Toy Story 3 and Serial Pleasures
On the eve of the Oscars, one of many award ceremonies that I’ve grown tired of watching, Inside Higher Ed posted an interesting little feature asking film scholars to weigh in on Best Picture. While I varyingly agreed, disagreed, and laughed at their points, I was shocked that none of the seven academics mentioned the best film I saw last year, Toy Story 3. I’m sure it’s a combination of knee-jerk biases against both sequels and animation, but I’ll take the lack of mention as an excuse to write up some thoughts I’ve been mulling about the film (beyond the comment I left at IHE), especially following my family’s recent rewatch of the entire Toy Story trilogy.
It’s fairly universally acknowledged that Pixar is the reigning master of creating tightly-crafted, emotionally-engaging narrative entertainment for all ages, a task that was once a more widespread goal within Hollywood. Despite the near-unanimous acclaim for Toy Story 3, it seems to stand no chance to win Best Picture (Vegas odds-makers place it tied for last place among contenders, alongside 127 Hours). In part this is due to its animated form, and the fact that it has an almost-guaranteed win of Best Animated Feature, but I think another big knock against the film is the number in its name.
Sequels are beloved by the industry for obvious economic reasons, but viewed by critics with distrust at best, disgust at worst. And I agree that the vast majority of sequels seem motived more by marketing than storytelling, with guaranteed revenues of an established brand driving creators to return to already tapped resources. But as television has taught us for decades, there are narrative possibilities of continuing storyworlds that can be mined and developed in ways that film rarely does successfully.
What I think the Toy Story trilogy accomplishes more successfully than any original film series* I can think of is build on our emotional relationship with characters that develops and deepens over time, and pays this investment off in the end through a stirring climax and resolution that truly depends on knowing and caring about these characters for a decade. It’s long-form storytelling that could not be achieved in a two-hour film, but relies on all three installments, as well as the gaps between the films’ releases, to maximize the impact of the trilogy’s end.
* When I say “original film series,” I mean a film series not based on another property, like a novel or comic book. This matters because in instances like a comic adaptation, viewer investment might differ greatly as to whether they know the original version, or which iterations of the series they prefer. Additionally, I think judging a long-form series that is created for its core medium requires different criteria than looking at an adaptation. And on those grounds, I’ll come out and say it – the Toy Story trilogy might be the best mainstream original film series ever made. Yes, it’s better than Star Wars, even just the original three…
The opening of Toy Story 3 uses an ingenious device to catch us up to the current day of storytime: Andy’s home movies of playing with our heroes offers a series of “false memories” for us to fill-in the gap between the second and third films. This gap is crucial, as it’s the narrative problem that the toys must overcome: Andy has stopped paying attention to them during the same time we were watching other things, and their roles in his (and our) life are just about over. And thus the series sets its thematics alongside its narrative function: how do we face the end (of childhood, of a career, of a life)?
The emotional impact of the film’s masterful final act (which I won’t spoil if you haven’t seen it) is dependent on a long-term investment with these characters. For viewers who watched each film upon their release, there’s the wonderful contrast of unchanging toys to the maturation of Andy and us viewers ourselves. There’s no doubt that my relationship to the series transformed through becoming a parent during the gap between #2 and #3, and watching the latest film (and rewatching the others) with my kids.
Serial fiction uses the long-term temporal span of its release as a key part of its artistic canvas, and I’d argue that screen media like film and television can be more keenly attuned to the artful play of time, as it’s always a crucial part of their storytelling processes. Toy Story 3 shows how to turn sequel-based filmmaking into a creative asset by leveraging the long-term immersion in a story into an emotional payoff – it takes what every commercial franchise tries to do and succeeds in both economic and aesthetic terms. Since the Oscars are how Hollywood congratulates itself, it seems odd that the nominated film that best displays the strengths and possibilities of Hollywood norms is viewed as the least-likely winner.
Filed under: Animation, Film, Narrative, Not Quite TV | 3 Comments
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