Monday, June 28, 2010

Toy Story 3

I wrote a piece last year calling Toy Story (1995) as important to film history as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938). Traditional animation and computer animation were both introduced into theaters by Disney (though the in-house team at Pixar Animation, with whom Disney wisely partnered, was mostly responsible for Toy Story’s success), and neither medium could have asked for a better debut. Pixar has released ten great films (most of which I can comfortably label “masterpieces”) over the last fifteen years, and they now return to their roots for their eleventh feature: Toy Story 3. Toy Story 2 was noticeably more sentimental than its predecessor, and Toy Story 3 marks a much higher level of heartfelt tear-jerkery. Pixar has delivered the goods yet again and given their most beloved characters a truly grand send off.

As seventeen-year-old Andy prepares to leave for college, his toys worry about what the future holds for them. Woody (Tom Hanks) tries his best to convince the gang that they should retire to the attic in case Andy ever has kids of his own, though Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) sides with the majority’s idea of going to a daycare and being there for other children. The toys soon find Sunnyside Daycare less appealing than they had hoped, though they know deep down that they no longer have a place with Andy, either. Their journey confronts each of them with various questions of purpose, self-worth, how to let go, and the value of sticking together.

Toy Story 3 has a good deal of humor, but the overarching themes carry much more weight than the first two pictures. Toy Story 2 has the best balance of humor and sentiment, and to me is the best of the trilogy, but I don’t fault Pixar for tipping the scales on this last chapter. Goodbyes deserve to be rich and heartfelt, and Pixar summons phenomenal depth and emotion in this story about plastic characters. There’s one scene in particular that I’ll not dare describe except to say that it’s largely devoid of dialogue, meaning the animators provided the acting. As the toys looked into each others’ eyes and took each others’ hands, I could scarcely believe the power and poignancy of it.

On the humorous side, Pixar rolls out some gems, most notably the addition of Barbie’s famous beau, Ken (Michael Keaton). Ken’s personality absolutely nails the strangeness of representing the masculine ideal while ultimately being a girls’ toy. Other great laughs come when Mr. Potato Head inserts his parts and appendages into something other than his potato body and when Buzz Lightyear gets reset and wakes up speaking Spanish.

The quality of animation has improved with each Toy Story picture, but not too much. Because humans usually came off looking creepy in the early days of computer animation (they often still do), plastic toys were the perfect subject matter for Pixar’s first film. Even though the medium has greatly advanced since 1995, the toy characters still look the same, and that’s important. All the way around, there’s a remarkable cohesion throughout this trilogy, largely impressive because the first film wasn’t made with sequels in mind. Unplanned Hollywood sequels usually fail to recapture the hard-to-identify ingredient that made the first film popular. Toy Story 2 was originally slated for a straight-to-video release, but the storytellers at Pixar realized the unusually high quality of what they had. Toy Story 2 ended well enough that a third wasn’t completely necessary; Toy Story 3 could have easily been just an excuse to revisit familiar territory, but Pixar put the story and characters first. Instead of asking how they could stretch Toy Story’s success across two more films, Pixar asked if they had stories to justify those films. If only every studio were as responsible.

Coming on the heels of such heavy pictures as WALL•E and Up, I thought Toy Story 3 would mark a return to the light-hearted humor of old; boy, was I wrong. The subject matter of the series has grown up along with its viewership. The kids who saw the original in 1995 aren’t kids anymore, and though Toy Story fans of all ages will enjoy Toy Story 3, I feel like this film was made especially for those young adults who remember being awed by the original. I hope Toy Story 3 is the end of the road for these characters, because the journey ends exactly as it should (though I admit that I felt the same way about Toy Story 2). It’s a story about growing up, letting go, and the enduring power of friendship. Most everyone will love it, but while kids will mostly connect with the adventure and humor, parents would do well to take some tissues.


Note:

I saw Toy Story 3 in 3D and found that the 3D effect added little to the experience. I thought 3D was used very well in Up (and even in last year’s 3D re-release of Toy Story and Toy Story 2), but you might as well save the extra bucks this time around and see Toy Story 3 in a traditional format.

