Lee Unkrich, the director of Toy Story 3 was driven by curiosity when he put the query on Twitter. He still treasured the Six Million Dollar Man doll that he’d acquired as a youngster in the 1970s, and he wondered how many other people felt the same way about their old play things.
“So I put a call out on Twitter asking people if they still had their favourite childhood toys. I got a flood back and that just speaks volumes about how important toys are to us in our lives and the special bond that we have.”
It also helped explain Pixar Animation Studios’ phenomenal success with the Toy Story franchise and why Disney anticipates a huge opening weekend when Woody, Buzz Lightyear and their pals return to theatres June 18.
The 1995 release of the original Toy Story – the first full-length animated feature to be created entirely by artists using CGI computer technology – struck a chord with millions of filmgoers from every age group. It became the year’s most commercially successful film, grossing nearly $200 million in North America alone and more than $360 million worldwide. Its success made it clear to Disney and its Pixar partner that a toy can carry it’s own mystique.
“It’s just cloth and plastic and should be meaningless,” Unkrich says, chatting with reporters at Pixar’s home base in the small town of Emeryville, across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. “But somehow we impart personalities onto them and they’re meaningful to us and they give us security when we’re kids and you carry that into adulthood.”
Unkrich, himself a parent, sometimes wonders about all the high-tech gadgetry that invades children’s worlds today. In fact, the new film touches on these concerns. “Children today don’t have such free unbridled imaginative play with toys that we were used to. There are so many other things vying for their attention – the Internet, video games and this and that. It’s a shame, but it is what it is. So we make a comment about how the toys in our film feel kind of abandoned.”
Abandonment is an underlying theme of this often bittersweet adventure about a group of much-loved toys who fear that they are reaching the end of the road. Woody, the intrepid cowboy sheriff (Tom Hanks), laser-equipped space ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), tomboy cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) Hamm the piggyback pig (John Ratzenberger), Mr. and Mrs., Potato Head (Don Rickles, Estelle Harris), Rex the neurotic dinosaur (Wallace Shawn), Barbie (Jodi Benson) – they’re all back along with such new toys as swinging bachelor Ken (Michael Keaton) and the villainous toy bear Lotso (Ned Beatty).
But it’s 11 years since the release of Toy Story 2, and with their beloved owner Andy now 17 and headed for college, they face frightening change.
Unkrich, who began his Pixar career as a film editor on Toy Story, has lived with the franchise for nearly two decades, co-directing Toy Story 2 before taking on the current film himself. He’s fully aware of the perils of sequels, of a law of diminishing returns the longer a franchise lasts.
“I think the bar was very high on the first Toy Story and I think we tempted fate by even making a second one. Somehow we managed to pull that off, but I think the bar was equally high when we set out to make this one. I think that Toy Story and Toy Story 2 are among the most beloved films of all time, so I took this responsibility very seriously – to make a film that just didn’t feel like a cruddy sequel. We knew that there was a ‘curse’ on having a number 3 after the title of your movie, and we really set out to break that curse and show that it didn’t need to be this pariah, that we could actually make a very good movie.”
Unkrich will never forget the day he had to tell his wife that he had accidentally thrown a bag of her favourite stuffed animals from childhood into the dumpster. This memory was worked into the finished film and into a terrifying scene where Woody and his friends face a fiery end in the town incinerator. The film also includes an earlier sequence in which the abandoned toys are donated to a daycare where they are unloved by the children and terrorized by the villainous Lotso.
Disney films have never shrunk away from intense scenes – witness the witch in Snow White – and its projects with Pixar have shown a similar readiness to offer tough moments when necessary. Unkrich says Toy Story 3 is no exception – “but again, I wanted to be truthful.
“The psyche of toys is such that anything that prevents them from being played with by a kid or loved by a kid gives them stress, whether it’s being broken, being lost, or ending up in the attic. And the thing that causes them the most stress is the idea of being thrown away, of never being able to play with a kid again. So I wanted to pursue that through to the end. I wanted to take the toys to the brink and be truthful to that.”
It took four years to make Toy Story 3, with some 400 artists and technicians working on it at its peak. However Unkrich stresses that the storytelling, as always with any Pixar film, remained of paramount importance and that it was never dependent on the technology.
“The fact that so many years had gone by helped lead us to this idea of having Andy growing up and heading off to college. And I think it’s really the perfect time in which to set this story, because at the end of 2, the toys have seemingly made their peace with the fact that Andy’s going to grow up some day – but we’re going to enjoy every moment we have with him until then. But as we all know from life, it’s one thing to kind of make peace with something that will happen someday, and another to arrive at that day and actually be confronting it.”
Unkrich admits the new film carries a sense of closure.
“I don’t know if there will ever be a Toy Story 4. I tried to end this very nicely with the relationship of Woody and Buzz and the other toys with Andy.”
Maybe just maybe there will be another Toy Story “if there are other stories out there – but we don’t have any plans.”
Toy Story 3 opens June 18.
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