Two years ago, the question in Oscar and animation circles was, “When will a Pixar movie finally crack the list of Best Picture nominees?" Now that the roster of nominees has grown from five to 10, there’s a new question: “Will 'Toy Story 3' be the first animated winner?"
Certainly, Disney is hoping so -- and is prepping a massive marketing campaign to support it. The most successful Pixar film of all time, director Lee Unkrich’s final chapter in the saga that began with Pixar’s first movie in 1995 has garnered nearly unanimous raves and a $1 billion-plus box-office gross.
But the film, which came to DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, could easily have gone awry: At one point Disney, who owned the rights to the iconic characters, was moving ahead with a direct-to-video sequel without Pixar’s input.
It wasn’t until 2006, when Disney bought Pixar and put that company’s founder John Lasseter in charge of Disney animation, that the Disney version was killed and the “Toy Story” reins were handed to Unkrich and producer Darla K. Anderson.
When you make a movie like “Toy Story 3,” are you thinking of a specific audience that you want to reach?
ANDERSON: From the beginning, since the original “Toy Story,” it’s always been making movies for ourselves.
UNKRICH: We do make sure the movies are appropriate for kids. But I think the moment you try to make a movie for kids, you make garbage. Who are we to know what kids want to see? And if you try to target a movie at kids, you end up with something that makes parents take a nap. I’ve been to a lot of those with my kids over the years.
Some people have said that the ending, in which the toys are nearly sucked into a giant incinerator, might be too intense for kids.
UNKRICH: We talked about that. But it tested fine, and we ultimately decided that it is fine.
In our quest to protect kids, we’ve watered a lot of entertainment down to the point where it doesn’t have bite anymore, and it doesn’t teach anything. Kids’ entertainment, from its inception, from the beginnings of Victorian children’s literature, was about teaching kids about the evils of the world, and that there are bad people in the world, and bad things can happen. Cautionary tales.
What we’ve found is that kids don’t experience that scene in the same way that adults do. Kids don’t have the same sense of their own mortality as adults – and while the kids know that the toys are in danger, they’re not feeling the heaviness that many of us feel when we watch that scene.
Animated films are extremely time-consuming. When did you start on the project?
ANDERSON: It really started pretty much at the moment that Disney bought Pixar. That’s when we were able to shut down the version of “Toy Story 3” that Disney was making, and grab the reins and start making our own.
How far along was Disney on its version?
UNKRICH: They had a script, and I think they were beginning to do story reels. But we’ve never seen any of what they had done.
Are you curious about it?
UNKRICH: I’m curious now that we’re done. We never wanted to have anything to do with it while we were making ours, because we didn’t want it to remotely influence anything that we were doing. But now I’d like to see it just purely out of curiosity. I feel like it’d be getting a glimpse of an alternate future that didn’t happen. But I think everything might have been destroyed.
At the beginning did you have an outline of the story, or did Lasseter just say, “Here are the keys to the car, drive it where you want?”
UNKRICH: Pretty much. We went off on this two-day off-site to a cabin in Northern California. The site was significant because John and Andrew [Stanton] and Pete [Docter] and Joe [Ranff] had gone there to brainstorm ideas for the original “Toy Story” all those years ago. So we gathered as much of the same group as we could, and we spent two days kicking around ideas.
We actually had had an idea for years, but it never really went anywhere because we couldn’t make it. And interestingly, within the first 20 minutes of the first day, we shot down that idea. We all agreed that it just wasn’t solid enough.
ANDERSON: I’m just glad that I didn’t go to the bathroom or leave the room when it was shot down, because I would have come back and gone, WHAT? We’d been talking about that idea for so many years.
What did you have at the end of those two days?
UNKRICH: We had a lot of very important elements of the story. We made the decision that Andy was going to be grown up and heading off to college, and that there were only a few toys left in his room that he never played with anymore. We came up with the idea that the toys would somehow end up in a day care center, and that that day care center would seemingly be a utopia for outgrown toys, but it would turn out to be like a prison.
We also knew that Andy was going to give his toys away at the end of the film to a new kid – a little girl, specifically. Those were really important, concrete things to have landed at.
Last year, when I spoke to Pete Docter about “Up,” he said that every Pixar movie is bad at some point, but that the process you go through invariably improves them. Was “Toy Story 3” ever bad?
UNKRICH: Oh, sure. I recently went back and watched some of the early story reels, and they’re embarrassingly awful. And the thing that made it especially hard is that they insisted on having a documentary crew following us around everywhere for the DVD. It’s painful to be in the muck and not be able to figure things out, and they’ve got cameras filming everything.
You know, a lot of people ask how Pixar does what it does, how we’ve had 11 films in a row that are successes. And we don’t really know. But when we look at what we do, there are some things we do that I don’t think anybody else does. And one of those is, we internally manufacture some conflict.
The famous Pixar “brain trust.”
UNKRICH: Yeah, All the directors get together in a small group and watch each other’s work. It’s a matter of getting people who have strong voices and strong opinions together to hash it out, to talk about why the films aren’t working. And we’re all very honest with each other. We’ll give praise, but we also just as quickly give very broad notes like “I don’t care about anybody in this movie.”
As a creative person, you don’t always want to do that. If you’re working on something and it’s not coming together, it’s easy to say, “I don’t want to show this, until I’ve figured it out.” But a lot of times you don’t really solve the problems, and then you start getting into a bad situation because you don’t have the time to fix it.
We’ve always been encouraged to screw up, but to screw up as early as possible. And we don’t always find the solutions in the meetings, but we do always identify the problems.
So what were the problems you have to fix on this film?
UNKRICH: A lot of it had to do with the basic spine of what Woody’s problem was. What journey did he have to go on, and what conclusions did he have to come to in the end? That can often be a very muddy thing to define, and we ultimately realized that this film was very much about saying goodbye.
Woody is completely devoted to Andy, almost to a point where it’s unhealthy, and he has to realize that part of life is saying goodbye, and that sometimes saying goodbye to someone you love is the most loving thing that you can do. It’s easy to say that after the fact, but it was a journey to get to that.
Is the world of “Toy Story” finished now that the third movie is on DVD?
UNKRICH: We want to keep the characters alive. I look at this as ending the story of Andy and his toys. But that being said, we love Woody and Buzz, and we think there are more stories in their universe. So we’ve started to do some short films, and the first one is going to be on “Cars 2” next summer.
What’s next for the two of you?
UNKRICH: We’re doing another movie together at Pixar. We get a lot of questions about doing live action, because I know Brad Bird’s doing “Mission: Impossible” now, and Andrew’s doing his film. But it’s a little different for them. They’ve always been animators, and they want to see what it’s like in the live-action world.
I came from there, I’ve done that, and I have it so good at Pixar that I can’t imagine leaving. My experience in live action was one of having to compromise quite a bit, having to make a lot of decisions not for the best reasons. At Pixar, I don’t have to compromise at all. When I look at the finished “Toy Story 3,” I don’t sit and constantly think, oh, the actor was having a bad day, or oh, it rained and we couldn’t use that set. The story that I wanted to tell is what is on screen, and I haven’t had to compromise it one iota.
ANDERSON: I fell in love with computer animation 20-some years ago, and I’m still in love with it. To me, it’s just filmmaking. We use the same tools as every other filmmaker, and I’m 100 percent satisfied with the films we do and how many people we touch.
UNKRICH: Some people talk as if what we’re doing is less than live-action filmmaking. But whether I’m directing live action or animation, my responsibility is the same. I have an audience sitting in a theater with their popcorn, and I’ve got to show them a good time and make them feel something.