It’s Not Easy Being 3
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Each summer, when the Pixar artists release their latest digitally-animated masterpiece, it’s met with ooohs and aaaahs and raves from both critics and audiences alike. Then, the next winter, they generally get an Oscar for their trouble. But with its upcoming release of Toy Story 3, Pixar is definitely taking a big risk. As director Lee Unkrich picks up the series where John Lasseter left off, even the most die-hard Pixar fans are just a little bit nervous.

After all, as a general rule in Hollywood, the higher the number in a series, the worse the movies tend to get. After the sequel fails to capture the magic of the original (as was the case with this summer’s Iron Man 2), the third movie in the series often seems to be a desperate (and rather pitiful) attempt to capitalize on earlier successes, only to come off feeling cheap and uninspired and completely slapped-together. The original cast and crew begin to fade away, only to be replaced by a collection of stand-ins. Often, the film doesn’t even make it to theaters, instead getting the dreaded straight-to-video release.

Of course, that’s not always the case. There are good 3s, and there are bad 3s. So, before this week’s Big 3 hits theaters, let’s take a quick look at some of the best—and the worst—of the 3s.

The Downward Spiral:

As I mentioned earlier, some film franchises just get worse and worse with each new film—just like when you try to make a copy of a copy, and the quality just deteriorates with each new copy.

Take, for instance, 2008’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The first film in the franchise, The Mummy, was definitely campy—but in a lovably brainless kind of way. The second film, The Mummy Returns, got cheesier yet—in a less lovable kind of way. And the third film was just a ridiculous mess of shaky action, awkward plotlines, and football-playing yetis.

Another member of The Third Movie Hall of Shame is Austin Powers in Goldmember. The original Austin Powers movie was a zany comic phenomenon back in 1997, instantly brining the swingin’ ‘60s zinging back into popularity. I can’t tell you how many flower child parties I attended in the late ‘90s, thanks to Mike Myers and his dentally-challenged man of mystery. The 1999 sequel was pretty good, too—though, as is often the case with sequels, it wasn’t quite as clever and comical as the original. 2002’s Goldmember, however, was a spastic mess of random plotlines and bad jokes. Let’s just say that, after Goldmember, Myers’s painfully unfunny The Love Guru wasn’t such a huge surprise.

Of course, I could go on. I could easily come up with a long list of examples of franchises that started out on a roll and ended up rolling straight downhill. But you get the idea.

Maybe You Should Have Quit While You Were Ahead:

Other franchises, however, have a different problem. Instead of following a successful first outing with a less-than-stellar sequel, they actually get better. Take, for instance, a pair of 2004 sequels: Shrek 2 and Spider-Man 2. While both Shrek and Spider-Man built up a pretty solid (you might even say rabid) fan base, I wasn’t buying it. I was indifferent toward Shrek, and I couldn’t stand Spider-Man. With both sequels, however, I changed my tune. Shrek 2 was funnier—and more clever—than the original. And Spider-Man 2 was more stylish and tasteful than its predecessor. But then came the summer of 2007—and the third films in both franchises. Spider-Man 3 turned out to be a long, bloated, complicated (yet visually nifty) mess. Mind you, it wasn’t absolutely horrible—just unnecessary (which, I fear, could make the upcoming Spider-Man 4 even more so). Shrek the Third, on the other hand, was, in fact, painful—like a joke you’ve heard about five times too many. Though the series did improve for this summer’s Shrek Forever After, the creators really should have quit while they were ahead—with Shrek 2. Then I could have remembered the franchise as irreverent family fun—instead of a worn-out story that overstayed its welcome.

Third Time’s a Charm:

Of course, when it comes to the 3s, the news isn’t all bad. Sure, some series start strong before hitting the dreaded Sophomore Slump. Sometimes, that may signal the beginning of the end for a franchise (see “The Downward Spiral”). Other times, however, this can result in a surprisingly good (or at least not bad) third movie—one that (almost) makes people forget about that less-than-stellar sequel.

My favorite example here is another one of the 3s from the summer of 2007: Ocean’s Thirteen. After starting out as a slick George Clooney / Brad Pitt remake of a ‘60s Rat Pack caper, the franchise took a dive with Ocean’s Twelve—a sequel that made such spectacular gaffes that we critics still bring them up from time to time. Very few of us can actually say the words “Ocean’s Twelve” without cringing.

All was forgiven (or at least politely ignored), however, after Ocean’s Thirteen came along. The franchise returned to its hip Las Vegas roots. The cast was bigger, the plot was smarter, and the whole thing was just plain fun to watch.

But Ocean’s isn’t alone in this category. Other franchises have also managed to come back from the Sophomore Slump (or even a Sophomore Catastrophe) with a much-improved third film. Yet another 2007 release, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End was a definite improvement over the long and bewildering Dead Man’s Chest. And the third installment of Disney’s wildly popular High School Musical franchise came back from a mediocre sequel with a bigger, bolder big-screen finale.

The Grand Finale:

Still, it isn’t often that a series just keeps getting better—that it can keep up the momentum to produce a truly noteworthy third film. But it has been done. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy wasn’t entirely flawless, but there wasn’t a bad movie in the bunch. The final film in the trilogy, The Return of the King, earned a record-tying 11 Oscars—winning in every category for which it was nominated. It may not be your favorite movie in the trilogy, but The Return of the King was, nonetheless, a pretty spectacular way to end a pretty spectacular trilogy, proving that it really is possible to go out with a bang—even after three movies.

Of course, only time will tell where Pixar’s Toy Story 3 will fit into the colorful spectrum of 3s. Perhaps the beloved franchise’s third picture will prove to be the chink in Pixar’s armor. Or maybe—just maybe—it’ll simply prove (once again) that no challenge is too great for the geniuses at Pixar.

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