In spite of its plentiful charms, you might spend the first two thirds of Toy Story 3 wondering ‘Is this it?’ Across a pair of no less than enchanting – yet never more than dependably so – opening acts a gentle case of sequelitis seems to have beset the usually unimpeachable dreamweavers at Pixar. In taking the regressive step of going back to the toy chest for a third turn of play time with the lovable, huggable and fully poseable stable who first skyrocketed the studio to household namedom way back in 1995, Toy Story 3 initially suggests Pixar might be putting their creatively propulsive ambitions on hold to reach for the wallets of today’s nostalgia-possessed market of moviegoers——a truly disheartening prospect, no matter how blithely delightful the outcome may be.
But breathe easy: the Pixar crew are too clever let their newest Toyidle in in-store-demo mode, and the concluding adventure of Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and their collectible co. upholds the coruscating record of its predecessors by virtue of a five-star – and five-tissue – finale.
Following the laudable forward motion of WALL•E and Up – two pictures that deftly married emotional maturity and social conscience with envelope-nudging narrative experimentation (for flagship family films, at least) – the more humble ambitions of Toy Story 3 give the film the unmistakable sense of being a breather after the frying of bigger fish. And why not? Few studios in history can claim to have been as era-defining as Pixar, and they certainly gained new ground with their last pair of Oscar winners. The warm familiarity of Toy Story 3 affords the toon mavens from Emeryville safe vantage to survey their brave new terrain and consider their next course of action.
None of which would matter a battery if Toy Story 3 weren’t so downright appealing, but even when playing well within their comfort zone, Pixar continue to outstrip their competitors. Unlike the too-lengthily-flogged Shrek series, whose fairytale folk seem to inhabit the same temporal twilight zone in which most animated characters are left to eternally linger, Toy Story 3’s set-up actually suggests finality by acknowledging two simple facts: time passes and things change.
In a poignant play, director Lee Unkrich and screenwriter Michael Arndt (an Oscar-winner for Little Miss Sunshine) have elected to age our heroes’ owner Andy in almost real-time. He was an energetic eight year-old when we left him at the end of the franchise’s second entry in 1999; now 2010 finds him aged seventeen and shipping off for college. It’s perhaps the most logical place to take a franchise about children’s playthings, but the decision adds a resonant urgency to the series’ prime ontological concerns of purpose and accepting transience.
An accident sees the group – a few of whom have been lost over time – donated to the drooling and unruly toddlers of Sunnyside Daycare. Cue giggle-inducing sequences of excitable tots recast as hulking tormentors. Operating instructions are ignored. Accessories are misplaced. The now-de-rigueur 3-D presentation is justified.
Sunnyside’s play room is governed by the avuncular Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty) and his right-hand man-doll, Ken (Michael Keaton). The latter – a preening metrosexual pretty boy in Keaton’s keen comic hands – makes for many of the film’s biggest laughs. The former – just like Toy Story 2’s duplicitous Prospector – might not be as cuddly as he seems…
For most of its duration, Arndt’s script, co-written with Unkrich and Pixar veterans John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, leans heavily on the narrative schema laid down by its precursors. It’s another rescue mission story, but Toy Story 3 ups the ante by going for broke and becoming a god’s-honest jailbreak movie——replete with a king’s ransom of subtle cinephilic homages.
The déjà vu means the final product is the least of the trilogy, yet considering its company, that’s hardly a slight. Minor protests of plot recycling aside, Toy Story 3 scores big for being fast on its feet, vibrantly animated and generously bejeweled with inspired gags and character beats. (Special mention must go to the vending machine that’s repurposed as a seedy speakeasy; the tortilla that proves a toy is more than the sum of its parts; and the gallant, flamenco-stepping suave of Buzz Lightyear on Spanish-language setting. Olé!)
Then there’s that finale——a twenty-minute masterclass in both how to remind an audience of how much they’ve invested in a beloved set of characters, as well as how to farewell those characters with grace. Make no mistake: once the Play-Doh hits the fan and the gang from Andy’s room realise they’re surely about to meet their manufacturers, throats will lump and tears will swell. It’s an exquisite farewell, and Pixar should be thanked for ensuring the series which commenced fifteen years ago with the perfect buddy movie goes out on such an emotionally satisfying affirmation of unity and friendship.
DIRECTOR: Lee Unkrich
SCREENWRITERS: Michael Arndt and John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich & Andrew Stanton
CAST: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton, Wallace Shawn, Don Rickles, Estelle Harris, Blake Clarke
RUN TIME: 103 minutes