Fake Plastic Pixar and the Battle for Custody of Nostalgia

November 28, 2014 5:00 pm

Thursday’s announcement of a fourth Toy Story movie was hardly surprising. For one thing, the third entry – which came out four and a half years ago, if you can believe it – grossed over a billion dollars worldwide, not to mention garnering some of the best reviews of any movie that year. Not that critical reception amounts to much next to box office receipts, mind you. More than that, though, Toy Story 4 is an idea that’s been banded about since June 2010, around the time of number three’s theatrical release. Given Pixar’s current slate of sequels – Finding Dory, Cars 3, The Incredibles 2 (and not forgetting last year’s Monsters University) – and Lasseter’s unquenchable enthusiasm when it comes to his passion projects, the only real surprise was that it took so long for a release date to be set in stone.

For a certain portion of the film community, however, the announcement did not inspire hearty cheer and a proclamation along the lines of, ‘About bloody time!’ Instead, it was an almost liberating sigh of resignation. The uncertainty of Toy Story’s future has meant that fans have always used the term ‘trilogy’ tentatively, so at least now that part four is a concrete concept we can start to come to terms with the franchise’s future. (For now…) If this is the silver lining, though, it’s barely visible for the oppressively gloomy cloud that comes with it. I must now add a disclaimer: I’m of the generation to which the Toy Story movies acted as a real-time marker of our development, so they will always have a uniquely special place in my filmic heart. Parts one, two and three also, in my mind, make up one of the greatest movie trilogies in the history of cinema, spanning an epic character arc that’s as ambitious, emotionally challenging and thematically resonant as anything else in the medium.

Toy Story 3 came out almost 5 year ago.

Toy Story 3 came out during the year before I went away to university, summarising my hopes, fears and everything in between with such astute eloquence that I was reduced to a blubbering emotional wreck at the time and, subsequently, have been every time since. Both subjectively and objectively, it acted as the concluding chapter of a beautiful saga on growing up: the figures of childhood stared (somewhat literally) at death, before realising that they could live on through the acceptance of necessary change. It dramatised the idea that, while we do have to grow up and let go of the past, it’s never gone completely. In the words of Dr Seuss: ‘Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.’ Any addition to the story risks undermining this sentiment. More worryingly, it stands to diminish a near-flawless cinematic achievement.

Of course, as has been proven through the mangled origin story of one of sci-fi’s great villains, shitty sequels can’t ruin the original. Lucas’ prequel trilogy may have a visually repugnant over-reliance on green screen, a horribly un-engaging narrative that dwells on trade tax disputes and shoehorns the lion’s share of our hero’s seduction by evil into a wobbly ten minutes of screentime, and some of the worst acting of the twenty-first century thus far, but does it make Luke destroying the first Death Star any less exhilarating? Does it make Vader’s revelation any less shocking? Does it make Han Solo any less of a badass? Hell no. It’s possible to tune out the wooden acting of Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen, the needless de-mystifying of the Force and the barely concealed racism, and pretend they never existed. Likewise, it’s possible to view them as sporadically enjoyable movies – let us not forget that they gave us the Darth Maul lightsaber battle, the pod race and the surprisingly effective Anakin/Obi-Wan showdown – that exist in-and-of themselves, independently of the original trilogy, and tell their own story. It may be trickier to do this with Toy Story, given the presence of the original voice cast and the likely continuation of the same story, but it’s not impossible. No matter the quality ofToy Story 4, we still have our perfect trilogy.

Rather, the main gripe I have with this announcement – and, indeed, Lucas’ endless tampering with Star Wars which, while now thankfully over, nonetheless caused considerable damage – is that it’s a further case of an artist refusing to leave their work alone.

There was a time when Pixar had a not-unfounded claim to the throne of ‘American Studio Ghibli’. They had a boundless visual and narrative invention, an extensive cinematic and literary knowledge, and a crucial sense of heart that elevated their work beyond the realms of ‘animated kids’ movies’, a category critics are all too keen to hold at a distance, and into that of genuine art. Each new film offered a glimpse into a new, meticulously envisioned world and sought insight into very real human concerns. And with it came a pioneering spirit: they knew they were ahead of the game (hell, they near-invented the game) and used their powers to test the boundaries of their art. Alas, much like the trajectory of the doomed Anakin Skywalker, Pixar were perhaps inevitably going to fall to the allure of commercialism.

