Toy Story 3 (2010)

The delight of the Toy Story movies has always been that they take very seriously the childhood belief in the realness, the genuine being of toys. Toys have adventures, and complicated lives, and do fantastic things, and can go anywhere that the fertile mind of a child can imagine (and to infinity... and beyond). But a toy also has a precarious existence. One day, you're shiny and new, and the next day, you're broken, or relegated to the depths of the toy box. You might be the favorite one day, only to be replaced by the latest, greatest thing again and again. And eventually, your child outgrows you, and you're kicked to the curb, sold at a yardsale, stowed in the attic. Or worse.

And so, the Toy Story saga is poignant because of the impermanence of a toy's life, and the sorrow and heartache that comes with attachment. That theme was explored with richness and emotional complexity in Toy Story 2, and it is more or less reiterated in Toy Story 3, although this time everything is a little darker, and grimmer.

The peril for Andy's toys in Toy Story 3 is that Andy (voiced by John Morris, who has been Andy for 15 years) is going away to college. Mom (Laurie Metcalf) has delivered an edict: everything must go. It's either the box bound for college, the box for the attic, the donations for the daycare center, or the trashcan. Andy's perennial favorite Woody (Tom Hanks) is ready for college, but through a mishap, the other toys -- Buzz Lightyear, Jessie the Cowgirl, Hamm the piggybank, Rex the dinosaur, Slinky Dog, and Mr and Mrs Potato Head -- end up at the Sunnyside Daycare Center. There, they are greeted warmly by the resident toys, including their leader, a purple bear named Lotso-Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty), and the creepy, sad, droopy-eyed doll Baby. Lotso promises an idyllic life of play and leisure. Just what every toy wants. 

Life isn't as sunny as it seems at Sunnyside, however, especially after the newcomers are assigned to the toddler room where horrible things are done to toys. And then it gets worse, as they discover that Lotso runs a sort of fascist prison camp for toys. Lotso is a good toy turned bad, a broken bear embittered when he was, long ago, replaced with a newer model.

Lotso changes the mood and the stakes in the Toy Story 'verse in a way that is not especially welcome. He's a genuinely mean, depraved toy, not just a play nemesis, and he threatens the very existence of Andy's beloved (if neglected) playthings. While the movie remains playful, having fun with classic prison escape movie tropes and bringing a punny and literal *deus ex machina* in to save the day, the tone of the story is darker and the peril has been amped up. I guess I can't stand to see a toy in mortal danger, because I found Toy Story 3 less enjoyable than the previous two movies, and occasionally even unpleasant.

All of that is, I suppose, part and parcel with taking toys seriously. But just what are we taking seriously here? Toys are real because they are animated by a child's love and freed from mere thinghood by the life breathed into them by their little creators. They come to life, as do we all, at their peril, for life is treacherous and full of sorrow, full of leavings and returnings, but also full of joy and laughter and fun. Toys get old, as do we all, and must face their own kind of mortality. In Toy Story 2, Woody was forced to choose between sterile immortality in a museum, and his loyalty to Andy, and the messy, temporal love of a fickle child. My objection to Toy Story 3, I suppose, comes down to this -- the existential crisis of toy being, as eloquently and poignantly depicted in the previous movies, is not literal annihilation, but the loss of meaning, the loss of significance, the indignity of being forgotten and unloved. (Arguably, this is also the existential crisis of human beings -- not death itself, but the loss of everything else that is valuable to us.) Toy Story 3 threatens the toys with literal extermination at the same time that they wrestle with all the other losses that come with being the playthings of a grown up child. Which is to say that Toy Story 3 rehashes the major theme of Toy Story 2, and then adds an element of additional (trumped up) danger that is, frankly, kind of cliched. It stops being uniquely about the toy experience (and the unusual perils of toyhood, and the toy's eye view of the world), and more about the kinds of experiences that characters in action-adventure movies have. Toy Story 3 is less emotionally resonant and satisfying because it is less about how toys are us, and more about how toys are just a filmmaker's playthings.


The Karate Kid (2010)

The main challenge for Jackie Chan in The Karate Kid, a remake of the venerated1984 movie, is not to replace Pat Morita's Mr. Miyagi. No, the challenge is to fight with kids without ever striking kids. This is something that Chan, who specializes in creative and humorous kung fu fight sequences, manages quite handily by getting those kids -- the movie's kung fu fighting bullies -- to hit each other, get tangled up in their own clothing, and fall down with just a little non-contact assistance from the stealth master.

The kid this time around is Dre Parker (Jaden Smith), a Detroit kid whose mother (Taraji P. Henson) is transferred to Beijing. The culture shock is bad enough, but Dre quickly becomes the target of Cheng (Wang Zhenwei), the star pupil of a kung fu academy whose curriculum appears designed primarily to create bullies and fascists. After Dre befriends Meiying (Han Wenwen), an aspiring violinist, Cheng and his gang make Dre's life miserable with regular beatings. Then Mr. Han (Chan), the gruff, shuffling handyman for Dre's apartment building steps in. He fends off the bad guys with some inventively nonviolent defensive maneuvers and eventually challenges Cheng and his headmaster to a very public duel at a kung fu tournament.

