Back in the sixties and seventies, before films became “franchises” and “tent poles,” before Jaws and Star Wars and corporate-studio ownership changed everything, the “summer blockbuster” wasn’t a genre unto itself, a megabudget cartoon tooled to help us escape from our lives. It hadn’t been commoditized yet. And escapism took different forms. I spent my childhood in an upper-middle-class suburb, one of those doomed artificial constructs in which the outside world is kept vigorously at bay. Isolated from the counterculture, the war, the racial upheavals of the big cities, I went to blockbusters like In the Heat of the Night, Easy Rider, and Woody Allen’s Bananas to escape to reality. There was lots of crap, but of a different order than this season’s The A-Team and Killers and Shrek XXV and Iron Man 2—which cost hundreds of millions and are not so much made as microengineered.
I’ve never blamed Jaws for what happened: It’s the best summer movie ever made. People forget how real it seemed. It was shot in a beach resort (Martha’s Vineyard) in the days when Steven Spielberg was forced to use the world as he found it instead of building one from scratch. I loved the tension between the texture of life and his smooth, beautifully modulated, movie-ish technique. I saw it opening night in a sold-out, electrified house. The movie has what’s still my favorite scare: Roy Scheider, shot from above (with plenty of water behind him), calling out, “Why don’t you guys come down here and shovel some of this shit?” and just when we’re starting to laugh (“He said ‘shit’!”) the shark comes out of the blue, no preamble, no music, just teeth and the sound of a crowd shrieking as one.
No, the beginning of the end was Star Wars, synthetic then as now, clever but never exhilarating, infinitely merchandisable. With any luck, this summer’s most merchandisable blockbuster, Toy Story 3, will be the last of the Toy Story movies. Yes, there will be pressure on Pixar to squeeze out sequels. But the chances of topping this one are infinitesimal. It’s another paradoxical Pixar beauty: the high-tech ode to the old-fashioned, the vintage, the stuff of childhood fantasy play when kids and not computer programmers supplied the imagination.
I don’t think of the Toy Story pictures as “escapism,” even though they’re rooted in a child’s dream of what happens when the lights go out and the toys come to life. At heart they’re about aging, impermanence, loss, and death. Pixar likely borrowed the premise from Thomas M. Disch’s The Brave Little Toaster: Objects once prized lose their newness and become disposable. But they have spiritual properties, and to discard them carelessly is to dishonor the past that shaped us. It’s almost Buddhist in how it invests all matter with a life force worthy of reverence.
Toy Story 3 has another dimension, probably the upshot of creators John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and director Lee Unkrich’s getting older and having families. The toys—especially the cowboy Woody (with the voice of Tom Hanks)—see the boy who owns them, Andy, through the eyes of parents with kids who are ready to move on. After a wild prologue with Woody and Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear and Joan Cusack’s cowgirl Jessie saving a trainload of orphans from the evil pig mastermind—which comes to a halt when young Andy is called to dinner—we jump a decade ahead. Andy no longer plays with toys; he’s going off to college. His room is being cleared for his younger sister with her MP3 player and computer. Should the toys be stuck in the attic? Donated to Sunnyside, a children’s day-care center? Or left on the curb for the garbage truck? The gang, which includes the sister’s cast-off Barbie (voiced by Jodi Benson), is scared by the prospect of all those possibilities.
After mix-ups and chases, they end up at Sunnyside, where the toy who calls the shots is the formidable huggy bear, Lotso, with the great southern stentorian voice of Ned Beatty. Lotso is a character with stature—a toy shattered by abandonment who has purged himself of sentiment. And soon our gang discovers he runs Sunnyside as a kind of prison. The big bald baby doll functions as a spooky enforcer and looks like the Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson in Ed Wood movies. A cymbal-clashing monkey is the prison guard of nightmares. Horror of horrors, Buzz is reprogrammed to be his old pompous self to help Lotso keep everyone in cages. Suddenly, thrillingly, Toy Story 3 becomes a prison-break movie.
As usual with Pixar, the little things win your heart, like Woody escaping out the bathroom window but pausing to put down a sheet of toilet paper before stepping on the seat. At Sunnyside, Barbie meets Ken (Michael Keaton), and all our culture’s Ken-is-gay jokes get a new spin: He’s a metrosexual elated at finding someone to whom he can show off his disco wardrobe. The gags are all of a piece, right up to the forlorn yet enchanting finale.