Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Dream Factory

I saw Toy Story in theaters, and it was the first milestone moviegoing experience of my life. Six years later, my father gratefully received a DVD of Toy Story 2 for his 41st birthday.

Seven films, a Best Picture nomination, and several trillion toy sales later, Pixar’s ability to effortlessly (and profitably) straddle generation gaps is a universally recognized phenomenon, and the studio returns now to its flagship series as the proudest of prodigal sons.

So, naturally, I found my way to a Regal Cinema and invested ten more bucks in my lifetime with the movies. After an admirably brief title shot, the film launches us immediately into a fantasy within its fantasy: a Wild West chase, with Woody and Buzz as our heroes. The artifice is out in the open. The Potatoheads have stage names, Slinky can generate a force field, Ham has an awesome super-fortress-blimp.

Of course, at the climactic moment, the movie pulls us back to kid’s hands tossing limp toys in the air, exploding cardboard ships, and bouncing imaginary lasers around the bedroom. It’s familiar ground for Toy Story, but our perspective is altered. In the opening of the first film, we stayed firmly in reality, watching the stone-faced toys surrounded by cardboard boxes while Andy served as narrator. It was pure childhood turf, the revelation that the toys can indeed talk serving as sweet wish fulfillment. Toy Story 2 left us slightly adrift at first, in a fully inhabited playground for Buzz. He dashes through a hellish labyrinth to confront his nemesis…who promptly kills him. The movie pulls back to Rex playing the sequence in a videogame; it’s Pixar’s cheeky interrogation of its own success. The toys have grown so monolithic as to be able to play with themselves. (Oh, shut up.)

Toy Story 3 seems at first to be working in similar territory, but old fans may notice that something else is pricklingly familiar. A forcefield attack dog! Well, I’ve got my dinosaur, who eats forcefield dogs! The hyper-stylized, larger-than-life fantasies of 3 are, in fact, the exact events (right down to the dialogue) sketched out in imagination in the first movie, when all we saw was Andy shaking the toys around and trying out a few accents. Here, Pixar is fully aware of their own power to turn those childhood dreams into movie magic, showing more delight, wonder, and loving self-critique than a thousand Dreamworks vehicles. Yet notice that Rex actually is gigantic and scary in this oh-so-brief headspace, and that Buzz’s laser is finally, gloriously, actually a laser. Whose fantasy are we seeing here? Andy’s? The toys’? It’s both: the kid and the toys desperately need each other to escape their respective confines. What better place than the cinema to unleash those dreams?

There’s a third fantasy at work here: this time, when we pull back, it’s not to “reality,” but to another movie, a home video of young Andy immersed in his toys. His mother is recording her son’s brief, sweet childhood. That’s the final arm of Pixar’s power, inherited from Disney, literalized: appealing not only to kids, but also to parents trying themselves to appeal to their kids. Mutually created dreams--such is the work of Toy Story.

Yet all is no longer well in this dreamworld. After the opening sequence ends with a sudden cut to black, we shift gears to a heist, in grand Toy Story transition. Our heroes use their cute-awesome toy powers to the fullest, in order to…make a call on one cell phone, to another inches away. Andy appears, having aged along with us, and retrieves his phone from a trunk of toys he clearly hasn’t opened in years. He closes it again and stomps away. Something is off. The adorably serious toy world, in which Andy is usually treated like the boss of a bunch of toy co-workers, has been upended to reveal its essential fragility. Has there been any more potent image in cinema so far this year than a toy pressed against a cell phone, listening to the boy man he loves on the other end, unable to say anything lest he break a spell that’s already long dead anyway?

Thus Toy Story 3 sets its foundation: ruthless exposure of what it means that the characters are toys. The giddiness and fun of the previous installments was always briefly punctured by the sight of the toys suddenly falling limp on the approach of a human, ingeniously animated expressions reverting to frozen smiles. It’s the troubling side to Pixar’s fantasy, that what seems real and humane is subsumed when we giant, stomping humans come to play. The “human” analogue that comes quickest to mind is Haley Joel Osment in A.I. Osment’s Uncanny Valley features made him both endearingly pathetic and unbearably strange, upsetting the whole notion of cuteness as an end in itself that grounds kids’ animated films.

