"Toy Story 3": Perfect relief for a stressed-out nation

A country needing a break from the Gulf spill, bad economy blues got one from Pixar

Published June 21, 2010 5:57PM (EDT)

"Toy Story 3's" huge box office numbers -- $109 million, second only to "Shrek 3" for animated blockbuster opening weekend cash register glory -- sparked a relieved round of applause from the film industry trade press. Finally, an unarguable smash hit to bring some sunshine to a gloomy summer season.

But "Toy Story 3" is more than just balm to soothe the troubled breast of Hollywood. In this oil-spill tainted summer of high unemployment and Tea Party rage, a time when government, more than ever, seems incapable of dealing with the challenges that beset it at every level, "Toy Story 3" is the welcome distraction that all of America needs. I guarantee you: For the two hours you spend in that darkened theater, you will not be pondering whether Obama has frittered away his mandate or if the eurozone crisis will force the world back into recession. As a society, we may be riven by political antagonisms, vast disparities in economic wellbeing, racial and religious tensions, but right now, we can also just buy a ticket, chill out, and thank goodness that in Emeryville, California there are a group of story-tellers who know how to just make it all go away.

Immediately after the last credit rolled on Sunday afternoon, my children, who have grown up blessed by an amazing golden age of animation and have seen every previous Pixar flick and Hideo Miyazaki gem multiple times, launched into a serious debate about whether "Toy Story 3" ranked as merely the best in the Toy Story franchise or deserved consideration as Pixar's greatest masterpiece ever. If you were standing outside the theater wondering whether to plunk down your own cash, this was the kind of word of mouth that translates into box office gold.

But what was most interesting to me about the analysis was that it was hard to say exactly why the experience was so satisfying. Sure, we had our favorite moments -- Ken and Barbie! Spanish-mode Buzz Lightyear! "The claw, the claw!" -- and we all acknowledged that we had been moved both to laughter and to tears, and marveled at how there had never been a dull moment. But we couldn't point to anything specifically transcendent that matched, say, the opening silent stretch of "Wall-E" or the picture-album reflection of mortality that kicks off "Up."

Ultimately, we were just thrilled, I think, by pure excellence of craft -- a surehandedness of artistry that succeeds in the astonishing feat of making a computer-generated cartoon movie about toys somehow more human, more true, than 99 percent of the schlock that is thrown up on screens every week. Seriously, when I found myself contemplating how deep and true were the bonds of affection between Mr and Mrs Potato Head, I realized that I had completely given myself over.

This is all achieved without taking any stance in the culture wars, and without any particular political message -- aside from one unexpected, and yet deeply satisfying, utterance by Barbie that will, I'm sure, be acceptable to Tea Partiers and progressives alike. You can, if you want, tie yourself in knots trying to untangle the capitalist contradictions that are spawned by a film that is at one level a crass marketing campaign for a set of toys that will be rolling out of Toys-R-Us by the container-load from now until Christmas, but is at the same time one of the most evocative contemplations of the nature of play ever delivered by a blockbuster movie.

Maybe I should be discomfited by such a postmodern triumph -- as my colleague Andrew O'Hehir wrote in his review, Pixar has somehow managed to beguile us by depicting "children who play imaginatively with old-fashioned, low-tech toys like Buzz and Woody all day, instead of zoning out in front of 'Toy Story' films." We are delighted by the illusion of play, instead of the reality!

But rather than mire myself down in those complexities, I'm just going to relax and remain comforted and heartened by how a good story, well told, with fantastic attention to detail and tremendous heart, can lighten the load imposed by the mundane and vexing realities that assault us in daily life. It's so nice to let go, to not wrestle with self-doubt or fear of the unknown or the sinking sensation that everything is just irremediably screwed up. And as a minor-league content creator myself, I'm also just really happy that Pixar keeps reaffirming the same important lesson to the rest of pop culture, over and over again: Make a good movie, and people will appreciate it. Make 15 years worth of good movies, and they'll line up around the block for your next offering, no questions asked.

Thank you, Pixar! A stressed-out nation is mighty grateful, and they will prove it at the box office, again and again and again. As my son responded on Facebook to his aunt's question of whether he'd want to see it again, with her, in a couple of weeks, "Want to? I'd love to!"

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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