The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
I must’ve known that all the toys weren’t about to die. I had to know. This was a G-rated kids’ movie, the third entry in a beloved franchise. Movies like that generally don’t end with their heroes being reduced to puddles of toxic-smelling goo. And yet Toy Story 3 got me. Sitting in the theater, holding a toddler who didn’t yet understand anything except that the big baby was scary, I was completely caught up in the idea that Woody and Buzz and all the others were about to meet their ultimate destinations in a nightmarish molten garbage pit. My rational mind no longer functioned. I was all emotion.
Toy Story 3, like so many Pixar films, preys on your emotions. If you start thinking too hard, you might start asking difficult questions. For instance: Can a toy die? What does it mean to die if you don’t have any biological functions in the first place? When your detached body parts can operate independently of one another, is death itself merely a construct? Will all your immolated atoms go on to lives of their own? And will those atoms live out their lives hoping that children will play with them? Children can’t play with atoms. Are those atoms then sentenced to a hell of eternal frustration?
Toy Story 3 won’t let you ponder those questions because it’s too busy power-bombing your inner child through a flaming table. In the film’s climactic scene, the one where the toys are all sliding downward toward doom, these inexplicable sentient beings all exhibit absolute dignity and absolute love. They wordlessly accept what’s about to happen, holding plastic hands and giving one another whatever comfort they can offer. We’d all be lucky to go out like that, and the beauty of the moment allows you to forget, for just a second, that you are watching a lucrative global children’s-entertainment franchise and not a bleak European art film.
That moment at the incinerator didn’t just have the weight of narrative behind it. It also had time, familiarity. When Toy Story 3 came out, it had been 11 years since the last movie in the franchise. People who’d seen the first two films as kids might have been grown-ups by the time part three came around. They might’ve had kids of their own. These characters might have been as familiar as the actual toys these people had in their rooms once. The Toy Story franchise had told you how this little community of toys had lived, and now it was showing you how the toys would die. This was some heavy shit.
It took a whole lot of corporate machinations before Toy Story 3 could fuck around with people’s feelings on that level. Fifteen years earlier, the original Toy Story had been a delightful cinematic Hail Mary. Pixar, an animation studio that had already been through a long and chaotic gestation period, had used Disney’s money to test the idea that computer animation could tell a complete story, and the experiment had succeeded wildly. Disney had responded to that success by milking Pixar for whatever the company was worth.
Under the original terms of the distribution deal between the companies, Pixar would make the movies, and Disney would own the characters and sequel rights for those first five films. Toy Story 2 was originally planned as a low-budget straight-to-video release, but when Disney deemed the sequel promising enough for a theatrical run, the Pixar braintrust went into brand-protection overdrive, with writers and animators working around the clock to turn it into something special. Toy Story 2 turned out, if anything, even better than its predecessor, and it was also a massive hit—No. 3 at the 1999 box office, behind only The Phantom Menace and The Sixth Sense.
Disney boss Michael Eisner rewarded Pixar by letting the company know that the terms of their deal didn’t include sequels, that they still owed Disney more movies. Pixar boss Steve Jobs was furious. Eisner and Jobs came to hate one another, and when Pixar finished up its original contract with Disney, the animation studio announced plans to go fully independent. Eisner responded by founding a whole new Disney animation studio, called Circle 7, which would be devoted entirely to making sequels to those original Pixar movies. Circle 7 had a whole staff of animators and writers, and it had a Toy Story 3 script ready to go. (That script reportedly involved Buzz Lightyear getting recalled and shipped to a factory in Taiwan and the other toys going to rescue him. It sounds like ass.)
Partly because of fan and investor backlash over those Circle 7 plans, Disney pushed Eisner out and replaced him with Bob Iger. Iger, now the most powerful man in Hollywood, immediately ditched all those Circle 7 plans and instead went to work mending the bridges between Disney and Pixar. Ultimately, Disney paid $7.6 billion to buy Pixar outright. (When Disney bought Marvel and Lucasfilm, the other two splashy acquisitions of the early Iger era, those two moves cost about $4 billion each, which means Disney paid nearly as much for Pixar as it did for Marvel and Star Wars combined.)
All those moving parts meant that America went more than a decade between Toy Story sequels. Toy Story 3 was Pixar’s first feature as a fully entrenched part of the Disney empire. Lee Unkrich, a longtime Pixar insider who’d been co-director of Toy Story 2, signed on to direct. Screenwriter Michael Arndt was a relative newcomer to Pixar, but he’d just won an Oscar for writing Little Miss Sunshine, his first script. All the living members of the Toy Story cast returned. The film ended up with a budget of $200 million, an astronomical pricetag for an animated movie. Really, though, Toy Story 3 cost Disney something more like $7.6 billion to make, due to the purchase of Pixar. The movie had to deliver, and that’s what it did.
Considering the vast economic forces at work, it’s amazing that Toy Story 3 works as well as it does. The film certainly stands as pure entertainment. The opening sequence, a full-on Indiana Jones-level action setpiece, serves as a tremendous showcase for computer animation, which had come a long way since Woody and Buzz first arrived in 1995. But then the movie goes straight from that silly, inventive exhilaration to roundhouse kicking you right in the feelings. Andy, the creative little kid who keeps coming up with these entire worlds for his toys, has grown up. He’s ready to leave for college. He no longer has any use for his toys, and those toys have to orchestrate desperate, dramatic plans to get him to even look at them.
All through the franchise, the toys had been grappling with their own fleeting usefulness. They were like manual laborers in an industry that’s already been rendered obsolete, just waiting for the axe to finally fall. Woody, the hero of the series, is also its deluded religious fanatic—the one who insists, against all possible evidence, that being a beloved toy is a worthy end in itself. His companions don’t have his wild-eyed zeal. They go along with it, but they know it can’t last, and this causes some serious soul-searching. Finally, as Toy Story 3 opens, they all realize that it’s over. They adjust, at least as well as they can.
