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2009-10-08

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Pixar re-presents a 'Story' for the ages

By Jennifer Xu, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 4, 2009

In 1995, before Pixar churned out multi-million dollar masterpieces every year, there was “Toy Story.” The film revolutionized CGI filmmaking with a style of animation that paid homage to the artistry of old school Disney while embracing the new wave of digital technology. “Toy Story” was followed by a sequel, “Toy Story 2,” which was brighter and fresher than ever.

More colorful masterpieces followed — movies about bugs, monsters, fish, superheroes, rats and robots. These unforgettable films have transformed Pixar into the most consistent CGI animation production company in the world. Still, we haven't forgotten the studio’s beginnings. For two weeks only, Pixar has given us the chance to watch these 14-year-old classics back to back in 3-D, and for $10 a ticket I’d say the money is well worth it.

When I was little, I remember sitting in my kitchen patiently rewinding the videotape to “Toy Story” by hand when the magnetic strip suddenly gave out. My mom had to take me back to Kmart to buy a new tape. Last weekend, as I sat in the theater beside adults reliving their memories and kids who quite possibly were watching “Toy Story” for the first time, it all felt so familiar.

It was funny how easily all the characters came back to me. It was like a family reunion with Woody the cowboy and Buzz Lightyear the space commander; Spud, Hamm the piggy bank and Rex; Slinky, Bo Peep, as well as Jessie the cowgirl, Bullseye and Stinky Pete the evil prospector. My brother and I used to pull consecutive "Toy Story" marathons like this all the time, watching the first followed by the second followed by the first and so on. By the fourth time around I would start to get sick of the movies, but that didn’t stop me from starting over again the next week.

I always preferred the sequel to the original. To this day, “Toy Story 2” remains my favorite gem in Pixar’s star-studded repertoire, and watching it again I was reminded that no matter how sophisticated or environmentally conscious the company gets, nothing can replace the utter simplicity of toys trying to find their way back home to a little boy who loves them.

It’s a film inextricably linked to my childhood – I watched “Toy Story 2” before I watched “Star Wars.” In the sequel, Pixar seems more comfortable taking risks and injecting pop-culture humor into its scenes – bilingual Tour Guide Barbie and Emperor Zurg saying “No Buzz, I am your father” – solidifying the production studio's image as a purveyor of magical kid’s films made for adults.

During the intermission, Pixar treated us to creepy footage of the infant stages of Woody and Buzz Lightyear (then dubbed “Tempus from Morph”). Woody is a drawling, drooling mess of a cowboy and “Tempus” ’s mouth doesn’t move properly. Thank goodness Pixar fixed that snafu or else the studio might’ve gained an entirely different household reputation — one for unintentionally making children’s horror films.

Although I wouldn’t say the 3-D really adds a great deal to the films, it doesn’t take away anything either. Henry Selick’s “Coraline” set the gold standard for 3-D animation transcending dimensions, and “Toy Story 3-D” doesn’t come anywhere close to meeting this precedent. Even still, it’s refreshing that Pixar didn't succumb to the showy, headache-inducing gimmicks that most 3-D films possess. While the characters don’t exactly “pop out of the screen” as advertised, there are moments of shivering awesomeness. The camera careens upward to reveal “The Claw” looming down upon the worshiping aliens. Buzz Lightyear spins off the ceiling and loops around a model car racetrack, only to land upright on his feet. Still, the benefits of watching this double feature don’t lie in the 3-D effects, but rather in the magic of reliving a childhood masterpiece.

In contrast to “Wall-E,” which was a biting commentary on the ubiquity of mass-marketed merchandise, “Toy Story” seeks out the softer sides of globalization, examining how a mass-produced toy can be a simple joy in a kid’s life, and how a kid can be a simple joy in a toy’s life. We put our own souls into our toys, and no matter how much we accidentally abused them or outgrew them, we still loved them. We constructed elaborate scenarios in which the hero encountered insurmountable obstacles only to get the girl. Before we all promptly turned into cynics upon reaching puberty, we were storytellers — idealistic champions of the imagination. “Toy Story” captures that childhood spirit in the highest degree.

“Toy Story 2” was the first movie I ever cried at. The moment when Jessie the cowgirl relives memories of an owner long grown-up while Sarah McLachlan’s “When She Loved Me” swells up in the background (I have this song on my iPod — don't judge) remains one of the most powerful scenes in my movie memory. Years later, the scene still doesn’t fail to get me. I had to take off my 3-D glasses to wipe my tears away.

“Toy Story” is a film about childhood. It’s about your childhood, my childhood, Pixar’s childhood and our collective childhood. It’s about what you wish your toys did when you weren’t around. The movies make you want run to your attic, pull out all your dusty playthings and transport yourself back to elementary school. Back then, a yard sale was a battleground, a trip downstairs seemed like a covert mission and cars moved so damn fast. “Toy Story” is a perfect encapsulation of youth’s perceptions, reminding you of what you were like when you first watched it. It reflects a time when you thought you too could go “to infinity and beyond.”

If mere sentiment won’t get you there, the full trailer for “Toy Story 3” in all its 3-D glory can be seen exclusively in theaters with the “Toy Story” double feature. A montage of Andy growing up and leaving for college while the toys try to survive in a daycare center forecasts heartbreak alongside comedy. I am literally counting the days until June 18, 2010. Hopefully, “Toy Story 3” will be the crowning jewel in this trio of childhood celebration.


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