“Toy Story,” Pixar’s first full-length feature, came out in Egypt as I was celebrating my 13th birthday. Back then, I was pretty much a fanboy, savoring the latest actioners from the likes of Bruce Willis and Schwarzenegger and embracing everything that had Spielberg’s name on it. George Lucas was god and Hollywood was my haven.
Thirteen marks the cusp of the excruciating, angst-ridden adolescence and the end of childhood. Perhaps that’s why as much as I loved both “Toy Story” and its sequel; I didn’t develop a special affinity to it. Those little wonderful creature called toys were becoming a thing of the past for me, replaced by videogames, rock music and graphic novels.
A few years later, at the peak of my premature Marxism rash, I even began to dismiss the entire concept of toys, deeming them as a pure form of capitalism manufactured to keep us consuming, filling an emotional void induced by bad parenting (it was quite intense).
For some reason, Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Mr. Potato Head and the rest of the “Toy Story” clan remained in my conscious, representing a simpler universe I began to long for later on. Toys, for me, were no longer a bunch of objects with prickly social/economic connotations; they were bittersweet memories of our age of innocence.
Like Andy — the little-seen owner of Woody and co — at the beginning of the latest (and reportedly last) installment of the “Toy Story” franchise, I was compelled at some point to clear my closet, choosing the toys dispensed for charity. And just like Andy, the process was not as painless as I thought it would be.
Starting with an elaborate action sequence (a wild cross between “Stagecoach” and “Star Wars”), director Lee Unkrich (co-director of “Toy Story 2”, “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo”) offers a glimpse of the marvelous fantasies Andy’s toys have helped to conjure. The mix of Western sceneries, quirky villains and the dash of romanticism felt eerily familiar; a product of a brain that doesn’t acknowledge uncertainty.
This world no longer exists because Andy has simply grown up. Gearing up to go to college, Andy must decide what to do with his old toys. He chooses Woody (Tom Hanks) to accompany him to college; perhaps to act as memento of home, of his childhood. Opting against donating his toys to charity, he decides to stock them in his cupboard.
Oblivious to their fate, the panicked pack, through a series of misunderstandings, presume that Andy is throwing them out. Splitting from Woody, their former leader; Buzz (Tim Allen), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), dinosaur Rex (Wallace Shawn) and piggy bank Hamm (John Ratzenberger) find themselves in a daycare center called Sunnyside. Ruled by a plump pink bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty), Sunnyside initially appears to be a toy paradise: a place where toys are played with all day, where emotional attachment is eluded. As Lotso puts it, there will always be kids willing to play with them.
Things are not always what they appear to be though and the gang soon realize that Sunnyside is literary a toy hellhole, set with prison cages, surveillance cameras and ruthless guards. As Andy readies for departure, Woody must return to Sunnyside to rescue his friends and prepare for the great escape.
Sticking closely to the same formula of the first two films, “Toy Story 3,” for the most part, is narratively anemic, and somewhat safe, when compared to “Ratatouille” or the first two thirds of “WALL•E.” It eschews character and story development for action and humor, neglecting to focus on relationships and the friendship theme that made the first two films so engaging.
What the film lacks in storytelling though is offset by first-class entertainment. The action is brisk, exciting and highly original (one particular sequence set in Sunnyside gives the “Bourne” films a run for their money), although it gets excessive (and tiresome) by the predicable (and creepy) climax.
The comedy remains one of Pixar’s biggest fortes and in “Toy Story 3,” scriptwriters John Lasseter and Michael Arndt have created the funniest Pixar film in recent memory. The wisecracks may not be as smart as in Pixar’s previous efforts, but they never miss the mark, and there are countless moments of unadulterated hilarity. Take for instance Buzz’s turn as an amorous Spanish flamenco dancer or Mr. Potato Head transformation into tortilla.
It’s Ken though, voiced by the great Michael Keaton, who walks away with the film. Sporting a tight Hawaiian shirt and a silk neck scarf, we first meet Ken as he sweeps Barbie off her feet with his “dream house.” There are plenty of nudges at Ken’s effeminacy that some adult viewers may find tasteless, but they’re not mean-spirited and they do work brilliantly within the context of the story, cumulating with an uproarious display of his vintage fashion collection.
Conventionality of the main story arc aside, the biggest anomaly of the film is the 3-D. It seems that critics are split on 3-D. Between the fervent supporters and the sour detractor, I shamelessly belong to the latter bunch. Simply put, I can’t stand the damn thing. The three dimensions of “Toy Story 3” is, as in most 3-D releases, a mere effect; it adds nothing to the story and doesn’t immerse the viewers into the toy world.
It’s distracting, annoying and downright pointless, denying the eye the freedom to roam whichever direction it chooses to, forcing attention on specific portion of the screen. The interchange between the fore and background feels muddled, uncalculated and strangely primitive.
It may have worked in the overhyped “Avatar” and “A Christmas Carol” (for my money, the one movie that made the best use of this new technology so far), in here, it eventually proves to be a liability rather than an asset, standing as a barrier between the viewer and the film.
All glitches dissipate by the heartbreaking conclusion, and that’s when “Toy Story 3” evolves from a standard, if quality, Hollywood entertainment to a sad, thoughtful musing on transience, growing up and letting go.
“Toy Story 3” is not the best animated film of the year; that honor belongs to Sylvain Chomet’s sublime “The Illusionist,” another film about letting go. Unlike “Toy Story 3,” which loses its way in several parts, Chomet’s film is a headlong nostalgic trip down a disappearing universe of perishing ethos.
What “Toy Story 3” does so remarkably is acting as a reminder not only of the joyfulness of childhood, but of the agony of growing up. By the end of the film, I began to recall the complex imaginary world I enclosed myself in; the increasingly melodramatic stories I created using my favorite toys (they probably anticipated my subsequent obsession with Bergman and Sirk).
When the time came to make up my mind about what toys I should keep, I was struck by the same feeling of guilt I experienced when I was six or seven over leaving certain toys behind. At the end, I decided to keep most of my toys, oddly stacking beside my film memorabilia and books. Like my toys, the Toy Story world has become a vestige of a past life I’m yet to abandon (Don DeLillo wrote recently that “Childhood is lost life reclaimed every second”).
“Toy Story 3” ends with a surprising moment of confrontation that, in theory, is meant to bring on a form of closure. But it doesn’t, and what I, and my entire Generation Y, ultimately realize is that we’ve never been truly able to let go.
Barbie, voiced by Jodi Benson, left, and Ken, voiced by Michael Keaton, are shown in a scene from, "Toy Story 3." (AP Photo/Disney Pixar)