FILM REVIEW: Toy Story 3

Toy Story is the film that made Pixar, the film that brought computer animation to the forefront of family entertainment and, eventually, temporarily, killed Disney’s hand-drawn craft (until John Lasseter revived it himself). So to make a sequel to such a milestone in cinema history conjures an ambivalent mix of inevitability, expectation and foolhardiness. But they did anyway. And that it superceded the original was seen by many as not just lightning striking twice in the same place but that Pixar had harnessed, captured and bottled it and could now wield it to produce critical and commerical hit after hit. At least, that’s the popular view. From a more personal standpoint, while Pixar have certainly produced some of the finest films of the past decade, animated or not, with Ratatouille and Wall-E particular favourites, other efforts, such as The Incredibles, Up, and Finding Nemo, have not quite matched the sum of their parts.

To then return to the holy well of Toy Story, 15 years after the original, is a startlingly bold but perhaps obvious decision, much as the decision to make the second installment was. But attitudes to these films have changed. The animation has reached a point where we no longer focus on its quality, be it hair complexity, lighting and shading or pixel counts, which is testament to just how far we have come since Woody and Buzz’s debut. Now, 3D has become the issue with these films, though here it’s second nature – immersive rather than intrusive, but without the show and spectacle, it all seems somewhat redundant.

Yet Pixar has always been about story, but whereas Toy Story 2 was an expansion and improvement in every possible sense, Toy Story 3 is more content to act as a retread than assert its own identity beyond signalling the sense that this is the closing chapter. The themes of growing up, moving on, abandonment and friendship all return, but with little more than a sly twist in each case to differentiate between the same themes and questions the characters long debated and seemingly resolved in Part Deux. Instead, we have to play the whole “the toys don’t believe Woody”, “this utopia ain’t so great after all” ring-around narrative hoop-jumping we’ve seen all before, with some segments seemingly lifted entirely from other non-Toy Story Pixar works.

More successfully fleshed out here is Pixar’s other focus of storytelling and that’s character. The relationships between Woody and Buzz, between all the toys, between the toys and Andy, are all key to what make the Toy Story films a success. In Toy Story 3, it’s undoubtedly impressive bringing back the characters after so long and for it to feel like a genuine continuation , as if it was always the makers’ intention for the story to evolve so naturally. Not only that, but there’s genuine emotion and heart throughout, with poignant asides, and subtle looks and actions, speaking volumes. If there’s a more gut-wrenching climax, coupled with one of several truly exciting action sequences, in a film this year, I will be mightily impressed. Shame that the laugh rate isn’t quite so high – there’s a particularly hilarious call-back to part 2, but some of the running gags (Ken’s “Ascot”, Buzz in Spanish mode) fall at the first hurdle.

Ultimately, it’s a very good, entertaining episode that’s absolutely worth watching and does justice to the previous two movies, reaching a satisfying conclusion. But to replicate the great step-up from 1 to 2 here was perhaps too tall an order.

7/10

PS The short beforehand, Night & Day, is naff.

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FILM REVIEW: Up

After the double-whammy of Ratatouille and Wall-E, I had high hopes for Up, particularly as I’d read very little about the plot beyond the initial set-up (sort of like Gran Torino meets Indiana Jones in a surreal road-trip), but while it has some good gags and thrilling action set-pieces (maybe not best for those with vertigo), I feel it didn’t quite gel together so well.

The plot itself stems from an absurd flight of fancy and so seemingly does the rest of the film. For what is essentially a ‘road movie’ (an often enjoyable but lazy sub-genre used as an excuse to string together disparate side characters and vignettes), despite the odd dips into the surreal, it was too conventional and predictable, sacrificing believable character development for sentimentality, and relying a little too much on whimsy and cuteness. Without the admittedly funny but obvious supporting animal companions, there’d be even less to it. It didn’t manage to balance the fun and enjoyment with the emotional heart-string tugging of previous Pixar efforts and, as such, didn’t hold my attention quite like, dare I say it, Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda, even though I understand they’re trying to achieve entirely different things. Maybe a bad example.

I liked Up for the most part, and it’s still an impressive piece of work (plus the 3D is not used in a gimmicky fashion, relying on creating depth rather than jumping out of the screen, though it’s still non-essential). And with Pixar comes a certain quality guarantee that it won’t rely on celebrity voiceovers, pop culture references and toilet humour. But it’s overall a bit of a disappointment.

Oh, and the short beforehand was not one of the better ones either. Not quite Boundin’ awful (though it has some horrible character designs too), but desperately twee.

7/10

FILM REVIEW: Wall-E


Who woulda thunk that the big Disney film of the summer would offer a genuinely touching love story, rampant satire on such subjects as big business, commercialism and obesity, and offer one of the most awe-inspiring and depressing visions of the future? But then again, this is Pixar, and after Ratatouille dispelled my personal concerns they’d lost their touch (the likes of Finding Nemo and The Incredibles left me cold), Wall-E far exceeded my expectations.

Andrew Stanton’s film follows the titular robot, the last of his kind, who has spent the last several centuries clearing up the waste mankind left behind on planet Earth before hot-footing it into space until the cleaning operation is complete (as indicated by some hilarious live-action commercials dotted around the skyscrapers of garbage). Wall-E spends his time compacting and stacking rubbish but, having developed a personality over time, also collects various intriguing nick-nacks and trinkets. Alone on the whole planet, save for an indestructible cockroach, his life is changed when a new high-tech robot, EVE, arrives, and he is instantly smitten. And from that initial encounter begins a bizarre but touching love story before EVE returns to outer space with Wall-E in tow…

It seems the big animation studios have reached a level of technical expertise that means they are no longer playing a game of visual effects oneupmanship, but whereas the likes of Dreamworks relies on big name stars, goofy gags and pop culture references, Pixar stands out from the competition thanks to the wonderful mature story-telling and surprising emotional involvement for a tale ostensibly of a couple of robots. Its not the case where the makers feel like they have to crowbar jokes in for the grown-ups while the kids are enveloped in the garish lunacy and fart noises – Wall-E is universal entertainment of the highest order.

Everything about this film works – the characters, the settings, the narrative drive, the visuals. Perhaps there is a little too much to-ing and fro-ing, it sometimes veers into convention and predictability, and the shift in the story and location may not appeal to those expecting a more abstract experience (as perhaps the trailers may have indicated), but whichever way you cut it – sci-fi epic, romance, action-adventure, slapstick comedy, dark satire – it manages to trump other films, live-action or animated, that purport to even cover one, even two, of those genres. Plus the traditional short animation before the main feature is perhaps the best one yet, brimming with a madcap energy and ingenuity of the very best Looney Tunes shorts. Truly, Pixar spoil us so very much.

9/10