Pixar SadLab

Toy Story 3 is a gateway drug of a movie. It’s a film where you can sit down and watch it as a Pixar agnostic and come away, in the end, as a big believer in the ingenious storytelling possibilities of computer animation. Quentin Tarantino, of all people, listed the film as #1 on his Top Ten of 2010, ahead of other landmark films such as The Social Network and Inception.

As a cinephile, when I saw that, it led to some cognitive dissonance. I thought, “Tarantino and Toy Story? Those are two mismatched brands. What the bleep is that movie doing on his list?” It made me curious enough to check out Toy Story 3 for myself, just so I could see what all the hubbub was about.

What I experienced when I sat down and watched the movie for the first time took me by surprise. While still family-friendly, Toy Story 3 is twisty and even a bit twisted in parts (but in a good way)? It’s also fundamentally charming and imaginative in a way that warmed the cockles of my cold, dead heart. This is the Pixar movie that feels the rawest and realest, perhaps because there are some real-life, whether intentional or not, parallels between its plot and some of the behind-the-scenes goings-on at Pixar.

Disrupting the Disney Renaissance

Some quick context: at the time of my first exposure to Toy Story 3, relations between myself and the Mouse House were rather fraught. As the firstborn son of a Disney-obsessed Florida family, animated movies were my birthright, but that was a different time, the pre-Pixar era.

I came of age during the early-to-mid Disney Renaissance, that fertile decade in hand-drawn animation, which Josh Spiegel has recently begun revisiting for /Film. Growing up, the rest of Disney’s back catalog — all the other old hand-drawn animated features leading up to the Renaissance — was also part of the regular VHS rotation in my living room.

Feature-length animated films, as I knew them, were rife with musical numbers and anthropomorphic animals. They had showtune soundtracks and you could make a demo of one come to life in a tactile fashion by rapidly thumbing through the pages of a flip book. I can still remember the first time I saw a preview of The Lion King’s opening sequence at the Magic of Disney Animation attraction in Disney’s Hollywood Studios (then called Disney-MGM Studios).

The Lion King hit theaters twenty-five years ago this week. A year later, a massive sea-change would occur in the world of animation. While film scholars and Disney historians may mark the end of the Renaissance as 1999 — the last year of the millennium, when Tarzan hit theaters — I think it peaked with The Lion King and was already on the creative and cultural downswing, becoming less inspired and more self-repeating, by the time Pixar came along and disrupted the animation model as we knew it.

The original Toy Story came out in 1995 but it wasn’t until a decade and a half later that its second sequel would finally help me surmount my disinterest in all things Pixar-related. Toy Story 3 was the first film to break the notion I had as a young adult that these kinds of movies were safe and uninteresting fodder for theme park families.

Pixar didn’t depart from Disney formula entirely, but its films were less song-driven. Despite the inclusion of memorable tunes such as “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” you weren’t as likely to see characters breaking out in song. For a teenager who rebelled against his Disney upbringing, the shift away from musicals was superficially a good thing; but when you strip away the big Billboard hits, maybe it also changed the rhythms of the movies and robbed them of some of their magic.

All I can say is, for me as a teen and twentysomething with unforgiving tastes (spirit animal: dark dramas), an overall sense of suspense-free boredom seemed to permeate Pixar’s films. As I perceived it, you never had to worry about what was going to happened in them next because you knew that the characters were going to overcome obstacles, learn life lessons, and live happily ever after. *Yawn*

That’s what made Toy Story 3 such a breath of fresh air. This is a movie that, first and foremost, allowed us to feel the weight of time. Toward the beginning of Toy Story 3, we see home movies of a boy named Andy playing with his toys. Cut to the present, where we see these same sentient toys stage a fake phone call as a ruse to lure Andy’s attention. It seems the boy has grown up and is no longer interested in his old treasure chest full of playthings. Maybe that’s why I could immediately relate to the film: because I was no longer interested in all this childhood Disney nonsense.

Led by Sheriff Woody, who calls an emergency staff meeting in Andy’s room, the few remaining toys that Andy has kept prepare to go into “attic mode,” since he’s no longer playing with them and is getting ready to go off to college. The landscape of Andy’s house, we observe, isn’t what it used to be. Witness how the once-lively pet, Buster, has aged visibly, becoming a fat old dog who can barely drag himself across the floor. Not trusting their fate to the attic, the dutiful Green Army Men parachute out the windowsill, going AWOL to escape the trash-bag fate of toys whose owners have grown up.