In 2006, there was a merger between Disney and Pixar. This saw loveable, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing, Toy Story-creating John Lasseter placed in charge of both of these animation houses’ output. His first acts at Pixar in this position saw him re-ignite Toy Story 3 and announce a sequel to Cars. It’s worth noting that, at this point, Cars was the studio’s only blemish, so there was no reason to doubt his mandate of, ‘If we have a great story, we’ll do a sequel.’ In the interim came Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up, and our worries over Pixar losing it seemed laughably passe. Then, of course, Toy Story 3 was unveiled and, as hinted at previously, was a masterpiece. But then something happened. Cars 2was released in 2011 and acted as a gross exaggeration of all that Pixar could do wrong. It did nothing to justify the questionable Cars universe whilst seemingly pandering wholeheartedly to the lowest-common-denominator attitude that we caught flashes of even in their best work.

Here was, then, a fork in the road. All eyes were on the studio’s next output to see which direction they would head in: a return to the artistry of the glory days, or a further immersion in crass commercialism that would see their house style watered down and their creative bent neutered. Brave was a valiant but, ultimately, flawed excursion in a new direction, but Monsters Universitysaw them pillaging a beloved institution for what appeared to be little more than brand recognition. 2015’s Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur could see them redress the balance somewhat, but the horizon beyond that only shows sequels, sequels and more sequels. And with the announcement of Toy Story 4– a completely superfluous reopening of an exquisitely closed book – comes the dawning realisation that Pixar is no longer about telling a ‘great story’. They have a quota to keep to, and they will exploit your love for their classic movies if they have to. Pixar used to be about stimulating and encouraging imagination. Now they seem hellbent on limiting and controlling it.

toy story

Which brings me to the heart of what I want to say. The aforementioned may seem gun-jumping and reactionary, and if Toy Story 4 turns out to be genuinely good then I will hold up my hands and say so. But, in constantly revisiting old properties, Pixar is denying the viewer a crucial part of the process. The films that are most beloved – Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles and, of course, Toy Story – traverse universally emotional ground and, as such, invoke intensely personal reactions from each individual audience member. As such, there comes a feeling of ownership, an idea that the work is speaking to them and nobody else. It is therefore the viewer’s filmmaker-given right to own their experience. This includes the space aroundwhat we see within the actual movie itself. We fill in character backstories that aren’t explicitly stated, we invent adventures for the gang and we create fates for the characters that are the most fitting to us and to our perception of life. Once an artist releases their work, for better or worse, it is out of their hands. It belongs to its consumer and, as such, the artist has a duty to leave it alone. The author is dead, after all.

Franchises like Star Wars and Toy Story are adored. This is a credit to the filmmakers’ craft and talent, and they should be proud of achieving it. But they should also respect the people who adore them. By making Greedo shoot first, by showing how Darth Vader once created C3PO and by showing the toys’ lives after Andy, Lucas and Lasseter are exploiting nostalgia – for that is what essentially makes our relationship to art what it is – for commercial gain and betraying a lack of consideration for the viewer. And it is this manipulation, this whiff of mild disdain, which makes the announcement ofToy Story 4 sting all that more. Our emotions are being played with, and all they can do it sit as the debris they’re resting atop slides towards the inferno.

But it shouldn’t be like this. Nostalgia shouldn’t be the victim of a custody battle. An artist should constantly be pursuing creative ends and leaving past works as they are. Like it or not, they are in the hands of their audience. The audience is a fickle breed, after all: we bitch and we moan and we hate on things before we have a chance to see them for ourselves, but, at the heart of it, we love seeing people who are good at what they do doing what they do. It’s when they don’t, when they instead choose to yank the things we adore out of our hands and paint over the ‘Andy’ written on them, that this delicate balance is destroyed.

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