For those of who you had the energy to start this blog entry but not to finish it, here's the moral of the story: don't drink and watch Pixar movies at the same time.
Got it? Good. Those of you who wish to read on are welcome to do so; the rest of you can sink back into the aimless miasma of modern entertainment.
I've secretly doubted the power of redemption for years, but only in real life. "Real life" is what we have to face, day in and day out. It's the gritty medium of the present. It's dirty, unpleasant, and--thank god--compartmentalized from the rest of life. It's not the rose-tinted Past, and it certainly isn't the carrot-shaped Future. It has no place in fiction, fantasy, or the boundless realms of hope. These places matter so much more than real life, because if we had to rely on real life alone for motivation, most of us would probably find the nearest mud patch and just wallow for the rest of our short and meaningless lives. In contrast, the sanctums of the imagination permit us to believe that we can better ourselves, that most of us are equal parts tarnished and redeemable.
And that brings me to Toy Story 3.
I saw it for the first time this evening. I liked it--truly. It engaged me visually, emotionally, and intellectually. That's pretty much every way I could enjoy an animated film, except sexually. (Though now that I think of it . . . oh never mind.)
It was also dead inside. Did you notice? I'm not referring to the painful, but ultimately heartwarming, separation of Woody and Co. from their beloved owner, Andy. That part was quite positive, really. Andy's departure for college pulls a hearstring or twelve, but before leaving he ushers his faithful toys into a new era of loving "playtime" with the vacuous but adorable Bonnie. Sunrise, sunset. Boy becomes man, but the archetype of innocence lives on through a new generation of children.
No, when I said "dead inside," I was referring to the toys. After all, this is "Toy Story" we're talking about. The human characters provide some narrative cohesion but otherwise might as well be ambulatory backdrops. The toys care about Andy, but we care about the toys. And in Toy Story 3, those toys, ironically, become exactly what toys in real life are: husks.
I didn't want to see that, but how else to describe them? Sure, protagonist Woody is still a dyed-in-the-stuffing good guy, but we've sort of come to expect that. He's got just one mode, and it starts to ring hollow. No one is that way all the time or even most of the time, and in the end he devolves into a trite puppet for showroom morality. But Woody is not the worst of it.
The best-developed character in the film was Lotso-Huggin' Bear ("Lotso"). He was the best because he had the richest texture, and I'm not referring to his faded plush fabric. Lotso had gone through love and abandonment. He'd felt despair and mastered it, turning the cancerous pain of his past into something useful. That's closer to reality than Woody ever came, and our eventual empathy with Lotso is probably more sincere as a result. Sadly, Lotso's fate reveals the intractability of evil.
When we're introduced to him, Lotso has a brief moment of false benevolence, but he quickly betrays Woody and Co. into torturous servitude. He then traps them in a dumpster after they attempt to escape, and finally leaves them to burn even though they'd just saved his life (the incinerator scene is incredibly poignant by the way; Schindler's List couldn't hold a candle). Lotso never has his moment of redemption, not so much as a token post-credits flicker. Yes, I watched for that especially.
You could argue quite successfully that redemption itself is trite. How can I complain that Woody is hollow because he's too good, but then criticize Lotso's character development? The answer is that each character becomes a shallow reflection of the other. Once good, always good; once evil, always evil. Well, that's not what I want from my fiction. The first is boring and the second depressing.
In real life, each and every day, I deal with people who seem intractably bad. I only avoid the term "evil" here because it's a little too melodramatic for real life. They may not be all bad all the time, but it's a pretty ****ing consistent pattern of behavior for too many altogether.
I can handle the notion of intractably evil human beings. That's just life, and the whole process of growing up prepares us to accept our selfish tawdry core. But the world of animated feel-good fiction ought to be different. Pixar, for the love of god, next time you craft another gloriously stylized adventure, don't turn a teddy bear into a monster.