It's been 15 years since the Pixar gang wowed kids and adults alike with Toy Story, a sublime film that depicted the magic of (and nostalgia for) childhood. Its reverence for classic toys and old-fashioned unstructured play was captured without irony by then-cutting-edge digital animation. Never had 1s and 0s seemed so winsome, so knowable, so huggable.
1999's Toy Story 2 was a worthy sequel, with its riffs on the tiresome collectibles market that demands toys be eternally frozen in blister packs, rather than enjoyed (and cheerfully destroyed) by children.
Now in Toy Story 3, Andy, the human protagonist of the series, has grown up, and is preparing to leave for college. Andy remains sentimental about his playthings -- the film opens with flashbacks to some of his toy-filled reveries and adventures. So, he packs up Woody, Buzz and the rest, intending to store them in the attic. But, boxes are mixed up, and after surviving a harrowing moment on the curb during trash pick-up, the toys wind up at Sunnyside daycare.
Perfect! Neglected for years, now they'll be played with daily. Andy's toys make new friends, including a Ken doll (voiced by Michael Keaton), Big Baby and Lots-o'-Huggin' (Ned Beatty), a strawberry-scented teddy bear, who's the de facto leader. But Sunnyside proves to be a very dark place, and it's up to Woody and his compadres to break out and head for the safety of Andy's attic.
This third outing is directed by Lee Unkrich, who co-helmed the second film. Toy Story 3 is available in 3-D presentations, but it should prove just as visually engaging in cheaper 2-D. With an opening cartoon (a charming feud between "Night and Day"), the film runs close to two hours. It probably could have been tightened up, but the little kids at my screening were fully engaged regardless.
All the on-screen toys are reunited with their off-screen voices, including Tom Hanks (Woody), Tim Allen (Buzz), Joan Cusack (Jessie), Wallace Shawn (Rex), Don Rickles (Mr. Potato Head) and Estelle Harris (Mrs. Potato Head). Blake Clark takes over vocal duties for Slinky Dog, replacing Jim Varney, who died in 2000.
This film doesn't demand that a viewer have seen (or completely remember) Toy Story 1 and 2. But it's occasionally helpful, especially regarding Buzz Lightyear's history and a major plot point that references the backstory of the three alien toys. Kids won't notice, but foreknowledge of caper and escape films will make the daycare scenes even funnier.
With the exception of a toilet joke or two, Toy Story 3 easily earns its laughs without pandering to kids or adults. There's slapstick for the youngsters (including a particularly trying ordeal for Mr. Potato Head that is a marvelous bit of physical shtick), and knowing winks for the adults. (Even here, Ken can't escape the implication that he is light in his loafers.) But, mostly the humor works because it's organic to these well-developed characters. Of course, silly Rex will swoon for the fruit-scented Lotso, and when Buzz finds a secret softer side, it will be twice as funny because we know what a square-jaw he is.
A delight for all ages, Toy Story 3 is nonetheless pegged toward that first wave of young fans, who like Andy, are now adults. Growing up is not without its pangs: The simple pleasures of childhood (like imaginative play) are gone, and moving on means leaving behind loved ones. Woody, in particular, struggles to let go, unconvinced that Andy no longer needs a faithful toy companion.
And while most of the film is fast paced, it slows down in its sweet (bittersweet, if you're an adult) final scenes that deliver these necessary lessons. The farewell between Andy and Woody was pitch perfect and caused considerable snuffling among the audience.
In these last moving scenes, you have to remind yourself that you're watching toys, not people. That Pixar can get inanimate objects to convey such believable emotion is a testament, naturally, to its animation skills, but also to its story-telling, which over the series has made Woody, Buzz and the rest as real to us as they were to Andy. Toy Story 3 is a perfect conclusion -- for Andy, the toys and us. I hope that Pixar takes its own edicts about closure to heart and walks away, leaving this funny and heartfelt trilogy intact.