Those three words from Peter Debruge’s Variety review of next weekend’s Toy Story 3, called out by Peter Chattaway in blogging the review, perfectly encapsulate what I’ve thought had to be the case about this film since I first heard of it. More broadly, as Peter suggests, it seems a harbinger of things to come from this “third phase” in Pixar history that this film is ushering in.
Nonessential. It seems virtually impossible for Toy Story 3 to be anything else, simply because 1999’s Toy Story 2 is so definitive, so authoritative and final in its delineation of these characters, of their purpose and destiny, that nothing more needs to be said. The first Toy Story established that toys exist for one purpose, to be played with and loved by children, and that in this is their fulfillment and the meaning of their existence. In Toy Story 2, faced with the specter of being put on a shelf, abandoned or even given away, even destroyed, Woody’s commitment to this principle was shaken. In the end, though, he reaffirmed his original commitment and beliefs. Through his experiences and encounters with Jessie and the Prospector, Woody has already emotionally faced and accepted the idea of Andy growing up—going to college, getting married—and in one way or another leaving beyond the life that he and Woody once shared. “I can’t stop Andy from growing up,” Woody said, “but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Toy Story 3 will continue this trajectory; I have a hard time imagining it advancing it in any significant way, or taking it to another level the way that Toy Story 2 took Toy Story to a new level. In the same way, where Pixar’s recent “phase 2” films—Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up—pushed the boundaries of the Hollywood animated family film into uncharted territory, making them “essential viewing” of a sort, Toy Story 3 seems destined to be nonessential.
Yet it’s also likely to be welcome. It might be second-string Pixar, but given Pixar’s overall track record of excellence even second-string Pixar is likely to equal, and probably to surpass, the very best the competition has to offer, from How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda to Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! and Bolt. That’s especially the case this summer, with family audiences faced with both a live-action version of the “Marmaduke” comic strip and a sequel to the okay Cats and Dogs. (What else is there? This weekend’s Karate Kid remake; a Nanny McPhee sequel; M. Night Shyamalan’s Last Airbender adaptation; a brand-new studio’s computer animated supervillain comedy Despicable Me; Disney’s live-action update of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice starring Nic Cage. It’s possible two or three of these could turn out to be worth seeing, but nothing screams “must see.”)
Will “welcome yet nonessential” cover Pixar’s other coming sequels, Cars 2 and Monsters Inc. 2? I’ll be surprised if Cars 2 is either much better or much worse than that. Monsters Inc. 2 could also easily fit the bill, although with Up director Pete Docter again taking the reins I wouldn’t discount the possibility that this sequel could go farther than the others.
The real question mark, of course, is Pixar’s next original film, Brave, formerly known as The Bow and the Bear. (Another project in development, Newt, has been shelved.) Will it fit comfortably alongside other “third phase” Pixar films, or will it press on to some fourth phase, possibly inviting comparisons to one of the first two phases? Time will tell.