Sunday, June 27, 2010

The saddest kid's movie of all time?

As a general rule, I'm not a big proponent of kids movies.

Not to sound like a grump, or a killjoy, or like one of those grownups who can't stand children (nothing is further from the truth!). But my working belief is: kids movies are fine -- for kids.

I was always sort of mystified by the throngs of adults who would line up on a Saturday night and shell out good money to go see movies directed towards children.

They're usually boring. Or silly. And enormously condescending towards their intended audience.*

So I'm here to tell my fellow kid movie snobs: give this one a chance. Toy Story 3 is a great movie. (Although you can probably forgo the 3-D glasses -- it would have looked just as good in 2-D.)

Let me qualify that: I'm still not 100 percent sure whether Toy Story 3 was the saddest, most wrenching children's movie I've ever seen -- or the most mawkish and sentimental. But having thought about it for a few days, I'm leaning towards the former.

Having not seen Toy Story 1 or 2, I was worried that I wouldn't make heads or tails of the plot -- but it turns out that isn't much of a concern (minus one or two jokes that had to be explained to me after the fact). Toy Story 3 is very self-contained.

The premise (for the seven or eight people on earth who have not read any of the reviews yet) is about a young boy's toys who come to life when he's not around. He has invested them with certain personalities, which they keep up in the privacy of their toy chest.

It's the same fantasy every child has about their toys. And the animators have come up with a great existential crisis for these toys: Their owner (a boy named Andy) has grown up and is about to go to college. What will happen to them? Will they wind up in the attic? Will they be given away to a daycare center? Will they wind up at the city dump?

The toys end up in daycare -- which sounds OK at first, and then winds up turning into an unrelenting nightmare of crazy, reckless kids who do everything possible to destroy these toys with their horseplay. The fuzzy, pink stuffed bear with an easy drawl named Latso who runs the daycare center (at least as far as his fellow toys are concerned) seems a miracle of kindness and understanding at first, only to reveal himself later to be prime villain of the film.

Latso might have been the most interesting character in the movie -- but I thought all the toys were pretty interesting characters. Certainly a lot sweeter, kinder and more fully realized than you'll find in a Hollywood movie that costs a fortune to make. (According to Box Office Mojo, the movie had a staggering $200 million budget.)

And, for most of the time, the movie is exciting and funny. But I think the added emotional resonance in Toy Story 3 comes from the lingering idea that was sewn into the plot: There is no real happy ending. No matter what happens to these toys, their beloved owner, Andy, will never play with them again. He has moved on.

I remember once when I was a kid my mother coming into my room with a Glad bag and saying, "All right, let's get rid of the things you don't play with." We went through the various action-figures and broken space ships that I was never going to use again. When I handed her a yellow stuffed bear she held it in her hands for a moment and lingered over it for a minute.

"This is too cute to go into the garbage," she finally said, and threw it on my bed.

And I remember being seized with a horrible feeling of guilt - that I was so willing to betray something I once loved.

And yet the truth was, by that point I had grown out of it. That inevitable sense of loss is the same loss that we all feel when thinking about our childhood. We have to move on. We don't necessarily want to go back. But the loss of that idyll is still painful to remember.

And I couldn't have been the only cynical, jaded person who felt that way watching the final 10 minutes or so of Toy Story 3, with moistened eyes. You could hear the sniffling and sobbing all the way to the back of the theater. The only people, oddly enough, who didn't seem very affected by Toy Story 3 were the children. They were for the most part hopping around, laughing and generally enjoying themselves.

Well, in a few years these kids will come to understand just how good a movie Toy Story 3 really is.


* For the record: I think there is a big difference between kids movies and a movie or TV show which happens to be animated. No parent, for example, could let their preadolescent watch the series South Park -- but regular readers of this blog will know I think the show is genius. The same is true for The Simpsons (although that one is considerably less profane.) So, no, I don't mind something animated. But what I do mind is something targeted towards kids.

And when I said that I found most children's movies condescending, I stand by that. I've always believed kids were much more sophisticated than adults pretend. They are drawn to a lot more sinister forms of art (like, say, Grimm's Fairy Tales) than the schlock slingers at Disney are prepared to acknowledge. For more on this, take a look at Bruno Bettelheim's great book, The Uses of Enchantment.