As with Osment’s “David”, the toys’ worshipful love for their owners crosses the line from cute to upsetting in 3: witness Rex’s desperate lunge for the daycare doors, begging to be played with, unaware of the havoc to come. Fantasies become twisted when you leave them alone—that’s an idea that’s underpinned many a psych-thriller and revenge fantasy in its time, but it’s most effective here, employed by a movie machine built on keeping us engaged in our make-believe. Also like David, the toys become less relatable as we realize how unfettered they are to that most human condition, death. Even more disorienting than college-bound Andy is his dog Buster, so instantly loveable as a puppy in 2, here reintroduced as a creaky old hound nearing his last waddle. Woody, struggling to revive the dog’s fighting spirit, has stayed exactly the same.

The toys’ own peculiar kind of aging is best understood through the film’s biggest change to the cast, the inevitable pairing up of Ken and Barbie. There’s a whole bunch of random new toys in the Sunnyside Daycare eager to abuse our heroes, but it’s Ken’s sneering domination that cuts deepest. Here are Ken and Barbie, decades old, considered hopelessly dated and often offensive by millions. Yet they’re still enough a part of our cultural memory to be introduced without explanation, to have specific attributes so well known (dream houses, ascots) as to be easily spoofed, and to walk us through their own internal power reversal. Watch Ken hold onto his favored place in kids’ fantasies by keeping the new toys imprisoned. What will we be mocking and adoring in 2050? Will Woody and Jessie ever make it to that museum in Tokyo (“that’s in Japan”)? The first two Toy movies dealt with this stylistic aging, but in terms of human transitions: the cowboy v. space age metaphor. Here, it’s more open-ended. This is one toy phenomenon, “Ken and Barbie,” whose hold on our make-believe has stayed strong. Pixar’s on top of the world now, but they’re clearly troubled about how much of an impact they’ve really made.

Examples abound. For one paralyzing second in the Sunnyside bathroom, we think a janitor’s seen Woody move. The first two movies’ most suspenseful moments came from the threat of discovery; the toys used that potential to their advantage in the first film, but it could represent the end of the world here. But it was just a smudge on the mirror, of course; the fantasy persists, down to what we see and don’t see. Bo Peep, Woody’s luv interest in the first two installments, is nowhere to be found, her absence noted early on with all the brief gravity common to offscreen film deaths. But her fate isn’t death, as Woody says: she’s been moved to a different family. Why worry about these toys at all, when there’s so many like them? Swap ‘em, lose ‘em, move ‘em around: they’re endlessly replaceable, just like the glut of mediocre animated spazz-flicks whose previews were launched into my face before I got to see 3. Of course, Pixar also works out these ideas at a lighter level, emphasizing the freaky toy-ness of the Potatoheads. The missus can see through her eyes even when they’re not in her (a tantalizing spy-movie gambit if there ever was one), while her husband entrusts his body parts to a tortilla in perhaps Pixar’s most utterly bizarre sequence to date. These aren’t just kooky characters that are stand-ins for human archetypes--these are toys, and that’s weird. Pixar certainly isn’t above marking itself out as the latest in a long line of upstart mythmakers: notice the Totoro among Bonnie’s flock of thespian toys.

My Neighbor Totoro was my number one childhood movie, and it’s only gotten more delightful as I’ve returned to it over the years. The best Studio Ghibli films have a dreamy, wandering spirit like nothing else I’ve ever seen. They feel like they were actually made by kids: the sprawling, decentralized pace, the willingness to get lost in subplots, the exquisite back-and-forths of wonder and terror. The likes of Totoro and Spirited Away are some of most meaningful memory machines to ever come out of an art form that specializes in irresistible nostalgia.

