunnyside. All the various descriptions of how closely guarded like a fortress this seemingly harmless place is leads to one brilliant moment after another. The one toy which gets chosen to watch over the surveillance cameras is an act of genius.

Now if you have already seen the trailer, you know one of the big set pieces in “Toy Story 3” comes when Buzz Lightyear gets reset and goes into Spanish speaking mode. Seeing him woo Jessie with his smoldering dance moves as if he were Ricky Martin or Antonio Banderas had everyone in the audience young and old laughing uncontrollably. The Gypsy Kings also perform a very cool cover of Randy Newman’s song “You’ve Got A Friend in Me,” and this version alone makes me want to buy the soundtrack.

And yes, Randy Newman returns to do the music score for a Pixar movie for the first time since “Monsters, Inc.” Once again, he captures the innocence of childhood and the exciting world these toys inhabit while also capturing the bittersweet emotions which bring this movie to a very emotional climax.

Of all the “Toy Story” movies, this one is easily the darkest as we see these toys get subjected to places which they should not come out of unscathed. Plus, these toys are at the endgame stage as they will soon part with Andy in one way or another. The ending of this one will almost certainly bring tears to the eyes of many as Andy talks to a shy little girl about his toys and Woody in particular. We’ve all grown up with these characters since the 1990’s, so we cannot help but feel like Andy in how we end up leaving certain things behind even if it breaks our heart.

“Toy Story 3” does what every Pixar movie does best; it entertains and enthralls the audience no matter what age they are. With this tremendous sequel, Pixar has completed another trilogy which will stand as one of the best in cinematic history, and they come around full circle with this adventure of Woody and Buzz, the characters who started it all for this animation company. They continue to push creative boundaries with all they do, and their enviable track record both creatively and financially is more than deserved. More power to them!

When this movie is over, you will know what a Lincoln Log looks like and what it doesn’t look like. Knowing the difference is important if you want to keep yourself from gagging!

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

‘Ratatouille’ Awakens Your Taste Buds Like Few Movies Can

Ratatouille movie poster

Ratatouille” was written and directed by Brad Bird who also directed another Pixar movie, “The Incredibles,” which was one of the few movies made which actually lived up to its name. With this “Ratatouille,” we follow the story of Remy, a rat who ends up getting separated from his family and is washed away to where he ends up in Paris. The moment where he arrives and sees Paris is a truly brilliant scene of amazing imagery, and Pixar continues to outdo themselves in terms of this. The look of Paris is astonishing, and it had me wondering how the hell they managed to put this together. The wonder of movies still exists after all these years of cynical blockbusters, and I am ever so thankful for that!

Anyway, Remy ends up sneaking into a restaurant named after a famous cook, Auguste Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garrett), who has written a book entitled “Anybody Can Cook.” From there, he befriends a new employee named Linguini (voiced by Lou Ramano) who cannot cook to save his life. Through Linguini, Remy creates a system where he can make him cook the way he wants by pulling at his hair like he is a marionette while remaining hidden inside his hat.

Along the way, he infuriates the head chef of the restaurant who is busy selling off Gusteau’s name and likeness through frozen burritos which offers him the promise of becoming very wealthy. Linguini also meets Colette, the only female chef in the restaurant who makes it clear she is here to stay. All the other rats help Remy in a way which, if the restaurant patrons realized, would have had them running out of there at a relentless pace.

“Ratatouille” is filled with wonderful vocal characterizations which did not immediately have me thinking about the people who did them. At the time this movie was release, I was not familiar with either Patton Oswalt or Lou Romano who voiced Remy and Linguini. Both are very memorable characters who stand out among many others in animated movies. Remy himself is a genius creation who just might make you think twice about rat traps and poison. I am very tempted to go out right now and get a stuffed animal version of the character, and this is in large part thanks to Oswalt’s very enthusiastic performance.

For a while, I thought that Remy’s father Django was voiced by Jason Alexander. However, it turns out Brian Dennehy voiced this character, and he is wonderful in giving Django different layers and realizations to work with. The biggest surprise for me though was learning who voiced Colette Tatou, the restaurant’s only female chef – Janeane Garofalo. I didn’t even recognize Garofalo’s voice and thought it was Elizabeth Pena doing it with a very realistic French accent! Collette does look a bit like the character Pena voiced in “The Incredibles.” All the same, Garofalo does terrific work here, and it is so nice to see her doing something other than joking about her period.

