There is a moment at the end of Toy Story 3 where you realize unequivocally that this is the finest film of the series. It’s a moment that involves a simple gesture and no words. I don’t need to tell you any more than that. I promise you, you will know it when you see it. And if that moment doesn’t make your eyes moist, then you have no soul.
Indeed, Toy Story 3 has established its own unique sequel pattern. It is part of that rare film trilogy where each film is outstanding on its own terms, and each film that comes after is better than the one before.
And by “rare,” I mean “no other film trilogy has even come close.”
As I’ve said before, Lord of the Rings doesn’t count. Those aren’t sequels – it’s one story broken into three parts. When they make the Deathly Hallows films, no one will consider the second part a “sequel” to the first. I’m talking about stand-alone movies that get better with each sequel installment. Nobody has yet been able to get to number three and still maintain the momentum.
But somehow Toy Story has.
The problem with sequels, overall, is that the people coming to the second film are the ones who are enamored with the first. Consequently, they expect consistency from their franchise: they essentially want an experience much like the one they had with the original.
Problem is, that’s impossible, because so much of the charm of the original was the fact that it was original.
You can’t recapture that newness and surprise, and most sequels don’t even try. Instead, they laboriously attempt to improbably engineer events to put their characters in the same situation they were in the first time and essentially remake the first movie over and over again. At the end of every one of his films, Rocky Balboa triumphs against all odds, only to discover that he’s once more the you-can’t-win underdog at the beginning of the next film. Home Alone II is beat-for-beat, note-for-note the same film as Home Alone, and the main character relearns all the life lessons he learned in the previous film as if the first film never happened.
For a sequel to work, there has to be more story to tell and something new for the characters to do. Yet both directors and audiences are terrified of straying too far from the brand they establish with their first installment, and understandably so. The results can be disastrous, as is the case with, say, Babe and its almost entirely unrelated sequel Babe: Pig in the City. Everyone loves the first film and has essentially forgotten that there’s a sequel. That’s not to say that the sequel is a bad film – Roger Ebert thought it was one of the best films of the year. What it means is that the two aren’t really of a piece. Caddyshack and The Wizard of Oz are both great movies, but giving The Wizard of Oz a new title and calling it Caddyshack II doesn’t make it a sequel. (Although it would be a better sequel than Caddyshack II, which is so acrid it makes your eyes water.)
The Star Wars sequel pattern usually involves a retreat with the third film. Empire Strikes Back set off in bold, new directions from Star Wars, only to have Return of the Jedi throw out all of the advances of film #2 for a tepid remake of film #1. Han Solo and Princess Leia became complex and interesting characters in Part II. In Part III, they play second banana to a bunch of teddy bears. Luke’s odyssey in Part II has him running off half-cocked and unprepared. By the time Part III starts, Luke is a virtual demigod – ObiWan from the first film – and all the tension between him and Vader is transferred to the Emperor, who is simply a retread of Vader from Part I – pure villainy and nothing more. Darth Vader, a fascinating character in Empire, does nothing in the third film but brood and die. And if you liked seeing Luke defy all odds to blow up the Death Star, wait until you see a bunch of secondary supporting characters/puppets do it the second time around!
Toy Story 2 walks the retread/renewal line better than any film I’ve seen before. In some ways, it’s essentially a remake of the first film – a reluctant toy learns to accept his place in the world. In the first film, it was Buzz. In the second film, it’s Woody. But the second film takes the same theme and deepens it, expanding the story’s scope without skimping on the jokes and visuals that delighted audiences the first time around. Buzz doesn’t know who he really is in Toy Story, but Woody knows exactly who he is in Toy Story 2 and begins to question his own mortality and purpose. It’s much more existentially challenging than the first film, yet it maintains the tone of its predecessor.
The third film takes it several steps further.
I don’t need to rehash plot points. On paper, they look quite a bit like the first two films: toys in peril, daring rescues, and friends who stick together. But so much more is at stake here. The existential questions raised in #2 become major life-or-death struggles, taking this movie in some very dark directions. (My five-year-old was too terrified to watch much of it.) You discover just how much these characters have come to mean to you over the years. The ending is note perfect and tremendously satisfying, but you’ll probably sniffle a bit during that part, too. Pixar has yet to make a bad film.
Bottom line: the Star Wars prequels smell like moose turds.