Is 'Toy Story 3' the Best Movie of the Year?

After an 11-year lapse between films, the Pixar flick stunned skeptics with a record-breaking debut. Nicole LaPorte explains how a dubious plot turned into a winning strategy.

At a 2004 Walt Disney Co. shareholders meeting, then-CEO Michael Eisner said that he found it “a little bit embarrassing” that while DreamWorks had a Shrek sequel out that summer, “for whatever reason, which I am not going to get into, we don’t have the same announcements.”

The comment was a jab at Pixar, whose films Disney was then distributing, and whose only sequel at that point was Toy Story 2, released in 1999.

Forget Oprah—we should all be watching Pixar movies in our quests for self-improvement.

But Pixar, which is based in Emeryville, California, near Palo Alto, has never let the commercial desires of CEOs-beholden-to-shareholders muddy the purity of its creative method, which is based around a mostly non-changing group of artists—the so-called brain trust, led by chief creative officer John Lasseter—that works on projects from their initial idea stage to when they become films. And so it would take another six years for Toy Story 3 to arrive in theaters, which it did this past weekend, grossing a spectacular $109 million (Pixar’s biggest opening-weekend in history, thanks in part to higher-priced tickets for 3-D screenings) and effectively kick-start what has until now been a slumbering summer movie season. The film marks the third-highest-grossing opening weekend in 2010, after Iron Man 2 and Alice in Wonderland.

My, are we richer for the delay. Unlike the fourth, and supposedly final, Shrek, which earlier this summer fell into the Godfather 3 trap of failing to justify why another installment was necessary, Toy Story 3 not only stands firmly as a film that was worth making—as the rapturous reviews are proving—but one that benefited tremendously from the long wait.

The film, which finds Andy about to head off to college, sending his posse of toys into existential crisis mode (“I hate all this uncertainty!” says dinosaur Rex in his Wallace Shawn-voiced whine), isn’t, after all, just a maturation of the Toy Story franchise. It’s a film that beautifully displays the evolution of Pixar itself, influenced as much as by what’s happened to the film’s stars, Woody and Buzz, since the ‘90s, as what has happened to Lasseter and the gang over the course of 15 years of creating genre-breaking films such as Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up.

Don’t forget that the first Toy Story (1995), while as heartfelt, gently humorous, and clever as any Pixar film, was, at the end of the day, a very good buddy movie. As any self-respecting animation geek can tell you, the film was declared a mess early on, and was saved when Jeffrey Katzenberg, then overseeing animation at Disney, advised Lasseter to go watch classic, odd-couple/BFF movies like 48 Hrs. and The Defiant Ones, with Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. Hence we see the old-school cowboy Woody and the of-the-moment spaceman Buzz Lightyear momentarily clash (ideologically and sartorially, though never ethically) but go on to emerge best buddies once they undergo the requisite number of physical scrapes and moral tribulations.

It wasn’t until Toy Story 2 in 1999 that a deeper kind of emotion and rather unsettling melancholy entered the Pixar aesthetic. To watch the scene in which Jessie the Cowgirl (Joan Cusack, in what is perhaps the best animated voice casting choice of all time) reminisces about her relationship with her former “owner” Emily, which went from years of intense, toy-human bonding to Jessie being dropped off in a box at the Goodwill once Emily moves from dolls to makeup, is to be left as gutted as Jessie herself.

By the time we get to Wall-E, in 2008, about a robot who’s left behind in a post-apocalyptic-ish world and is in desperate search of creature connection, we are more inured to this kind of thing, though we delight in seeing Pixar make an entire film (or, at least, half of one) predicated almost exclusively on wrenching pathos.

Then, a year later, there was Up, in which a Jessie-like remembrance sequence (this one about a widower’s life with his late wife) is not only stretched out, wordlessly, to close to 10 minutes, but introduces themes—such as death and a woman’s inability to become a mother—that most 8-year-olds would have trouble comprehending (and most parents would prefer to not have to explain).

All of this set the stage for Toy Story 3, which goes further than any Pixar film to date when it comes to a feature-length cartoon that feels as sophisticated and nuanced as any live-action movie—Lasseter’s love of the dark and complex anime films of Hayao Miyazaki is on full display (Miyazaki’s character Totoro, a plump, cat-like creature with wide-agape eyes, even makes a cameo). Here, death is not only touched on as a metaphysical idea, but, during the film’s very climactic final sequence, set in the infernal bowels of a trash incinerator, death stares the toys right in the face. And, this being a Pixar film, the toys stare it right back, locking arms and setting their plastic faces in expressions of grim stoicism. (At this point, if you’re not a blubbering mess wondering where your extra napkins went, it’s you who’s not human.) As for evil, it’s just as glaringly presented in the character of a strawberry-scented teddy bear named Lotsa.

All of which is to remind us, the way that the classic, Disney films like Bambi and Dumbo once did, that the most honest way to talk to kids is to talk straight, a revolutionary idea in our increasingly infantilized world, in which adults seem to have forgotten how to talk honestly even to each other. Forget Oprah—we should all be watching Pixar movies in our quests for self-improvement.

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A big reason why Pixar’s art has been able to grow, and grow so organically, is because it’s the virtually the same group of people painstakingly crafting each film, year after year. Unlike Hollywood movie studios, which hire writers and directors on a per-project basis, a tradition born out of live-action filmmaking, Pixar operates like an atelier, nurturing artists and keeping them in the fold.

Lee Unkrich, who directed Toy Story 3, co-directed Toy Story 2 and was an editor on the first Toy Story. Unkrich also developed the story and screenplay, in partnership with Pixar and Toy Story regulars Lasseter and Andrew Stanton. The only new player was Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arendt ( Little Miss Sunshine), who was working with Unkrich on another Pixar project.

In contrast, this summer’s Shrek Forever After was directed by Mike Mitchell, who had never before worked on the franchise. Meanwhile, the film was written by Darren Lemke, similarly a Shrek newbie, and Josh Klausner, who’d worked on the third film, but not the first two.

Part of the problem is that a studio like DreamWorks is born of, and exists in, the studio machine, thus filmmakers passing through tend to view animation as a stepping stone to greater things ( Shrek’s original director, Andrew Adamson, went on to direct the Chronicles of Narnia series). Pixar, in contrast, is considered a Utopian end for anyone in animation. It’s a company few people want to leave and feel blessed for having been chosen to be at, in the first place. Both physically and culturally, it remains separated from Los Angeles by miles and miles.

The fact that Disney now owns Pixar (it bought the studio in 2006 for $7.4 billion) has led some to suggest that this is the end of the Pixar-paced approach to movie-making ( Cars 2 hits theaters next summer, and a followup to Monsters, Inc. is also in the works). And Lasseter himself has admitted he would have made a Toy Story 3 earlier had the film not gotten caught up in a negotiation feud with Eisner (one that was going on when Eisner made his snarky comment at the shareholder meeting). But we can hope that Toy Story 3 will serve as a lesson that the process as it’s existed until now should not be tampered with.

Let them work. And let us wait.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.