And, true to the original movie (except that the karate is replaced by kung fu), Mr. Han begins training Dre in an unconventional and, to the kid, annoyingly baffling manner. Mr. Miyagi had his young pupil waxing a car with the memorable "Wax on, wax off." Mr. Han waxes his own car (in a nod to the original) and makes Dre take his jacket on and off, on and off so that he might learn both the ways of kung fu and practical household skills. "Take your jacket off, hang it up, put your jacket on" doesn't have quite the ring to it that "Wax on, wax off" had, so it's not likely to become a cultural meme. But Mr. Han and Dre also climb picturesque mountains, visit exotic monasteries, and practice on the Great Wall. The movie, directed by Harald Zwart and filmed in China, develops a nice sense of place, plopping Dre and his mother into the hustle and bustle of Beijing's busy streets, lively parks, and active rooftops. The movie takes advantage of the exotic locales to enhance Dre's sense of cultural isolation, and to give the story some added authenticity. It also firmly locates The Karate Kid within the Asian martial arts movie tradition. The Karate Kid is not so much a nostalgia trip as a restaging in a more traditional location -- the original movie was already a remake of traditional Asian martial arts movies, repackaged by Hollywood for an American audience, and following the classic plotline in which an unlikely hero is challenged and defeated, masters kung fu, and is honorably redeemed in battle (after suffering a near-repeat defeat).

The Karate Kid is funny and charming, and takes advantage of Chan's penchant for deadpan, stonefaced humor (but also lets him display his acting chops for a change). Smith is just cute as a button -- I predict the kid will be a big star, and since The Karate Kid is a bilingual Chinese-American production, it will get him noticed by those billions of Asian moviegoers who already adore Chan. The level of violence in the movie is just right for youngsters -- no blood, no death, but Dre does get pounded pretty hard more than a few times. Lessons are learned, tears are shed, and Dre, a fatherless boy, gains a father figure while Han, a sonless father, gains a son. Most importantly, the bullies learn a thing or two about fairness, honor, and respect. 

At more than two hours, the movie is just a wee bit long for kids who haven't yet mastered the focus and stillness that Master Han imparts to Dre. But it's consistently fun and entertaining, and offers a spoonful of pop enlightenment too.


Splice (2010)

The murky-yucky opening credits of Splice give a hint as to what's next: Something icky this way comes. A modern day Frankenstein, Splice is a sci fi horror hybrid, kind of like the chimerical creature at the center of this parable of science run amok. Splice plays on the fears of genetic tinkering, but also explores scientific hubris, bad parenting, and corporate science in a smart, creepy, disturbing film.

Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) are genetic engineers. (Their names are playful allusions to Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive, two stars of James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein.) They work for a pharmaceutical company, experimenting with gene splicing to create hybrid lifeforms whose enzymes, it is hoped, will lead to new drugs for humanity's ills. They're passionate about their work, and also about the slug-like Fred and Ginger, their squirmy, gooey, living laboratories. Fred and Ginger look more like enormous inside-out slugs than garden variety slugs, but to Elsa and Clive, they are things of beauty. And to the world, Elsa and Clive are rock star scientists -- they've been on the cover of Wired magazine. But when their corporate masters threaten to pull the plug on their work, an ill-conceived plan is hatched -- they create a human chimera, a mix of human and "other" DNA. Just what that other DNA is remains a mystery, but the resulting lifeform, H-50,  looks like a fetal rabbit crossed with a naked chicken, with a little scorpion mixed in for good measure. Kind of cute, but also kind of icky. H-50 grows up fast, eventually becomes more humanoid (she grows arms that can hug her creators), and is renamed Dren (Abigail Chu plays the child Dren, Delphine Chaneac is the adult Dren). Grown up Dren, with her wide-set eyes (and, looking past the persistent cleft in her skull), looks a bit like a young Michelle Pfeiffer, which is to say, pretty darn attractive. As psychological complications go, creating an attractive monster is far worse than creating an ugly one. 

Directed by Vincenzo Natali, a former storyboard artist (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Splice is a terrifically creepy, crazy, provocative, and stylish film. The movie's look is persistently industrial-dreary and grungy, the color pallette dominated by fluorescent blue-greens and dirty browns. Could anything but a monster be born and raised in a world so grimly institutional?

Casting Polley and Brody was inspired -- they are neither one of them ordinary looking, and both are believably tormented by the unexpected development (and literal and figurative growing pains) of their creation. Elsa, especially, views Dren as more than a test-tube experiment, but her maternal impulses are badly warped by her own only hinted-at childhood with her Mommy dearest. As for Dren, she evokes a confusing welter of feelings: dread, revulsion, pity, sympathy, affection, attraction. Dren is a marvelous creation, both technically (she's a seamlessly spliced-together hybrid of different film technologies), and as a character -- she's an imaginatively and fully realized, brand new being.

Splice inspires more shivers and repugnance than outright fear, and the gore is judiciously applied so as to maximize its effect. The visual effects are very fine, and the evocatively shplicky, shloopy, chirpy sound effects add immensely to the  experience of the film. Splice is an intelligent movie that's interested in the weighty ethical issues raised by genetic meddling, and by Promethean scientists unbound by moral insight and foresight, and inspired by equal parts glory and greed. It also explores complicated family and couple dynamics made even more confusing by the human ability to procreate in ways that the birds and bees never imagined. As it was with Frankenstein, so it is with Splice: in the end we are left to wonder who is the real monster.