A Darker Generation: Toy Story 3 And Beyond
|FEATURES - MOVIES|
Is children's cinema now producing some of the darkest tales since the Brothers Grimm...?
I can think of no more fitting conclusion if, as expected, Toy Story 3 (2010) marks the final chapter in the film series that made Pixar famous. The film potentially closes a franchise that saw its first instalment (1995) mark both the dawn of the Disney/Pixar collaboration, as well as becoming the first animation produced wholly from CGI. Yet Toy Story 3 represents so much more than the end of a successful children’s franchise. Its majesty lies in the fact that, despite being a series that for so many is so very familiar, Toy Story 3 actually manages to capture all that has changed in children’s films in the fifteen-year hiatus since the original.
The fact that Lee Unkrick’s film dares to bring Pixar’s flagship series to such a poignant close could be said to symbolise a wider shift in the production of films aimed at children. This distinct shift in recent years has seen the creation of increasingly dark and emotional movies.
That both animated and live-action children’s films have for some time overtly contained scary or sinister themes is a curious reality. For instance, the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz portrayed evil personified as early as 1939, whilst the Child-Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang formed startlingly disturbing imagery in 1968 – as did practically everything in Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971). Even among Disney’s most iconic animations, evil and malevolence are clearly in evidence. In classics such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Cinderella (1950), an evil Queen and step-mom form dark expressions of wickedness. Whilst more recent classics, such as Beauty and The Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994), are far more enjoyable for their intimation of potential horrors. Indeed, Scar’s tyrannous reign over pride rock in The Lion King forms a frighteningly sinister prospect for young viewers – that is until Simba, good, youth and innocence prevail. Consequently, any suggestion that children’s films are offering frights as well as laughs for the first time, is absurd. Indeed the conflict between sinister villain and courageous hero is well established.
"Never before has the ground between good and evil been so muddied, nor the immortality of childhood, youth and innocence, so questioned"
Never before has children’s cinema so readily and fervently challenged this conflict; never before has the ground between good and evil been so muddied, nor the immortality of childhood, youth and innocence, so questioned.
For instance, there is no shock in Woody, Buzz and the gang facing imminent catastrophe and death as they slide helplessly toward the pit of the flaming incinerator. Rather, our surprise and fear lies in the toys’ resignation to their fate. Their clasped hands and accepting nods, rather than convey defiance, exude a feeling of futility and an awareness of their own mortality.Toy Story 3 continually evokes emotions previously scarcely found in children’s films. For example, the fact that Andy has outgrown his toys and faces the realisation that they now no longer play a part in his life, may force the young viewers to contemplate the end of their own childhood. Where images of Andy’s empty room and unused toys may evoke feelings of nostalgia for older viewers, it provides a potentially scary thought for children - that of having to grow up.
"Children’s films are increasingly willing to punctuate the myth of an everlasting childhood – a belief once integral in children’s fantasies such as Peter Pan."
By no means is Toy Story 3 alone in forcing its young viewers to contemplate the loss of innocence or growing old. Children’s films are increasingly willing to punctuate the myth of an everlasting childhood – a belief once integral in children’s fantasies such as Peter Pan. One such film is the hugely successful, hugely emotional, Up (2009) – another Disney/Pixar collaboration. A film that constantly pulls at the heartstrings, Up garnered vast critical acclaim and drew five Academy Award nominations – including Best Picture. Yet the film's fantastical visions of floating houses, giant birds and idyllic falls are often overshadowed by Up’s exploration of love, loss and regret. The inability to have children, the acceptance of a lonely old age, and the desire to fulfil a dying wish of a childhood sweetheart, are all very much adult themes. Yet all of which are firmly rooted in Up - one of the most successful children’s films of recent years.
A lot of the poignancy and sadness in both Toy Story 3 and Up may be lost on the youngest of viewers. Yet often these moments of sadness are replaced, or joined, by upsetting imagery that would certainly resonate in the younger viewer. For example, that the horrible day-care centre the toys find themselves in is named ‘Sunnyside’ may be an irony lost on children. Yet that one of the horrors within is a worn, dirtied, ‘Big Baby’ doll would certainly scare many a child.
Increasingly, children’s films are questioning established emblems of good or innocence: the cuddly-yet-vile Lotso bear and innocent-yet-disturbing Big Baby in Toy Story 3, or the bitter and twisted ‘Doctor’ in The Princess and the Frog (2009). Perhaps the most disturbing of all is the ‘other family’ of the night, in the most deliciously dark children’s films in recent years – Coraline (2009). A tale of murky dreams, ghosts and a world in which people have buttons for eyes, Coraline encapsulates all that is good in the dark children’s film. That Coraline Jones should seek escape from her loveless world of neglect, provides thought-provoking material for an older generation. That she escapes, through her dreams, to a world where children are kept prisoner and have sewn eyes forced upon them, provides terrifying imagery for the younger viewer.
The ever-darkening children’s film of today is one that all ages can savour. That doesn’t mean to say they should all indulge in silly, tragic, bawdy remarks as in the later films in the Shrek (2001) series. Rather, the best of these films - such as Toy Story 3 - allow the adult to indulge in the same fear and excitement as the child. Whilst the youngest viewer revels in the danger of a fantastical journey, the primary school-age child contemplates growing up and the adults are left to indulge in nostalgia. That so many of us grew up with the Toy Story series means that just the very fact it has ended is as dark a moment as can occur! That it may, as it did fifteen years ago, herald a new era of children’s films, characterised by their dark and emotional content, is certainly a point worth contemplating. The excitement found in fear and the draw of the darkness is one we all feel at any age.
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