Also, Pixar continues its charming tradition of showing an animated short film before the movie, and this year’s Pixar short is one of the best they’ve ever done. It’s called Day & Night, and it wouldn’t even make sense if I tried to describe it here. Just trust me; it’s an incredibly innovative, heartwarming short, and it reaffirms Pixar’s greatness before Toy Story 3 even starts.


Click here to view the trailer.


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated G

There’s some suspense and peril here but nothing to worry about. Kids will totally eat this up, and so will you.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Iron Man 2

Iron Man caught me (and pretty much everyone else) off guard in 2008 with its character-driven story and with the depth of its themes. I’ll get the initial disappointment out of the way in reporting that Iron Man 2 isn’t as strong as its predecessor, though I’m glad to say that it does retain just enough of what made Iron Man special. Through charming performances and quality action, this sequel makes for a fun, albeit flawed, Summer movie.

The whole world knows that billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is Iron Man, and that hasn’t improved his ego any. Stark struggles to keep his hectic life balanced while fending off the US Government’s efforts to confiscate his Iron Man technology. “I did you a big favor,” says Stark. “I’ve successfully privatized world peace.” He also quietly seeks a solution to his newfound health problems, as the paladium-powered arc reactor in his chest is slowly killing him. On the other side of the world, Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) plots revenge against Stark for what Stark Industries did to his family years ago.

Iron Man 2 doesn’t have the focus or purpose of the original, and there’s nothing here to match Tony Stark’s character-arc in the first film. Still, Robert Downey Jr. has fun playing this role, and all returning actors match the quality of their previous performances (Don Cheadle does a fine job filling in for Terrance Howard in the role of James Rhodes). Quality performances help keep Iron Man 2 from crashing, but the story feels much more scattered and spread out. Whereas Iron Man followed one man’s journey of personal growth, Iron Man 2 hops rapidly from one story thread to the next.

Iron Man 2 is more action-heavy than the original, but the action is top-notch. I felt that Iron Man lost its way a bit during its final action sequence, but the blow-em-up last act of Iron Man 2 injects some much needed payoff at just the right time. Iron Man 2 grounds its action the same way that Iron Man did: through shots of the actors faces inside their helmets, thus allowing the performances of Robert Downey Jr. and Don Cheadle to shine through the computer-generated mayhem. Scarlett Johannson’s character doesn’t amount to much more than eye candy for most of the picture, but even she gets her satisfactory share of the action-packed finale.

Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko isn’t particularly interesting, and the other main villain, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), alternates between being amusing and annoying. The villains at least represent intriguing story concepts, though the concepts were never fully developed. While Tony Stark claims to have saved the world, Vanko still suffers because of Stark Industries’ previous mistakes. Stark’s change of heart doesn’t magically undo all the sins of his past. Justin Hammer is one of Stark’s competitors in the world of weapons manufacturing, and he does whatever he can to pirate Stark’s technology and one-up him in the court of public opinion. These pieces are the blueprints for a strong sequel, though the finished product leaves a fair amount of storytelling potential untapped.

Iron Man 2 lacks the character development of Iron Man, and as far as villains go, Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko doesn’t come close to matching Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane. Still, Tony Stark’s mix of social justice and unhinged narcissism remains unique, and the movie has just enough quality in its action and performances to offset its sometimes awkward mix of humor and melodrama. The screenplay for the original Iron Man was penned by the Oscar-nominated writers of Children of Men (2006), whereas Iron Man 2 was written by the fellow who gave us Tropic Thunder (2008). Perhaps the original writing team can return for Iron Man 3; this second installment isn’t bad, but it could take a few pointers from its high-flying predecessor.


Click here to view the trailer.


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some language.

It’s not bloody, but the action does get intense; lots of bullets and explosions. Scarlett Johannson has an extended martial arts bit, but again, it’s not graphic. The language remains on the mild end. The action isn’t anywhere near as real or effective as in the original Iron Man, so if your kids have seen the first, they’ll be fine for this one.