Saturday, 4 September 2010

A Few Thoughts About Toy Story, And That Incinerator Scene

Upon it’s release, the original Toy Story was applauded by critics for the way in which it “worked on two levels” – in addition to the content aimed at kids (adventure, larger than life characters, broad emotional themes), Pixar had woven into the film adult-orientated content (irony, pastiche, innuendo, cultural references) aimed at their parents. It was regarded (I think with some exaggeration) as a breakthrough, and the massive commercial and critical success of Toy Story meant that the ‘two levels’ formula immediately became the hall mark of most modern blockbuster animations, notably the Ice Age and Shrek franchises.

Even if intended as such, however, the observation that a film works on “two levels” is really not much of a compliment, and indeed if applied to any work in the The Orthodox Film Canon sounds immediately redundant - the analysis that “Citizen Kane works on two levels” is pointlessly blank – “only two?!”. Such an analysis of Toy Story is equally weak, and critics peddling the ‘two levels’ theory were always guilty of underselling the many nuanced levels on which that first film ‘worked’.

At the same, the ‘two levels’ analysis overemphasizes the value placed by Pixar on the adult content, on these films being being ‘knowing’ or ‘ironic’. It is perhaps inevitable that middle-brow film critics should focus on the element that allows them to feel like they’re ‘in on the joke’, the nods and the winks. Unable to find joy in the un-ironic, old-fashioned emotional intelligence which is truly Toy Story’s greatest strength, critics instead praised what they perceived as Pixar’s ambivalence about or detachment from certain aspects of the conventional kids movie material. The truth is that the content aimed at adults is never done at the expense of the family-friendly content – there is no criticism or commentary made by the former about the latter. Toy Story’s primary achievement is not – as many critics would have it –post-modern self-reflexivity, but in being an exceptionally emotionally literate series of films which delight children without patronising them and adults without undermining the values of the family-friendly content.

(It should be noted an unfortunate consequence of the ‘two levels’ critical misreading is that it inevitably does produce rather two-dimensional and lop-sided movies when adopted by lesser filmmakers– the Shrek franchise being the case in point. While undoubtedly very funny in parts, these are entirely un-nuanced movies operating literally and strictly on two clearly defined levels - the angry, anti-Disney cynicism of the adult content, and the wacky, gonzo slapstick of the kid’s content. With the former essentially operating as a running criticism of the latter, the balance of power falls squarely with the adult content. Lacking entirely the heart or warmth of the Toy Story movies, the essential cynicism at the core of the Shrek franchise makes it impossible to love, in the way that audiences unquestionably love the Toy Story films.)


As we join the Toy Story gang at the beginning of TS3, their situation is shockingly grim. Abandoned, un-loved, obsolete, their numbers massively depleted (we learn that they’ve ‘lost’ Wheezy and Bo Peep, amongst others), destined to a wholly undignified post-Andy life dumped in the attic - but labouring under the self-delusion that they may still yet recapture the glory years– the psychological state in Andy’s bedroom resembles that of a war veteran’s hospital. You’ll have probably read that Toy Story 3 is a much ‘darker’ movie than its two predecessors, but this pat description fails to adequately describe the pall of sadness and desperation which permeates much of the movie - and it certainly doesn’t prepare you for the brutal, disorientating left-turn that the tone of the franchise accelerates towards in its second act.

The Incinerator Scene in TS3 simply stands as one of the most harrowing pieces of cinema I’ve ever been witness to. It will go down in infamy. Both my wife and my kid sister were openly sobbing throughout it, and I was doing all I could to avoid the same. (In brief: after extended escape-from-evil-nursery sequence, with their situation increasingly dire – including the apparent death of the Squeeze Toy Aliens – the gang find themselves being dragged into the fiery pit-hell of a junk yard incinerator. Initial efforts to retreat are quietly abandoned. One by one, they take one another’s hand, and face their doom with dignity. The escalation of terribleness throughout the film makes this scenario seem wholly plausible at this point. Yep. It’s awful.) The Toy Story gang have entered Dante’s final circle of hell. The sequence takes the Toy Story franchise into a previously unimaginable emotional arena: 15 years after we met them, we are watching Woody and Buzz Lightyear die. Pixar sell the unspeakable horror of the scenario hard, and you buy it. The most devastating thing with the Incinerator Scene is that our heroes accept their imminent death. They stop fighting. In their abandonment of hope, in giving up on life, there is not just acceptance of, but complicity in, their own death. “You know what - we’ve given it our best shot, but it’s time we stop kidding ourselves. Most of our friends are gone, the Squeeze Toy Aliens are dead, and worst of all, life without Andy just isn’t worth living...” C’mon baby, take my hand – don’t fear the reaper. Frankly, I found this scene utterly astonishing, and I’ve been obsessing about it ever since.

The first Toy Story is pretty much a perfect 1hr20 of cinema, by my estimation. I have my reservations about TS2, but they’re really nit-picky things, and only a reflection of the high standards I hold these movies to anyway. The third film is mind-boggling in it’s emotional intensity, and in the sheer number of awesome ideas and gags Pixar pack into the 2 hours. Like many reviewers, I think it will probably come to be regarded as the best of the three films, though I’ll have to watch it again before I make that assessment for sure – it was certainly my knee-jerk analysis as I left the cinema. Pixar have topped themselves, and in doing so have achieved something neither the Star Wars or Back To The Future trilogies were able to do – finish as strongly as they started.