Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Drollness of Dolls

DVD Notes: “Toy Story 2”

Woody, Bull's-Eye, and Jessie, like hipsters, play with a vinyl record amid 20th century paraphernalia

The sequel to the altogether cheery and beloved Toy Story, Pixar’s first release and surprise hit film, begins with a sequence which is the stuff of a 10-year-old’s nightmares, fed by a nourishing diet of video games and modern television. We’re brought out of this quickly enough into Pixar’s customary brightness, but soon taken into a real nightmare of one of the characters. While these two sequences take up relatively little of Toy Story 2’s brisk hour-and-a-half, they effectively serve to set up a tone of slightly more self-consciousness towards entertainment and play-time than we had in the first film, both directed by John Lasseter.

The plot is introduced promptly, and advanced through with great efficiency, characteristic of the studio’s eager and high-paced capers through fun and imaginary childhood confection. Woody (Tom Hanks), the cowboy doll, is all set to go on Cowboy Camp with his owner, Andy, when his arm accidentally tears during a play session. Andy goes to camp without Woody, leaving the poor man/thing/partner (?) sitting forlorn on a shelf. Through a terrible and misfortunate accident, he lands up in Andy’s mother’s yard-sale, where a greasy patron waddles up to the mother, offers $50 for Woody, is denied the sale, and abruptly steals Woody. The remaining toys, led by Woody’s close friend Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), set off on a rescue mission to retrieve him.

This grubby and squalid individual (named Al) turns out to be a collector of toys – specifically, of the collection known as “Woody’s Round-Up.” We’re shown a extremely wide assortment of merchandise associated with this collection, such as a vinyl record on a record player, a bubble-blower, large posters, and human-sized cardboard cut-outs. And everything has Woody’s face on it. There’s even a “Woody’s Round-Up” television show, in black-and-white, ostensibly shot with marionette puppets in front of a live audience. Three individual items part of this merchandise come in the form of new characters: Jessie, a cowgirl (Joan Cusack), Bull’s-Eye, a faithful steed of the wild west, and Stinky Pete, the prospector (Kelsey Grammer). Woody learns that he, the ever missing piece of this vast and bemusing collection, is what the others have been waiting for, for they are to be sold to a toy museum in Tokyo, which will not accept the collection without the Woody doll. Woody is faced with the daunting choice of returning to his life-long owner and friend Andy, and condemn Jessie, Bull’s-Eye and the Prospector to a life in dark storage containers; or to remain with his new friends, with whom he was designed to fit in anyway, and be shipped off to Japan and watched by children from behind glass for the rest of his days. Oh, what is a rootin’-tootin’ sheriff to do?

The side taken by the filmmakers is clear: one’s duty is to Childhood and its happiness. Not merely one’s own childhood or the childhood of a loved one, but everyone’s childhood, and the values championed by it. Woody fights to uphold these values and this duty by struggling to reconcile his duties to his fellow toys and to his faithful human. He works towards a success for all, truly the every-toy’s toy.

The filmmakers exhort their viewers (specifically, children) to hold on to their childhood for as long as they can, and to make as much of it as possible. Hardly a radical stance, but improved upon a little by the slightly less standard position to take (which is taken here): Your childhood will inevitably end. You will outgrow what you love now, and you will forget the joy it brought you. Such an attitude hardly works to diminish any of the film’s sentimentality – it pretty much feels like something made by Chris Columbus if he had the skill of the Pixar animators – but it’s quite bracing for the older viewers to know that not all of their childhood diversions hid this information from them. It’s an important fact to realise, but no one quite realises it early enough, and the Pixar artists endeavour to persuade children towards that realisation.

The filmmakers, in the arguments between Woody, and Jessie and the Prospector, make the case that sessions of exercising imagination, and playing with and enjoying one’s toys (or whatever it is one enjoys) is far more meaningful and worthwhile a pursuit than research or mere observation in a sterile environment. Al is a pitiful specimen of geek-collector culture, and he, along with a toy cleaner he hires to repair Woody, show the side of toy fanaticism that the filmmakers disapprove of. The cleaner does a better job of fixing up the doll than anyone else could have, but is so cold and clinical about it, it’s seems rather pointless when he’s done. He firmly instructs Al: “He’s for display purposes only!” When Al asks how long the repair will take, the cleaner crossly replies, “You can’t rush art.” Lasseter and his team seem to be saying that such great skill and technique are not what constitute art, particularly when carried out so unfeelingly and for wholly sanitary purposes.

The entire construct of the plot is like a feature-length playtime session held by the Pixar team, where the writers and animators are the highly imaginative children, acting out wild impossibilities with brazen aplomb. Indeed, the filmmakers are just very old children, with the benefit of the handy adult knowledge that allows them to operate complex software, and flesh out details in the story just right, like yard-sale spats and the lax approach to handling baggage by airport staff. They flaunt their high-tech product with enormous glee, devising many set pieces showing off their inventiveness and superlative animation techniques. The perspective of a toy, something very small, but possibly large in its own world, i.e. in relation to other toys, makes for fantastic opportunities to simulate special camera angles or editing techniques. We can spot distinct fabrics and textiles in the frame throughout the movie, and the lighting and shadows has been done near to perfection. Humans still look a little eerie and uncanny, but we don’t dwell on them and it’s not a problem. Randy Newman’s score, a Pixar staple, guides us handily through the emotions we’re required to fell, and sets the tone with a consistently expert light touch.

The film’s unabashed sentimentality aside, a lot of it is good fun, from the running gag of a new Buzz Lightyear model who takes himself far more seriously than anyone has ever taken anything in a Pixar movie, to visual references to Jurassic Park and Star Wars. There’s also something to be said for Pixar’s new method of casting, which is to cast familiar movie stars in voice roles, instead of unknowns, which was the case for all previous animated films. Hanks, Cusack and Allen, all marvellous natural comics, are fantastically droll and manic here, and Grammer is terrifically expressive. It’s understandable why many franchises find that they can’t bear to part with the villains from earlier films, and we’re disappointed to lose Grammer’s sometimes menacing and sometimes honeyed tones.

A little puzzle is posed by the filmmakers’ nostalgia. Andy is the son of a boomer, born either under the first Bush or Clinton, and yet Toy Story 2 seems to hanker for old television shows, the kind of which certainly ended decades before Andy was born. It looks back longingly for the time of the Wild West, and before the rise of our new space-age complexities and eyesores. That is particularly perplexing, because Lasseter and the other Pixar team members were all born after the launch of Sputnik (an event specifically mentioned with disdain in the film). They seem to yearn for older, simpler, braver times, while celebrating the commercial situation of today. Andy is raised in the proud middle-American tradition of illiteracy, with no more than a handful of books stacked together on his shelf. Perhaps the grabs towards the past are Pixar’s efforts to get the parents and perhaps even grandparents on board with their project, while the children are heartily entertained with the whirling and colourful adventures, and all hearts are warmed at the end by a gratifyingly uplifting conclusion.

Buzz and Rex engage their intellects by shooting laser beams at the evil emperor Zurg in Andy's video game

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