Walk into the adult-friendly playground that is the Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, and the first thing that strikes you is the lavish decorations – a life-size replica of Ken’s decadent dollhouse from Toy Story 3, complete with a working elevator, rising from the lobby’s handsome, light-blond hardwood floor as if in tribute to the movie and its detail-obsessed creators.
Elsewhere, you’ll be quick to notice other playful accoutrements, including giant statues of Toy Story heroes Woody and Buzz Lightyear, constructed entirely of Legos, lounging casually by an aquamarine pool table. There’s a video-game enclave, featuring the latest Pixar-inspired games for the Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and, with his back to Ken’s mansion, a towering stuffed bear with a broad, inviting smile – Lotso, the deceptively huggable beast who butts heads with Woody and Buzz in their latest adventure.
This is no normal day at Pixar. On this sunny morning, reporters have gathered to meet the stars and animators who have painstakingly brought Toy Story back to life after an 11-year absence. During that time, the studio has released seven features, including its two biggest hits – Finding Nemo (2003) and last year’s Up. For Pixar, the improbable is always believable.
So it comes as only a modest surprise to find Kristen Schaal, of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, riding Ken’s elevator, apparently startled to realize that, yes, it’s real. Or Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich welcoming visitors to Pixar’s in-house movie theater, its ceiling designed to light up with stars when the lights go down. Or Pixar regular and former Cheers barfly John Ratzenberger, who has appeared in every one of the studio’s 11 films, reclining comfortably on a leather couch.
To Ratzenberger, who reprises his first Pixar role – as Hamm, the wisecracking piggy bank – in Unkrich’s conclusion to the Toy Story trilogy, the formula behind the studio’s unprecedented string of critically lauded box-office hits is simple. And not just because he’s in them.
“The golden age of Hollywood wasn’t created by people who grew up watching TV and movies,” he says. “Those were people who lived through the Depression, a world war – they brought that experience to the art of making movies. The people who make movies today didn’t grow up reading books. They grew up watching TV.
“But the people at Pixar, they read books. They lead real lives. They have children. And they live here, in Emeryville, where they’re closer to their audience. In Hollywood, you’re separated from reality – the rules of the game in Hollywood only apply to Hollywood. Reality there is different from the rest of the world. But not in Emeryville.”
Along with Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles and Wallace Shawn, Ratzenberger, 63, is a founding member of the voice cast that has stayed with the Toy Story franchise since the 1995 original. And though he suspects that 3 marks the final chapter, he says he’ll be ready the next time Pixar calls.
“I’m grateful to be part of Pixar’s passion,” he says. “I watch the films like everybody else in the audience and I just have to laugh. The beauty of working with Pixar is that they do all the heavy lifting. They know the exact punctuation and every breath the character takes. The director knows the emotional direction he wants. They build the ship – all you have to do is ride in it.
“They consider every film that they do as important as the first one. They forget they’ve won 26 Academy Awards. They forget they’re the top of the heap. They give themselves a new challenge for every film, and they accomplish it. They maintain a standard.”
Most trilogies start with a bang and end with a whimper, but Ratzenberger believes 3 is the best Toy Story yet, and he’s not alone. Unkrich, 42, who spent four-plus years crafting a sequel that would not only match but surpass its predecessors, seems assured that his solo directorial debut (after co-directing Toy Story 2, 2001’s Monsters, Inc. and Nemo) fills the bill. And his co-stars agree.
Hanks describes the story, written by Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) with Unkrich, Andrew Stanton (WALL*E) and studio chief John Lasseter, as “so profoundly emotional that you can’t help but have tears in your eyes.”
That’s hard to deny: Toy Story 3 is about change, loss and the ability to make painful transitions – in this case, as Woody, Buzz and the gang prepare to part with Andy, their once-doting owner, all grown up and ready for college. Childish things put away too soon for their liking, they wonder what purpose they’ll serve going forward.
“I think 3 is a more important movie than the others,” says Joan Cusack, 47, who joined the cast in 1999 as Jessie the yodeling cowgirl. “The themes are bigger. What are we all doing? How do we stay relevant? And the answer, as we see in the movie, is that we stay relevant by knowing we’re loved and that we’re important to the people we’re with. Everything else is pretty obsolete.”
Other Stars Sound Off...
“The great thing for me about working on the Toy Story films is the great friendships I’ve made with all the people at Pixar and with Tom Hanks. In this third film, Buzz gets to expand his role. When he accidentally gets reset, he speaks perfect Spanish. He’s a conquistador and a bull fighter. It’s pretty hysterical. I really do like being Buzz. He’s a character I developed with John Lasseter and he’s a lot of fun to play.”
– Tim Allen, on the pleasures of playing Buzz Lightyear
"There's not so much improv involved. You basically say the lines three or four times, and you try to give the filmmakers different readings each time, so they can pick and choose what fits. After you hit the line, you can really go for it and improvise. A couple things stuck, but nothing too significant. I didn't change the storyline. I should have. I should have made Trixie save the world."
– Kristen Schaal, who plays a triceratops named Trixie, on the voice-acting process
"I loved Lincoln Logs as a kid, and my mom bought me a whole set. I was obsessed with realism – if my toy soldiers didn't look as if they were ready for battle, if they had some ridiculous expression on their faces, they were out. I wanted nothing to do with them. So I was playing with the logs, and I thought, what would really be realistic is if they caught on fire. Me and my buddy burned them down, and the next thing I know there's fire everywhere. I ran all the way home, and when I got there, I heard the sirens. The fire trucks were coming. We'd started a brushfire."
– Michael Keaton, who plays Ken, on the toys of his youth
"When Pixar calls, if your eyes are closed, they open right up, and they're wider than ever. If you're in the first Saw movie, you have to think to yourself, 'Will this ruin my career?' – let alone Saw 12, or whatever number they're on now. But Toy Story? Come on. I'm so honored to be in this. I couldn't be more thrilled. There's no rolling of the eyes when it comes to the third installment of Toy Story."
– Jeff Garlin, who plays a unicorn named Buttercup, on the dangers of too many sequels