It’s a mixup with a trash bag that soon lands our heroes, the toys, in the exotic foreign locale of Sunnyside Daycare. Though Woody had described daycare as “a sad, lonely place for washed-up old toys who have no owners,” Sunnyside seems like an all-out toy paradise, at first. It’s a place where the usual rules of kids aging out, outgrowing their toys, need not apply … as a wall of group photos demonstrates how there’s always a fresh supply of kids! “No owners means no heartbreak,” explains Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear, the kindly stuffed bear who comes riding in on the back of a toy truck to explain the inner workings of Sunnyside to Woody and his friends.

“What a nice bear,” remarks Buzz Lightyear.

“And he smells like strawberries!” exclaims the dinosaur Rex.

Very soon, however, Toy Story 3 makes a hard left turn, story-wise … and this is where it really shook me out of my apathy toward Pixar.

Toy Story 3

“I’m a hugger.”

No sooner does Woody walk out on his friends, intending to return to Andy, than we start getting to know the real malevolent Sunnyside Daycare. Buzz’s nighttime vending-machine reconnaissance exposes the seedy underbelly of the place, showing us how the nefarious ruling group of Butterfly Room toys gambles with Monopoly money while newbies in the Caterpillar Room are furiously mishandled during playtime.

As Buzz informs Lotso, “The children in the Caterpillar Room are not age-appropriate for me and my friends.” Inside the vending machine, he discovers the duplicity of the Ken doll and Lotso’s other lieutenants, only to promptly get caught and put “in the timeout chair,” with the threat of interrogation or torture shining down on him from a blinding overhead light.

Just when it seems like Lotso, this well-meaning bear, might be there to help Buzz, Lotso shows his true colors: having his lieutenants violate the sanctity of Buzz’s back panel, flipping the switch and restoring him to his original factory settings.

As the dastardly dictator of a daycare center’s toy collection, Lotso is Pixar’s best villain. He’s the hook I needed to get invested in these computer-animated flicks that the studio was churning out. When Toy Story 3 unmasked its pink teddy bear as an antagonist, revealing his playroom to be a police state, it upended any predictability with a much-needed twist.

In his cute girth and down-home huggin’ hate, Lotso represents a more powerful, fascistic upgrade on the evil-toy model of Stinky Pete in Toy Story 2 (a movie I don’t even think I had bothered to watch until the conversionary experience of Toy Story 3 sent me back in search of other missed Pixar gems). As we learn more about Lotso through his backstory — where he’s shown being abandoned by his owner — it becomes clear that he is a compelling, psychologically rich adversary who acts as a necessary foil to Andy’s favorite toy, the beloved Woody.

One of the very first lines out of Lotso’s mouth is, “First thing you gotta know about me … I’m a hugger.” Now I know what you’re thinking: that line has nothing to do with anything in the real world. But for the sake of argument, imagine you’re a young graphic designer who has just landed her dream job at Pixar, only to realize that your top boss, this generation’s Walt Disney, is known by the women’s whisper network as … “a hugger.”

Despite being married with five kids, he’s also apparently known for hitting up strip clubs, fondling and French-kissing female employees, and “making comments about physical attributes.” Yet he’s surrounded, protected, and enabled by a “sexist and misogynistic” boy’s-club culture, where “women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice, as is demonstrated by their director demographics.” The outside world sees this lovable bear of a man in a Hawaiian shirt, while you see the guy acting out at parties in wild ways that run counter to the G-rated, wholesome family values of his movies.

As it turns out, Lotso’s menacing reign over the seeming paradise of Sunnyside Daycare may have had some real-life parallels with the working environment behind-the-scenes at Pixar. Sure, it could all just be one of those life-imitates-art coincidences, but knowing what we know now, it’s virtually impossible to hear that “I’m a hugger” line and not think of ousted Pixar chief John Lasseter. His shadow looms large over this movie, and not just because he was the director of the first two Toy Story films.

Lasseter received a co-credit for “story” on Toy Story 3, alongside Andrew Stanton and director Lee Unkrich. Michael Arndt wrote the screenplay, and whether or not it’s what any of them had in mind, that subtextual narrative of Lotso as Lasseter — the evil toy version of him, you understand — exists now. If you’re aware of all the reports that surfaced prior to Lasseter’s departure from Pixar, then the similarities are too obvious to be denied.

