Toy Story 3 Plays It Safe (Post 1 of 3)

Toy Story 3 Official Theatrical Trailer

The 2:19 theatrical trailer for Toy Story 3 is a beautiful, effective piece of movie marketing that blithely presents the conflict driving the story before diverting audience attention into a minor, amusing sub plot. For this wildly anticipated animated summer comedy, the explicit and horrible existential threat facing Andy’s accidentally discarded toys must have seemed too truly disturbing a subject to be countenanced by its advertising, especially given its G rating and child-intensive family audiences.

Whether the decision derived from adverse testing or gut intuition about how best to position the third of a hyper-successful, critically acclaimed and culturally resonant trilogy (for many, myself included, the finest studio film of 2010), the trailermakers decided it was better to leave the audiences with the impression that Woody, Buzz and the others will face nothing more terrible than separation from Andy, mauling at the hands of a hoard of pre-school children, and worry over Buzz’s Spanish language persona.

In hindsight, this trailer, while editorially skillful and commercially sophisticated, never scales the dramatic heights of the film because it withholds the fearsome dangers encountered and survived by our protagonists in their quest to return to Andy’s house.  The tone is lighthearted, despite the nostalgic note struck in the lyric and melody of Randy’s Neuman’s song.  Had we seen the Toys, riding a river of junk toward a fiery oven, holding hands as they faced imminent, horrible death, we might have wondered at Andy’s cruelty or his mother’s indifference. We might not have wanted to take our children to such adult themed fare, and our enjoyment of the toys well-established schtick might have felt indecorous contrasted to the impending holocaust.  Instead, we anticipate that “rough usage” at the hands of poorly supervised and badly raised children is the extent of the danger. We worry lest Buzz fail to recover his native tongue or fret at his new, exotic mannerisms.

The makers of cultural, commercial, artistic juggernaut like Toy Story 3 are probably no less worried about success than the makers of any other film. Indeed, they may be more so, considering heightened awareness and the weight of expectation, given Pixar’s phenomenal track record.  A Disney Marketer might be forgiven for not wanting to make a trailer for the film–at all– given how aware the public already was and how profound an appetite for the film already existed.

Quite simply, a trailer for a film like Toy Story 3 has almost no hope of increasing excitement and winning undecided viewers. Indeed, it is almost all risk: risk of alienating an audience by too similar a story to its predecessors, or too different and unfamiliar a one.  Even the 3D exhibition format might prove objectionable to purists who like the way the previous two films were shot.   With a “product” like TS3 (as with this Summer’s Harry Potter and the Ghostly Hallows) less is best, since nothing short of global cataclysm – or a misguidedly accurate trailer– would have kept  fans and parents with children from buying tickets to the latest and last of the series.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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