Toy Story franchise comes of age

By Peter Bowes
BBC News, San Francisco

  • Published

Fifteen years after Toy Story broke the mould and sparked a technological revolution in Hollywood, Buzz Lightyear, Woody and friends are returning to the big screen for a third time.

Toy Story 3 continues the adventures of a boy and his box of toys, although it is a time for change.

Now aged 17, Andy is about to leave home for college and the toys are worried they will soon be forgotten.

The first Toy Story pioneered the art of computer animation and won the admiration of Hollywood.

Image caption,
Barbie and Ken form the basis of a comedic sub-plot

The film, the highest grossing movie of 1995, was nominated for a slew of awards and put Pixar on the map as a new creative force in film-making.

In 1999 the sequel was equally successful. Toy Story 2 was the year's biggest box office hit and computer-generated animation became the industry standard.

Technologically, Toy Story 3 is less ground-breaking than its predecessors, although it is in 3D. But unlike the striking 3D images in the blockbuster Avatar, the extra dimension in Toy Story is low key.

Biggest challenge

"We use 3D with a very light touch," explains Darla Anderson, the film's producer.

"Hopefully what it does is just bring you that much more into the story - instead of having the 3D come out at you in a gimmicky kind of way."

Not wanting to denigrate other films, Anderson adds that full-on 3D is "also fun" but "just not part of our ethos".

"We tried to create a very graceful experience," adds Bob Whitehill, Pixar's stereoscopic (3D) supervisor.

Image caption,
Andy is growing up in the latest outing

"We didn't want to overdo the 3D and risk distracting from these characters that people know and love, and this world that's beautifully lit and interesting as it is."

Developing the movie's characters posed the biggest challenge for the film-makers.

Tom Hanks and Tim Allen return as the voices of Woody and Buzz, but the pull-string cowboy and space ranger are joined by dozens of new toys.

"It was a big responsibility," says Lee Unkrich, the director.

"A big chunk of this film takes place in a day care centre and we did a lot of research... it turns out there are hundreds of toys at these day care centres, and we wanted to be true to that.

"One of the fun things is that we got to not only invent new toys that have never existed on the planet before but also put in pre-existing toys that we all remember from our own childhoods, most notably Ken, of Barbie and Ken fame."

'We love the toys'

The film-makers dreamed up the idea of introducing Ken during a brainstorming session.

"A bunch of us who had come up with the original story idea went away for two days to a cabin on a lake, and it was the same cabin that the original Toy Story had been cooked up.

"We thought it would be good luck, and we spent two days pounding out the beginnings of what became Toy Story 3."

Ken provides much of the film's comedy. Camp and fashion-obsessed, he meets Barbie, who had a bit part in Toy Story 2, for the first time.

But aside from the 3D technology and comedic sub-plots, it is the poignant nature of the story line that sets Toy Story 3 aside from its predecessors. The film is a sentimental reflection on the process of growing up.

"We never wanted Toy Story 3 to be just another sequel without anything interesting to say," explains Mr Unkrich.

Image caption,
Toy Story has its third screen outing with a subtle use of 3D, say makers

"When we made Toy Story many of us were in our twenties, and now I'm 42, I've gotten married, I have three children that are growing up.

"I've lived more life and a lot of that living of life informed the story that we decided to tell in Toy Story 3."

As Andy prepares to head to college, the toys feel rejected and fear that they will either end up in the loft, packed away in a cardboard box, or worse still, thrown in the dustbin.

"The future is completely uncertain and we just felt that that was an emotionally ripe time to set this story," says Mr Unkrich.

Joan Cusack, who returns as the voice of Jessie, the hyper cowgirl, says the film is "deeper" than Toy Story 2.

"For those kids that enjoyed Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 1, who are now 10 years older and going to college, there's a lot going on with them," explains Ms Cusack.

"That's a very vulnerable time of life, and I think this speaks to those kind of deeper feelings, which is pretty cool."

With more than three hundred characters Toy Story 3 is a huge marketing opportunity for Pixar's parent company, Walt Disney.

The Hollywood giant expects retailers to sell $2.4bn in merchandise, and the film could turn in the company's biggest profit to date.

"We love the toys, they're a big part of what we do," says Mr Unkrich.

"We just take it as a testament to how much people care about our films and the characters that they want to spend time with them."

Toy Story 3 opens in the UK on 19 July.

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