Some have theorized that the rise of “the secret villain” across Disney and Pixar’s films in the years since Toy Story 3 might have a direct correlation with Lasseter’s tenure as the chief creative officer at both studios. If Lasseter’s inappropriateness, his need for a handler, his inspiring of moves to protect one’s thighs, was an open secret, then who knows, maybe the hug-a-bear villain, Lotso, started out as an inside joke about the big boss.

If so, it’s a joke that perpetuated itself across numerous films, as the increasingly less surprising “secret villain” began to pop up everywhere, from Wreck-It Ralph to Frozen to Zootopia to Coco. Certainly, the Caterpillar Room at Sunnyside comes to mind when one hears stories of female employees being subjected to such unreasonable workloads that the men brought on to replace them would have six people to assist them with the same project.

Toy Story 3 was the first Toy Story movie not directed by Lasseter, and in that respect, it can retroactively be seen as an important step in Pixar liberating itself from its previous overlord. Lotso’s downfall preceded Lasseter’s, and it would be years before real life caught up with the movie. Small wonder, then, that Toy Story 3 grafted a prison-escape plot onto this wonderful cartoon fantasy about talking toys.

At Sunnyside Daycare, Toy Story 3 effectively pulled back the veil on the fake-happy lie of Disney and Pixar, these two great golden calves that have given joy to millions while also being mercenary companies that have maybe put business interests ahead of integrity and people sometimes. In the kid-friendliest way imaginable, this movie managed to confront the darker, Florida Project side of life, the part we’d rather not see or talk about amid the bliss of our latest dream vacation to Walt Disney World. It didn’t dwell overlong on that side of human nature but it did flirt with the fire long enough to make things thrilling.

In the end, love and friendship do still triumph in Toy Story 3, but it feels so much more earned because these toys have been on a journey to the incinerator hell and back. If the movie’s ending has any flaws, it’s only that Lotso’s defeat and dump-truck-exile seems to magically transform Sunnyside into the paradise it was always meant to be. Maybe I just exhibit favoritism toward Michael Keaton, but it’s not so hard to believe that his conflicted Ken doll might turn over a new leaf. Apart from Ken, however, you have to wonder about some of Lotso’s other lieutenants—that sinister circle of toys we saw gambling with Monopoly money. Will they be on their best behavior now that Lotso’s strawberry-scented cloud has lifted? It would be nice to think so.

Personally, as I’ve learned to embrace Pixar’s film offerings, I’ve also come to re-embrace Disney as my Florida family heritage. In 2011, I even dressed up as Buzz Lightyear for Halloween. Still, I don’t know if it’s coincidence or conspiracy, but the movies directed by other members of the Pixar braintrust, like Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Inside Out), Brad Bird (Ratatouille, Incredibles 2), and the aforementioned Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3, Coco) have appealed to me more than the likes of Lasseter’s Cars films.

Now, based on the glowing reviewsToy Story 4 looks poised to continue the universal acclaim for the Toy Story series, perhaps elevating one of the all-time great movie trilogies to the single greatest movie quadrilogy of all time. As that occurs, it’s worth looking back at the fourquel’s immediate predecessor, which, for my money, is the best Pixar movie.

There was a time not too long ago when I would have much rather attended Banksy’s Dismaland exhibition — with its burnt-out castles and crashed Cinderella carriages — than subject myself to the singing forest animals of a Disney movie. Until Toy Story 3, I was content to leave computer-animated films as a blindspot in my cinematic education.

On a recent Disney World trip, my family showed me an old hotel receipt proving that I was there with them in mid-April 1998, the week before Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened. That may have been my last Disney World trip before I entered a stretch of over fifteen years where I wanted nothing to do with Disney. I know I never visited the Animal Kingdom park until 2017, during the opening summer of Pandora – The World of Avatar.

This year, however, I made my second trip in less than two years, even though I live far outside Florida now. Yes, I visited Toy Story Land, riding all three attractions and eating at Woody’s Lunchbox. Woody, Jessie, and Buzz Lightyear were out doing character greetings. At one point, the Green Army Men even marched on by. Lotso was nowhere to be seen.

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