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Monday Mouse Watch: “Toy Story 3” aims to be less like Fredo & more like Frodo

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Monday Mouse Watch: “Toy Story 3” aims to be less like Fredo & more like Frodo

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Let’s start with the obvious question: Is Lee Unkrich concerned that he’s going to be the guy who breaks Pixar’s now-10-pictures-long winning streak?

When I got to talk with the director of “Toy Story 3” as part of a roundtable session at Comic-Con last year, Lee admitted that – with each new hit that Pixar Animation Studios produces – the pressure gets a little greater. “And no one wants to be the one to drop the ball,” he said.

And given that Unkrich was the co-director of “Toy Story 2,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo” … Well, it’s not like Lee hasn’t dealt with high pressure situations before. “But when you co-direct, you have all the joys without the burdens,” he continued.

Ron Clements, John Musker, Hayao Miyazaki, John Lasseter, Kirk Wise and Lee Unkrich at the 2009 Comic Con International
(L to R) Ron Clements, John Musker, Hayao Miyazaki, John Lasseter, Kirk Wise
and Lee Unkrich at the 2009 Comic-Con International. Photo by Nancy Stadler 

But this time around, the pressures that Unkrich was facing were admittedly high. After all, he was helming a highly anticipated sequel to two of the most popular animated films in history. Then add to that the logistical side of production on “Toy Story 3.” Which were enormously challenging as well, given that – as Lee explained – “ … we have more characters in this movie than any other movie that we’ve made at Pixar.”

So knowing that “Toy Story 2” has long been lumped in with “The Godfather Part II” and “The Empire Strikes Back” (As in: It’s the rare sequel that’s as good as / even better than the original film). More importantly, that the world of cinema is littered with series that seriously stumbled when they reached Movie No. 3 (EX: “The Godfather Part III” and “Return of the Jedi”) … How did Unkrich get ready for the challenge that he was going to face with “Toy Story 3” ? By watching Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

“That’s the feel that we’re ultimately shooting for with ‘Toy Story 3’,” Lee said. “That just like with the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, there's this continuous flow of story from film to film to film. That that the story we’re telling this time around doesn’t feel artificial. That it feels like it came organically out of the first two ‘Toy Stories’.”

Movie poster for The Lord of the Rings, The Motion Picture Trilogy
Copyright New Line Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved

With an eye toward achieving this goal, Unkrich – along with John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and Jeff Pigeon – returned to the place where the story for “Toy Story 2” was crafted. Which is the Poet’s Loft, a seaside chalet in Marin County with spectacular views of Tomales Bay and Point Reyes Peninsula.

And once the team from Pixar got settled in for this multi-day retreat, the first order of business was to watch “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2.” Which left Lee and Co. momentarily depressed because – as he explained “ … we’d forgotten what good movies they were.“

But – over time – Unkrich, Lasseter et al eventually came up with a story idea that grew naturally out of the ending of “Toy Story 2.” When Woody tells Buzz Lightyear that he’s okay with the idea that Andy will grow up someday and then leave all of his playthings behind.

A scene from Toy Story 3 - Buzz, Woody and the gang peer from a box labeled Sunnyside
Copyright 2010 Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

“It’s one thing to be comfortable with the idea of an event like this when it’s off in the far-off future. But it’s quite another to be dealing with all of the emotions that come when that event is finally actually happening,” Lee continued. “That’s why we chose to start ‘Toy Story 3’ the way we did. With Andy heading off to college and Buzz, Woody and the gang wondering what’s to become of them now.”

And given that these were characters who were now clearly outside of their comfort zone … Well, it then only made sense that Pixar would recruit Michael Arndt (i.e. the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of one of the more uncomfortable family comedies of the past 10 years, “Little Miss Sunshine”) to turn Andrew Stanton’s “Toy Story 3” treatment into a full-blown screenplay.

And Unkrich worked closely with Arnt on this film’s script. “I told Michael that our goal was to tell a complete story with ‘Toy Story 3.’ That the story that was started with the original ‘Toy Story’ ends with ‘Toy Story 3,’ “ he remembered. “ And I think that we achieved that goal.”

Movie Poster for Little Miss Sunshine
Copyright 2010 Fox. All Rights Reserved

Mind you, there were other challenges that the “TS3” production team faced. Chief among these was that “Toy Story 3” was the first film in the series to be produced in Disney Digital 3D. That – coupled with the fact that computer animation has grown infinitely more sophisticated since the original “Toy Story” was released to theaters in November of 1995 – made working on this particular Pixar production a difficult balancing act for Lee and his team.

“In the end, what we decided to do was keep the look of the characters exactly the same but really up the level of realism when it comes to ‘Toy Story 3’ ‘s background,” Unkrich said. “We’ve gone to a whole level there.”

And speaking of the “Toy Story 3” characters: When pressed, Lee admitted that his favorite from the films was the troll doll (“I love the hair”).

Buzz Lightyear, Darla K. Anderson, Lee Unkrich and Woody at ShoWest 2010
Buzz Lightyear, Darla K. Anderson, Lee Unkrich and Woody at ShoWest 2010.
Copyright Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

Which is kind of ironic. Given that – nine months later – when Unkrich stood on stage in Las Vegas to introduce the work-in-progress version of “Toy Story 3” to ShoWest attendees, Lee sort of looked like a troll doll. But given that his team at Pixar had gone from just having 25% of this picture animated in July 2009 to 99% done in March of 2010 … Well, it was easy to understood the bags under his eyes / why Lee’s hair was standing on end.

But that said, as Unkrich stood on stage at the Le Theatre Des Arts at the Paris Las Vegas) with “Toy Story 3” producer Darla K. Anderson, he was nothing but gracious. Acknowledging the obvious importance of the “Toy Story” franchise to Pixar as well as the huge role that John Lasseter played in the success of the first two “Toy Story” movies, Lee said that “ … we’re grateful to John Lasseter for lending us his shiny sports car. Hopefully we’ve brought it back without any scratches or dings.”

If you’d like to kick the tires on “Toy Story 3,” learn more about this highly anticipated sequel before it hits the road on June 18th, you can check out this Pixar film’s official website by clicking here.

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