The one voice I did recognize was Peter O’Toole’s who plays perhaps the harshest restaurant critic ever to walk the face of the earth, Anton Ego (a very symbolic name actually). His character becomes quite pivotal to the movie’s climax as the restaurant is forced to come up with a spectacular dish which will keep Mr. Ego from savaging the restaurant and its staff in a review.

Pixar continues their winning streak of great movies. Even if you were disappointed by “Cars” which really wasn’t bad, it was proof how even their weakest movies put so many other Hollywood movies to shame. They are to me what the Jim Henson’s Muppets were to me when I was a kid, creators of projects which appealed simultaneously to children and adults.

* * * * out of * * * *

Finding Dory

Finding Dory poster 6

Finding Dory” is a movie which put a big smile on my face as I watched it. In some ways this shouldn’t be a surprise as Pixar made it, and they continue to wow us time and time again, but this one really hits hard on an emotional level as well. This sequel to “Finding Nemo” allows a supporting character to take center stage this time around, and it is a character with a disability we find ourselves laughing and sympathizing with as she struggles to reconnect with a part of her past she tragically lost a long time ago.

A year has passed since clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) swam all the way to Australia to rescue his son Nemo (Alexander Gould in the original, Hayden Rolence here) and befriended Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a Pacific regal blue tang with short-term memory loss, in the process. All three are back at the Great Barrier Reef leading a non-adventurous life, but Dory starts to remember things about her parents and how she was accidentally separated from them. When she suddenly remembers the place she came from, the Jewel of Morro Bay, California, she becomes infinitely determined to travel there and hopefully reunite with her parents.

While “Finding Nemo” was a long day’s journey into Australia, it doesn’t take long for Dory, Marlin and Nemo to arrive in California. However, Dory’s mission gets derailed when she is “rescued” by volunteers from the nearby Marine Life Institute. She is placed in the Quarantine section, and it is up to Marlin and Nemo to rescue her from the institute before it’s too late.

Now the story for “Finding Dory” isn’t much different from “Finding Nemo,” and as a result the freshness of the original is missing here. But this sequel is in many ways as good as the original as director Andrew Stanton, along with co-director Angus MacLane, gives as much focus to the story and characters as he does to the visual spectacle. And with Pixar, you can always count on them to outdo what they gave us before visually. The Marine Life Institute is displayed in such an amazing way to where you feel like you are looking at a real aquarium, and the main centerpiece is just incredibly rendered.

But seriously, what makes “Finding Dory” work so well above all else is the voice acting. This cast makes you root and care for these characters in a way the filmmakers could never have accomplished on their own. This is especially the case with Ellen DeGeneres who makes Dory such an endearingly lovable character, and she makes us feel for her to the point of tears. DeGeneres really deserved an Oscar for her work on the first movie, and the same goes with the sequel. Dory’s short-term memory loss was a joke of sorts, but now it’s a mental impairment she is desperate to overcome so she can find her parents. It’s a heartrending journey you can’t help but be sucked into, and one which feels genuine in its emotions and never manipulative.

And there’s no forgetting Albert Brooks who combines his comedic genius with a strong dose of vulnerability in his portrayal of Marlin. While this lovable clownfish looks like he hasn’t changed much from the last time we saw him, he is still full of heart and somehow rises to the challenges thrown at him when a dear friend is abducted. Brooks has always been a kick in every movie he appears in, and this one is no exception.

Many new characters are introduced in “Finding Dory” such as the near-sighted whale shark Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), California sea lions Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West) who are very territorial about the rock they hang out on, and the beluga whale Bailey (Ty Burrell). But the one who stands out most is Hank, an ill-tempered East Pacific red octopus voiced by Ed O’Neill. The “Married with Children” and “Modern Family” actor makes Hank a lovably gruff and infinitely clever character who would rather stay in the aquarium than go back into the ocean, and O’Neill leaves no trace of Al Bundy in his performance. There’s also a wonderful and genuinely emotional scene where Hank lets his guard down as he says goodbye to Dory, and O’Neill gives Hank a wonderful vulnerability which makes that moment stay with you long after the movie is over.

“Finding Dory” doesn’t reach the cinematic heights that “Inside Out” did, but it is still a wonderfully entertaining adventure you would be foolish to miss on the big screen. Pixar once again enthralls us with their mastery of animation, story and characters, and they are also blessed with another beautiful film score by Thomas Newman. While part of me wants to see Pixar do more original movies and less sequels, it was great fun to see these characters just keep swimming from one side of the ocean to the next. And in a time where blockbuster movies come at us from all directions, it’s nice to see one that really leaves a smile on your face.

As always, be sure to stay through the end credits.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * * ½ out of * * * *