Interestingly, after the debacle that was Cars, Pixar’s been moving in the exact opposite direction, producing films openly indebted to serious “adult” filmmaking. Ratatouille’s glowing cinematography moves well beyond the accepted color-saturation and spastic architecture of kid’s-film universes to create a hauntingly gorgeous cityscape, more reminiscent of the Paris of Breathless and Charade than any animated precedent. Wall-E’s opening shots earned every bit of praise, undercutting its hero’s Chaplin antics by sinking him in zoom-outs and dragging him through long takes of decay and destruction. Last and best is Up’s marriage montage: its impossibly fluid evocation of comfort, glee, risk, familiarity, trauma, and loss qualifies it as one of the finest pieces of humanist cinema in recent years, and maybe ever. Of course, all three have their glaring faults. Ratatouille’s human characters lack any investment or charm, making the film an exercise in delighted but detached stargazing. Wall-E’s second half, a stunningly clumsy and slapdash affair, nearly wrecks the gains made by its beginning. Up never really loses track of its battered, beating heart, and as such is the best of the three, but it still begins to go downhill as soon as it mires itself in rote chase scenes involving a giant bird ripped straight from old episodes of Looney Tunes. But such are the sacrifices made when you want to sell toys, and Pixar got so huge so fast that I’ve always had the nagging feeling that its movers never had time to figure out what the rules were. Certainly the fat-people satire in Wall-E smacks of laziness, or, more charitably, creative desperation. There were a lot of expectations building up behind Wall-E, and even more behind its follow-up Up: Pixar, Disney’s reluctant heir, has had to carry the future of animated film after Beauty and the Beast’s Best Picture nod, and it’s a heavy burden.

There’s still a lot at stake in Toy Story 3, but it’s of a very different kind. Pixar has come through the fire (mostly) unscathed, able to translate its sacred cows to every marketable opportunity possible and still get good reviews. Not since Spielberg released Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List within six months of each other has a filmmaking institution conquered this much territory.

Toy Story 3, then, could not have come at a more appropriate time. This franchise represents the only slip in the curtain Disney’s ever allowed, the only self-aware glance at the monopoly on fantasies enjoyed by an animated empire now past its 80th birthday. And it ain’t just because those are literal, bought-and-sold toys on screen, though that’s a big part of it. It’s because these three movies openly display the workings and complexities of externally aided fantasies, and they increasingly show it from both sides: the dreamer and the dreamed-of. The traditional ideal with kid’s movies is a relationship that changes and deepens as the audience ages, allowing a viewer to use her/his favorite VHS (etc.) as, again, a memory machine, filtering childhood through a fiction more memorable than most real days. Of course, given Pixar’s pace and general chicness, the Pixar Generation (in which I proudly include myself) doesn’t even have to look back. The old ones appeal for much the same reasons they did the first time, and we get new ones like clockwork. It’s this phenomenon, which I would argue is unique to Pixar, which makes Toy Story 3 so crucial.

Because it’s been eleven years since Toy Story 2, and that opening montage of Andy playing with his toys—that’s us now. This is the power Pixar has, and the studio is generous enough to reveal it to us: it helped build not only our childhoods, but also our lifelong memories of those childhoods, and this movie is here to remind us of the fantasies we’ve shared. They’re beautiful fantasies, but they’re fantasies, but they’re beautiful.

And that’s what Toy Story 3 is all about. It’s there in that breathtakingly perfect moment when Andy’s mom just stops short and looks at his empty room, all items of significance removed. It’s just a room now; Andy’s little sister gets it next, begging him to leave behind some of his neat things. They’re just toys, the endlessly reproducible family, Disney’s dream product. You can always get a new huggable bear, and next summer will always bring new shiny animated movies. But, again, A.I. becomes the reference point: through adventure and growth, the fungible copies become individuals, unique, worthy of love. These individuals can also be given new life, new fantasies to roam in, to infinity and beyond. Witness that brilliant penultimate scene, in which Andy acts out each toy’s personality to their new owner Bonnie. Like Lotso the bear says, just as there will always be more toys, so too will there always be more kids to play with those toys (after their parents buy them). But you can almost see Andy reviving his old toys, charging them up with that same fantastic wonder, even as they (importantly) remain unmoving in his hands. The fact that he gives them freely to Bonnie, just as his mom donated them to Sunnyside, is a beautiful argument for artistic generosity coming from the star-child of the world’s least generous dream factory. Fantasies don’t always have to be bought and sold.

Yet Pixar isn’t re-delving into the (hypocritical) critiques of capitalism that dragged Wall-E down. Instead, the studio takes the opportunity of this return to its origins to ask what happens when fantasies age. Disney’s built an empire on being able to constantly revive the old dreams, from theme park rides to the Kingdom Hearts franchise, a naked bid for commercial relevancy on par with Space Jam. Yet none of the tricks in the old wizard’s hat can match the sight of a family of toys holding tight to each other as they descend towards the eternal flame, wondering if they’ll come out the other side.

No comments:

Post a Comment