Having just seen the fourth Shrek movie, I was fully prepared for Toy Story 3 to be another going-through-the-motions-for-the-money
-and-merchandising sequel. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In many ways, TS3 is better than the fabulous first two installments in the Toy Story series, delivering pathos and an emotional heft that those didn't have. And yet it doesn't sacrifice the astounding action sequences, lovable characters and sharp comic writing we've come to expect from Pixar.
Toy Story 3 is not just another episode in a series. It is a surprising, original and flat-out hilarious film in its own right.
A decade has passed since we last played with Woody, Buzz and the rest of Andy's toys, and now they find themselves at a crossroads. Andy is 18 and headed to college, and the toys must deal with the real possibility of living out their sunset days in the attic, or worse, a trash heap.
"We all knew this day would come," Woody says, trying to calm their nerves.
But when Andy's mom designates one box to donate to a nearby day-care center, the toys (minus ever-loyal Woody) seize the opportunity to get played with again. To remain relevant.
Their anxieties are the pumping heart of Toy Story 3. Rex, Jessie, the Potato Heads, Hamm and Slink may be plastic playthings, but collectively they tap into our flesh-and-blood worries about growing old and powerless. "I hate all this uncertainty," Rex the dinosaur shrieks in Wallace Shawn's nasally howl. And we feel his pain. He just wants what we all want: a purpose in life and someone to love.
But Toy Story 3, much like Pixar's Up last year, threads its deeper meanings through the background of a beautifully rendered story. It never distracts from the fun. And there is plenty of that to go around.
When the toys arrive at Sunnyside Day Care Center, they are certain they've hit the jackpot. The toys there welcome them with open arms, and a kindly old strawberry-scented bear named Lotso (voiced by the terrific Ned Beatty) leads them on a guided tour of their palatial new digs. There are kids aplenty to play with, rainbows on the door, even a repair spa for toys!
The day care is also the perfect setting to introduce some terrific new characters. Barbie, who stowed away with Andy's toys, is over the moon to meet Ken (Michael Keaton), who has his own dream house and more ascots than Hugh Hefner. Their "modeling montage" will make you laugh out loud.
Ken is part of Lotso's inner-circle, which also includes Stretch, a purple octopus (Whoopi Goldberg), and a Big Baby doll that might give your kids nightmares. When Woody is scooped up and taken home by Bonnie, one of the children at Sunnyside, he encounters a wisecracking unicorn named Buttercup (Jeff Garlin) and a master thespian porcupine named Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton). They confirm Woody's suspicions that something doesn't smell right about Sunnyside and that strawberry-scented Care Bear.
What follows is a death-defying escape from toy Alcatraz that unfolds at a breathtaking clip. Along the way, the screenwriter (Michael Arndt) manages to showcase the newcomers without sacrificing the series' core characters.
The chemistry between Buzz (Tim Allen) and cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) continues to build, especially when they discover Buzz's Spanish mode -- and his hip-swiveling dance moves. The lovably abrasive Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles, Estelle Harris) get more screen time and use their detachable eyes, ears and arms to great effect, including in a scene I'll just call Mr. Tortilla Head. (Don't leave for a potty break during this part.) And the hopelessly adorable trio of aliens pop up at just the right times.
Through it all, faithful sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) is the glue that holds Toy Story together and reminds us that no matter how desperate things look -- and when the toys clasp hands and head toward a pit of fire, they look downright doomed -- you've got a friend in him.
Toy Story 3 is not without a few faults. The basic framework of the toys getting separated and trying to get back to Andy feels a little too familiar the third time around. And some of the dark scenes at Sunnyside make you wonder how the film kept its G rating.
But one of Pixar's gifts is that it creates entertainment that engages both kids and parents. When I looked over at my 6-year-old son wearing his 3D glasses, his eyes were glued to the screen. I couldn't help but think about the day he'll go off to college and leave me and his toys behind. But after the movie, all he wanted to talk about was Buzz Lightyear and his Spanish mode.
Mission accomplished, Pixar.