The Toys of Summer
After 11 long years, Woody and Buzz are finally back in action
Tom Hanks has won a lot of acting awards, including two Oscars. But there?s one recurring performance he typically flubs. That?s when an excited parent recognizes him as he?s going about some mundane task—taking the elevator up to a dental appointment, for example—and the parent points out to his or her child that they?re in the presence of Woody, the cowboy sheriff from Pixar?s beloved Toy Story movies. Since the floppy-limbed doll is a computer-animated character, kids who meet Hanks are really only in the presence of Woody?s voice. And that can blow the circuit breakers. ?There?s this interesting disconnect that goes on,” says Hanks. ?Because of course to a kid, I?m just a guy, y?know, with a backpack who needs a shave.” Hanks tries telling confused children to turn around and close their eyes. Then he slips into Woody?s singsong twang to say things like “Hey howdy hey! Welcome to Andy?s room!” Sometimes that works for a moment. ?But then,” says Hanks, ?they open their eyes again. And they don?t quite get it. ?
Tim Allen tends to balk outright when asked by fans to recite catchphrases as Buzz Lightyear, the uptight inter-stellar space ranger who?s Woody?s best pal. Allen dodges such requests as best he can, especially from young children. It?s for their own good, he says. ?Some kids don?t respond well to what looks like a man who has eaten Buzz Lightyear,” Allen reports. ?It?s like Mickey Mouse taking his head off at Disneyland.”
Hanks and Allen had better brace themselves. A fresh army of fans will be putting them on the spot once Toy Story 3 rolls out June 18. Made in 3-D, it?s the plastic playthings? first theatrical outing since 1999?s Toy Story 2. This time around, Woody, Buzz, and company end up donated to a day-care center after their owner, Andy, loses track of them while packing for college. In a remarkable synchronicity between onscreen and offscreen time lapses, Andy has aged by nearly the same number of years as have passed between films. And in that 11-year interim, kids who grew up watching the first two films on VHS and DVD—again and again and again—have aged too. ?We?ve been finding that our core audience is facing the same decisions as Andy in the movie,” says director Lee Unkrich, who edited Toy Story and codirected Toy Story 2. ?They?re heading off into their adult lives too. That wasn?t something we thought about. It just seemed that Andy leaving home was a ripe point to set the story, for all the characters.? While tweeting to a mostly twentysomething fan base during production, Unkrich began to realize that for a huge swath of them, Toy Story was a generational touchstone. Now he?s finding out that it?s also a trigger for tears. At an early screening at ShoWest in March as well as sneak-peek charity-benefit showings, audiences—especially those who grew up with the first two flicks—were sniffling through Toy Story 3?s final half hour. “I?ve heard about the crying,” says Unkrich. “People are having just wave after wave of strong emotion.”
Fifteen years ago, Toy Story ushered in a new moviegoing experience: the feature-length computer-animated film. It was the popgun shot heard ?round the world, and it revolutionized entertainment. Suddenly, the public saw that a virtual animation camera could move around freely in nearly photo-realistic sets, instead of scanning flat drawings. It wasn?t long before the vivid, detailed look of CG came to dominate animation, effectively dooming hand-drawn ?toons. Studios saw the ancillary-profit potential of new videogame and collectible spin-offs, all developed from the same digital-character-model measurements. In the stampede to compete with Pixar, whose artists proved you could have a hit with a nonmusical ?toon, the six-decade reign of Snow White and all those other singing princesses ended. Goodbye, romantic fairy tales. Hello, action-comedy buddy stories built around star voices and featuring toys, fish, cars, bugs, aliens, ogres, and zoo animals. Toy Story grossed $362 million globally. Toy Story 2 topped that with $485 million. Both scored a 100 percent ?fresh? stamp of critical approval on rottentomatoes.com.
With all that momentum behind them, why did it take Disney and Pixar 11 years to install new batteries in the franchise? It?s a story as tangled as Slinky Dog tumbling down the stairs. Despite Toy Story 2?s great success, then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner maintained that Pixar sequels would not count toward the studios? five-picture deal together. This drove Pixar to stick to nonsequel stories (A Bug?s Life; Monsters, Inc.; Finding Nemo; The Incredibles; and Cars) while waiting for its contract to expire—after which it could negotiate more favorable terms with Disney, or make a deal elsewhere. (Pixar was getting only about half the profits from Disney?s distribution and cofinancing of its films.) Disney also threatened to enforce its contractual right to make sequels to Pixar movies without Pixar, through a newly created computer-animation outfit called Circle 7 (since disbanded), and even went so far as to commission a Toy Story 3 script, in which Buzz gets recalled to Taiwan because of a manufacturing defect.
?That was the darkest time in Pixar?s history,? says Unkrich. ?We felt as if our children had been taken away from us and were being raised by strangers. It was harrowing.? Not least for John Lasseter, director of the first two films, executive producer of the third, and the creative heart and soul of Pixar. ?I?d been dying to make Toy Story 3 since we finished Toy Story 2,? he says. ?I loved those characters so much, I just wanted to continue. But it was caught up in business issues. And the relationship between Disney and Pixar got sour.?
After Eisner left Disney in 2005, Disney wound up buying Pixar under new CEO Bob Iger—and appointing Lasseter to help run both studios? animation divisions. Just before that news was announced to the public, Lasseter assigned Unkrich to get going on a new Toy Story 3. Pixar was back in the Woody-and-Buzz business. Today, after four years of work with screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) and hundreds of artists and technicians, Unkrich and his team have created a film that explores, with surprising seriousness, the dire straits toys can encounter once they?ve outlived their owners? affections. The movie is rated G (unlike The Incredibles and Up, which were PG), and there?s nothing overtly violent in its language or images. But Sunnyside, the day-care center where the toys find themselves, turns out to be a nightmarish trap, with the youngest of its human population capable of playing only by banging, flinging, defacing, and generally abusing the toys. Like some awful nursing home, Sunnyside is a wretched purgatory, and over the course of the film, our heroes face true peril. Unkrich suspects that the dark themes may startle some, but he?s okay with that. ?So many people think of our films as being kids? films,? he says. ?Or that it?s ?just animation.? In spite of all the critical and commercial success Pixar has had, we?re still kind of always seated at the kids? table.?
Judging by the early reactions, Pixar might get to sit with the grown-ups once and for all. Meanwhile, as opening day looms, Unkrich awaits ?the gauntlet? of reviews. He already predicts a negative one from the woman who manages his own children?s preschool. She?s a family friend to whom Unkrich has actually apologized in advance for the depiction of the day-care center. ?I told her, You?re not gonna love everything you see. But it?s just a movie,? he says. ?That?s the way I?ve rationalized it in my mind, because I have felt a little bit bad about it.? If Unkrich has some butterflies, Hanks and Allen sound like they?re already thinking Toy Story 4. ?I don?t know how they do it up there,” says Hanks of Pixar. ?They seem to have a sort of Algonquin Round Table. As long as people up there are staying fresh, why not go again?? As for Allen? ?I don?t think there?s any question. Tom and I really like working together. And Toy Story 3 is a great story. It?s very hopeful, and it suggests a new beginning.?