After all, in 1995, the original "Toy Story," directed by John Lasseter and produced by the then postage-stamp-sized Northern California animation studio of Pixar (then best known for those Listerine commercials where the bottle swings through the jungle like Robin Hood), became the first completely computer generated animation feature. Ever. And while the technology was admittedly dazzling, it was the characters (Tim Allen's spaceman Buzz Lightyear and Tom Hanks' cowboy Woody, primarily) that really got audiences. These anthropomorphic playthings were our playthings. "Toy Story 2," originally slotted for a direct-to-video release by the powers that be at Disney, turned out to be an even more thematically complicated and emotionally rich experience; it was the "Godfather Part II" of animated films.
And now here's the film to close out the franchise (and believe you me, things are pretty damn closed by the time this thing's over), 11 years after the last film. There's a lot at stake beyond just saving us from the entertainment void that this summer movie season has been. A lot of us have grown up with these characters, they're as much our toys as they are the talented folks at Pixar.
Thankfully, "Toy Story 3," directed by longtime Pixar vet Lee Unkrich and written by "Little Miss Sunshine" Oscar winner Michael Arndt is a beautiful, nuanced, funny-as-hell end to the series. Your jaw will drop, your belly will ache, and your heartstrings will be thoroughly tugged.
Unlike most animated films, where the sequel picks up about fifteen seconds after the last film ended, "Toy Story 3" takes a more real time approach: the 11 years in between films have also happened in the "Toy Story" universe. Andy, proud owner of Woody, Buzz, Slinky Dog, and the rest of the gang, is about to leave for college. The toys, a fretfully neurotic bunch, are worried about what will become of them: are they just destined for the incinerator? Or will they be enjoyed by new owners? In a typically whirligig sequence, Andy puts most of the toys (save Woody) in a bag destined for the attic. Of course it ends up in the street, ready to get picked up by the garbage men. Woody tries to explain to the other toys that this was a mistake but they're convinced Andy wanted them gone, so instead they stowaway in a donation box destined for a local daycare center, Sunnyside.
Woody is hellbent on not staying in the daycare, but the other toys can't be swayed. Upon arrival they're swept up by the grandfatherly Lotso (Ned Beatty), a pink teddy bear who walks with a Lincoln log cane and smells like strawberry. Lotso promises them a fine life being played with, forever. In a touching sequence, he explains that once the kids who love you grow up, they're replaced by other kids. Lotso also introduces our beloved characters to a new batch of toys, among them a flowery Ken (Michael Keaton) and Stretch (Whoopi Goldberg), a gummy octopus with suction cups. Everyone is taken in by Lotso and his new gang of misfit toys, but not Woody, he hightails it the first chance he can and ends up being taken home by one of the daycare kids, an adorable little girl named Bonnie.
Bonnie has a room full of great toys, too, including Trixie (Kristen Schaal from "Flight of the Conchords"), a tech-savvy dinosaur, and Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), a thespian hedgehog. Woody starts scheming, plotting an escape plan for his buddies. Meanwhile, at the daycare, Andy's toys are looking to escape but are kept prisoner by some very bad toys.
For much of the "Toy Story 3" running time it's a breathlessly paced heist/escape movie, hinged around the toys' escape from the daycare center. The jokes and gags fly, and you may wonder why the movie doesn't stop to slow down and let us appreciate the characters and situations a little bit more. This section of the movie is also the most problematic from a story standpoint, as the motives for the villain are explained in a vividly atmospheric flashback sequence but still don't quite gel. Why are the toys imprisoned, exactly? Right. Moving on. Funny joke about Ken. Got it.
After the more oddball experimentalism of the past two Pixar movies ("WALL*E" and "Up"), you can tell that the studio was really getting behind the more formal comedic style of the previous two "Toy Story" movies. And you can tell that they took this up with a lot of verve and wit; the movie is outrageously funny and the jokes more sophisticated.
Also more sophisticated: the visuals. The first "Toy Story" was a wonder, for sure, but rewatching it earlier this week highlighted how rudimentary the animation really was. Most of the characters in the first film have limited expression and movement, more like an animatronic figure at a Disney theme park than a legitimate character. These characters move with a fluidity and heft that is just astounding (Lotso, in particular, is hypnotic). The animators also push things stylistically, usually in the service of the characters' emotions. One sequence at the daycare center that's set on a stormy night is just jaw-dropping.
It should also be noted that Pixar seems to be addressing the issues that Pixar movies are somehow anti-women, with Barbie (Jodi Benson) given a pronounced and very strong role. It never feels like pandering, though. She really kicks ass.
But as the movie segues from the core heist to a more emotionally drawn closing section, the true richness of both this particular "Toy Story" and the series as a whole will star to reveal itself. It's also about this time that you will notice, like we did, the audience crying. It wasn't just the hushed sniffles of self-aware moviegoers. These were big, wet sobs.
The first "Toy Story" was about maturing into adulthood, the second entry was about growing old, and the third, you start to realize as the movie nears its conclusion, is about death. It's about letting go and moving on (there's some very literal hell imagery towards the end, too). And the tears that will undoubtedly stream out of your eyes as the movie ends is as much about what's going on in the movie as it is about facing your life without these characters in them. Lucky for us, the series goes out on a relentlessly entertaining, brilliantly told bang. [A]