It’s unexpected (two toys look at each other, startled), it’s witty, and it’s perfectly in context.* And, most remarkably, it’s entirely credible that Barbie says it.**
Here’s another thing — somewhere in the last reel, in a passage of 10 or 15 minutes, the sense of tragedy and loss was so powerful, I found myself circumspectly sobbing. (Though my father-in-law, tough at 88, declined to join in, or notice. But then, he also refused to drop a tear in the famously wrenching first ten minutes of Up, a movie he loves.)
It’s one thing for cartoon characters to acquire an animated life, but Toy Story offers the subtle but receding mirror complexity of cartoon characters who are only toys inside a larger cartoon world. And more, while the movie lavishes us with a laugh or several a minute, the themes of Toy Story 3 emphatically belong in that final section of a life story — involuntary retirement, loss, neglect, dismissal, destruction, the delicate contingencies of love. A child viewer cares only that the toy heroes are saved, but any adult can recognise where their heartstrings are being tugged. Redemption comes, as it must, but by then we have already seen the shadow fall; and we know that it will only grow longer and larger.
I found Toy Story 3 revelatory: it reminds us that characters in a movie are fictional, whether played by live, or animated actors. (Live actors have both the great advantage, but also often the drawback of certain signals, in their natural physicality and voice and expression, and their familiarity. An animated character, of course, can be shaped any way, and be voice cast to fine criteria.)
(*Bravely echoing, in a dramatic scene between some oppressed toys and a tyrannous one, the Jeffersonian passage in the Declaration of Independence: “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”)
Once upon a time, cartoons
Once upon a time “cartoons” were the basic line sketches that Renaissance artists used to make to trace them onto walls or canvasses for murals and paintings — when they would be modelled and coloured, that is to say, fully fleshed out.
Once, cartoons were delivery vehicles for joyous celebrations of classic stories — Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid.
Or, joyously anarchic sublimations of explicit violence — the irresistible thesis/antithesis of Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny, of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Or the parodic ultra-violence of Itchy and Scratchy, the cartoon inside the cartoon of The Simpsons.
One notes that The Simpsons pragmatically insist on the cartoonishness of cartoons: Homer and Marge, and Bart and Lisa, are exemplars of certain characteristics, without quite being characters, but sufficiently characterful to carry each episode’s storylines. (But they remain “flat characters,” to use EM Forster’s terminology: “The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence such as ‘I will never desert Mr Micawber.’ There is Mrs Micawber — she says she won’t desert Mr Micawber; she doesn’t, and there she is.”)
But at some point, cartoons crossed into animation, if I can draw that distinction. They accessed a kind of animism, a host of animating spirits. Being neither a film scholar or reviewer I can’t say when that became recognisable or more commonplace, but I remember watching Hayao Miyazaki’s astonishing Spirited Away, the Japanese anime from 2001. Knocked out by the extravagant imagination one was also conscious of how effortlessly and authentically autonomous the creature characters were in the film. They had their own mysterious motivations and would go on doing what they would long after everyone had left the cinema — they achieved roundness.** That, one might say, is the power of art.
The reverse phenomena is fascinating too: Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight is a spectacular example of a cartoon amplified into a life of his own, a larger-than- kind of life.
(**“the test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way.” — EM Forster)