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Everything Old Is New Again: Toy Story 3 Recycles Pop Culture

To celebrate Fathers Day this past Sunday, I took my three kids out to see Toy Story 3 on its opening weekend. Oddly enough, the film was creepily devoid of fathers or adult men of any sort. Which isn’t a major issue, since the stars were, of course, the toys.

I’ve been a Pixar fan since the first Toy Story movie, which I bought at full price when it came out on VHS. Unlike most Disney movies (Pixar wasn’t acquired by Disney until 2006) I’ve always found Pixar films to be entertaining for adults as well as children, with original stories that didn’t tarnish my memories of the source material (I’m not a big fan of what Disney did with Pooh, for example).

Probably the most entertaining part of the Toy Story franchise, from this adult’s perspective, has been seeing old friends from my youth reappear as (and played by) character actors. The little green soldiers (with their comical hop/walk because of the plastic base their feet are stuck to), the Slinky dog, the Mr. Microphone, the ubiquitous Barrel O’ Monkeys. And of course Mr. Potato Head, whose scene stealing is due as much to the comic possibilities of a character with interchangeable face parts and and a rear trap door as to Don Rickles’ deadpan delivery.

I have to say that Toy Story 3 was a bit less thrilling for me on this count. Maybe Disney didn’t want to pay a lot more in royalties, or maybe they’d already mined the most popular toys of the 60s and 70s, or maybe those of us who remember toys of that era are just too darned old to be taking their kids to the movies anymore. So while Ned Beatty’s ersatz Care Bear made for a great villain-disguised-as-a-kindly-old-man (a role very similar to that of the Prospector in TS2), I got more of a thrill from bit parts like the Fisher Price Chatter Telephone, and of course the cymbal-clapping monkey.

I did enjoy the way Pixar handled Ken. I felt Barbie, who didn’t appear until TS2 (I imagine Mattel execs were kicking themselves after seeing other toy sales jump following the original movie), was presented fairly respectfully… chirpy but not dumb, outgoing and helpful if a bit materialistic. Similarly, Ken (perfect painted hair and all) is a dandy who loves his clothes and his dream house but nevertheless has the hots for his soul mate Barbie, whose love turns him from the dark side. I guess I liked that they didn’t go for the cheap “Ken is so gay” laughs but instead imbued his character with some swishy nuance.

And while it was a very slender non-speaking role indeed, I was thrilled to see a stuffed Totoro, clearly an homage to the great Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki, some of whose films have been distributed in the states by Disney (my favorite being Kiki’s Delivery Service).

While there may not have been a lot of new old toys on display, there was still plenty for the boomer and space age generations to enjoy. I’m pretty sure I was the only person in the packed theater to laugh at the homages to old prison-break movies like Cool Hand Luke, with Buzz playing Boss Carr, and “the box” being the sand box (“I’m pretty sure those weren’t Lincoln Logs…”). I had to explain to my kids later on what that was about; they finally understood when I told them that Cool Hand Luke was the movie with the oft-parodied line “what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

And I suspect anyone past the age of eight who’s ever had to part with a beloved toy that would never be played with again would be moved by the way the story ends.

About the only thing that didn’t work for me was the 3D. Oh, it didn’t hurt my eyes or give me a headache (I made sure to follow some advice I’d read to avoid trying to look at the out-of-focus parts of the image). But it also didn’t add anything to the story; midway through I’d actually forgotten I was watching a 3D movie. I doubt I’ll spring for the extra bucks again.

cross-posted at I Fry Mine In Butter

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