Toons affirm studio as animation powerhouse

A fresh look at the two “Toy Story” films, which are now being released as a double bill in 3D for what are claimed as two-week engagements, only reaffirms what fresh, lively and imaginative creations they are.

Everyone who saw them when they came out in 1995 and 1999, respectively, could tell that this new company called Pixar had moved animation to a new level, both visually and in terms of mass appeal. But it would have taken clairvoyance of the most presumptuous order to predict the wave of outstanding films that would flow from the individuals credited with writing and directing the “Toy Story” pictures, and the consolidation of Pixar’s standing as the best-run, most artistically and commercially consistent movie company on Earth.

The films are so effective in 3D, they look as though they were designed for the format. To emphasize the attributes of computer animation, director John Lasseter and his collaborators composed “Toy Story” to emphasize depth perception and dramatic movement well beyond what was the norm in conventionally animated films, which tended to feature a flatter canvas.

There are even a few shots — animals virtually attacking the “lens,” architectural constructions that feature objects in the extreme foreground and background — that might even have been called pandering to 3D had the pictures actually been made with the process in mind. How well the duo is suited to 3D comes as a pleasant surprise.

I had always gone along with the prevailing view that “Toy Story 2″ was slightly better than its predecessor. Seeing them together reversed my opinion. Whereas “2” benefits from the introduction of cowgirl Jessie and such wonderful conceits as putting Buzz Lightyear on the toy store shelf along with his hundreds of identical brethren, “1” prevails in the end due to its more unified narrative; by contrast, “2,” for all its amusing invention, dawdles on sidings for a while before charging into the action climax. Still, it’s splitting hairs.

A second thought occurs, that after passing the two-hour point of watching the movies together, perhaps enough of a good thing is enough. Will little kids, accustomed to animated films that generally run 90 minutes or less, easily sit through a double bill?

At the Los Angeles press preview, there was only a 10-minute break between features, but most families present for “1” seemed to stick around for the second feature. One moppet didn’t even make it through the first picture, however; only minutes into it, a very young girl, evidently unimpressed by the miracle of 3D, cried, “Get me out of here!” This got one of the biggest laughs of the day, and she apparently got her way, as she was never heard from again.

The talent involved in the first two films went on to produce much of the best animation of the past 15 years, from Lasseter’s impressive track record to such talents as Pete Docter (“Up”) and Andrew Stanton (“Wall-E). “Toy Story 2″ co-director Lee Unkrich directed “Toy Story 3,” set for a June 18, 2010 release.

Does the novelty of 3D wear off, and is it really the big deal it’s being made out to be? After a while, you do get used it and its impact does decrease, or least becomes normalized. If this year’s best 3D animated films are arguably “Coraline” and “Up,” I would posit that the former was strongly enhanced by the format, whereas the latter was fine either way but really didn’t benefit particularly from 3D. So the equivocating answer as to 3D’s value is: It depends.

If the “Toy Story” enhancements fulfill Disney’s monetary dreams, there is no doubt that similar treatment of the other Pixar films, and some of Disney’s as well, will follow. It’s easy to imagine “Monsters, Inc.,” with its rollercoaster conveyer belts, and “The Incredibles” and “Cars,” with their heavy action, being particularly effective in the format.

If nothing else, the “Toy Story” double feature demonstrates that films produced with no thought of 3D can be adapted to it with great success; I’m sure that, after umpteen DVD and Blu-ray special editions, the arrival of “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Lord of the Rings” in 3D is only a matter of time. But “Casablanca” and “His Girl Friday” in 3D? Thanks, but no thanks.

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