The promise of life at a daycare center seems, at first, like some long-promised paradise. Ned Beatty’s Lots-O-Huggin’ Bear feeds them lines that sound like utopian Marxist manifestos: “We don’t need owners at Sunnyside. We own ourselves.” But Sunnyside turns out to be a vision of hell, with deranged toys jamming plastic body parts up their nostrils and hammering them into perverse shapes, a great horror-film sequence that clearly informed the most deranged scenes in Sausage Party six years later.
Most of Toy Story 3 is a prison break movie, and it’s a tremendously fun one. The cast, already utterly stacked, gets even deeper: Michael Keaton, Jodi Benson, Timothy Dalton, Kristen Schaal, Bonnie Hunt, Jeff Garlin, Whoopi Goldberg. The villains are a fun group of action-figure henchmen, and most of them are ultimately redeemable. Many of the individual scenes are great, like the gloriously weird sight of Mr. Potato Head’s features jammed into a tortilla—including, uselessly, his mustache and bowler hat. The people at Pixar had been putting together hijinks-heavy adventures at an absurdly high level for years, and the action scenes in Toy Story 3 might be their best. But all those zippy and triumphant little beats lead up to the moment where the scheming Lotso reveals that he’s really just a nihilist: “We’re all just trash, waiting to be thrown away! That’s all a toy is!” Even worse: The bear probably has a point.
The humans of the Toy Story films generally don’t have a lot of loyalty to their plastic belongings, and when they do, it’s a bit weird. The falsest note in Toy Story 3 is the idea that Andy would bring Woody, his ancient vinyl cowboy, to college with him. If I’d known a kid at college with a toy cowboy in his dorm room, I would’ve been seriously concerned about his mental stability. If Woody actually had gone to college with Andy, then there’s a 500% chance that a drunk roommate would’ve thrown the sheriff out a window within the first month. Andy is an outlier case, and even in this rare situation, Woody’s undying devotion seems deluded. Still, the final moment when Andy gives up all his toys to little Bonnie just rips my heart out all over again, an emotional Mortal Kombat fatality.
The cosmology of the Toy Story movies, that inanimate objects that are actually alive and want to be played with, never made sense. It’s a movie franchise built out of childhood dream-logic. We never learn, for instance, why the toys will stop at nothing to keep people from knowing that they’re actually alive, unless those toys are really just worried about our collective sanity. (Sid, the kid who’s doubtlessly scarred by the cursed knowledge of toy sentience in the first Toy Story, reappears in Toy Story 3 as a garbageman. We at least know that he’s gainfully employed, which is a relief.) Throughout the franchise, though, Toy Story gets us invested in this ridiculous world, to the point where entire theaters full of adults were sobbing at the prospect of seeing these little guys get melted.
In the 16 years between the first and third Toy Story films, computer animation took over. Five of the 10 biggest hits of 2010 were 3D animated family spectacles. One franchise limped to its sad-but-still-lucrative end with Shrek Forever After. Two other franchises started up, the shrill Despicable Me and the richly imagined How To Train Your Dragon. Disney Animation Studios, now with Pixar’s braintrust installed in leadership positions, bounced back with Tangled, a film that kicked off another renaissance. The year’s No. 2 blockbuster, Tim Burton’s garbage-ass Alice In Wonderland, is technically considered a live-action film, but it’s a quasi-remake of a Disney cartoon classic, and it’s really mostly computer-animated itself.
Even in the midst of all that competition, Toy Story 3 dominated, not just financially but also critically. At the end of the year, the movie wasn’t just the year’s biggest hit; it was also only the third animated film to compete for Best Picture at the Oscars. Michael Arndt became the first screenwriter ever to be Oscar-nominated for his first two screenplays. Toy Story 3 won Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song, and it definitely deserved the Best Picture statue a whole lot more than actual winner The King’s Speech. (I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Toy Story 3 deserved Best Picture over The Social Network. I’m just going to sit here and tell you that Toy Story 3 gets a whole lot more burn in my house than The Social Network does.)
In the years after Toy Story 3, Pixar went through a creative rough patch, following that movie up with Cars 2 and Brave and Monsters University. Eventually, the studio steered into its rep for being the animation studio that made kids’ movies targeted at making parents cry. In 2017, Pixar jettisoned boss John Lasseter, director of the first Toy Story, for sexual misconduct. Many of the other Pixar lifers, including Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich, quietly departed afterwards. Pixar has not suffered. The studio now cranks out zippy, likable feelings-wreckers at a furious pace. The last Toy Story was great. So was the last Incredibles. So were Inside Out and Coco and Soul. And yet nothing that Pixar has done since Toy Story 3 has made me feel quite the way I felt when those toys stared death in the face and held each other’s hands.
The runner-up: Virtually every big hit of 2010 was a family film. Besides all those animated movies, the year-end top 10 also had a Harry Potter, a Twilight, and a very bad Iron Man. Christopher Nolan’s wild dream-heist headfuck Inception would stand out in any context. Amidst that company, it looks like a trippy-ass miracle.
With Inception, Nolan corralled a cast of movie stars, all at their absolute most charming, and threw them into an international espionage adventure full of tricks and action set pieces and genuinely great special effects. But with all that pure cinematic pleasure, Nolan also put together a dense stoner-logic storyline about what happens when people get trapped in their own dreamspace. It’s amazing that Inception exists at all, and it’s even more amazing that it made enough money to reach No. 6 on that year-end chart.
Next time: An eight-film fantasy saga truly reaches the fireworks factory, arriving at the protracted climax of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part II.