If Pixar is the only sure thing in movies today — and it is — then the "Toy Story" franchise is its most reliable component. So while it's not exactly a surprise to say that "Toy Story 3" is everything you hoped it would be, it is something of a relief.
For as survivors of say " The Godfather, Part III" remember, the third time can be the death knell for a much admired series. "Toy Story 3" has prospered where others have faltered because it has simultaneously stayed true to its roots and expanded its reach. And because in ways both small and large the people behind the franchise simply love movies to death.
Directed by Lee Unkrich and starring the familiar voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn and the rest of the toy gang, "Toy Story 3" pays attention to the reasons we return again and again to the motion picture experience.
As written by Michael Arndt, an Oscar winner for "Little Miss Sunshine," "Toy 3" manages to offer jeopardy and thrills plus unexpected moments of melancholy while never forgetting to have the most fun possible. Best, and most characteristic of Pixar overall, it understands genuine emotion and is not afraid to get it up there on the screen.
On one level the story of a group of toys trying to live up to their responsibilities and deal with change, on another a treatise on the end of childhood and the importance of love and meaning in life, "Toy 3" continues to do the impossible by making us believe that toys are people too, idiosyncratic individuals with lives and minds of their own. The film's unobtrusive 3-D version enhances this reality without calling attention to itself.
Director Unkrich was an editor on the original "Toy Story" and co-directed "Toy Story 2," but that is not the only way franchise continuity has been maintained. A "Toy Story" brain trust, including executive producer John Lasseter and producer Darla K. Anderson, met to block out the main action, Andrew Stanton (who co-wrote the first two scripts) then did a treatment, and finally Arndt, who's worked for Pixar since 2005, took on the script.
Given that it's been more than a decade since the previous chapter, "Toy Story 3's" core notion is nothing if not organic: Andy (John Morris), the young boy who owns all the "Toy Story" toys, has quite simply gotten older and is in fact only a few days away from heading for college and leaving his toys behind. As Lasseter has explained, in the toy world "when you're broken, you can be fixed; when you're lost, you can be found; when you're stolen you can be recovered. But there's no way to fix being outgrown by the child."
Not that Andy's toys have given up, far from it. Led as always by top gun Sheriff Woody (Hanks) and intrepid spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Allen), the gang launches Operation Playtime, a desperate maneuver to remind Andy of their existence and get him to play with them one more time. Needless to say, it doesn't work, and that sends the toys into a tailspin.
"This is just sad," one of them says, dinosaur Rex (Shawn) moans that he "hates all this uncertainty," Buzz Lightyear suggests everyone get ready to go into "attic mode," but Woody steadfastly insists that "Andy's going to take care of us." Furthermore, he maintains that it is a toy's responsibility to always be there for Andy no matter what sacrifices that entails.
Through a series of mistakes and misadventures, Andy's toys end up in Sunnyside, a cheery-looking daycare center where they are welcome with open arms by Lots-o-Huggin' Bear, Lotso for short, the head toy in the place voiced with a folksy silver-tongued brio by Ned Beatty.
Forget those fears of daycare as a dumping ground for unwanted toys, Lotso says. "No owners means no heartbreak," the bear proclaims. "We own ourselves, we control our own destiny."
Despite these assurances, Woody escapes from Sunnyside because of his loyalty to Andy, but before he can reach home he is adopted by a little girl named Bonnie (Emily Hahn) and gets to hang out with her toys, who view themselves as a kind of amateur theatrical troupe. "We do a lot of improv here," Woody is told, and the very proper Mr. Pricklepants ( Timothy Dalton), a hedgehog in lederhosen, approvingly inquires, "Are you classically trained?"
It's at Bonnie's that Woody finds out some dark truths about Sunnyside — "a place of ruin and despair," says the morose Chuckles the Clown (Bud Luckey) — and determines, in his best all-for-one-one-for-all mode, to attempt to rescue his beleaguered friends.
This is but the merest outline of a plot "The A-Team" team would envy, but even though there's a great deal of atmosphere and suspense in "Toy 3" (the production design team visited Alcatraz to get in the mood for Sunnyside) it's the film's comic moments which linger longest. To see Lotso's pal Ken ( Michael Keaton) show off his extensive wardrobe for Barbie ( Jodi Benson) or to witness Buzz Lightyear when he goes into an unexpected flamenco mode is to be in the presence of the unforgettable.
Lots of connections to other films dot "Toy Story 3," nods to the westerns of John Ford, the animation of Hayao Miyazaki and the kind of prison films where someone plays the harmonica on death row. But more than that, by creating the emotions we have always counted on and so rarely find anymore, this film becomes the kind of love note to movies we want and need.