Director: Lee Unkrich
Writers: Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich
The fact that I was watching a new Toy Story movie took a little while to sink in. It’s been 11 years since Toy Story 2, which is a huge interim for any film series, but one that seems even huger to me since I was only nine years old when the second movie came out. For people of my age, these characters are nothing short of iconic. After all this time, I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be experiencing further adventures with Woody, Buzz, and the gang. Yet there I was at the local multiplex, surrounded by a bunch of little kids who weren’t even alive when I saw the first two.
To say that it exceeded my expectations is an understatement. A second sequel being as equally impressive as, if not more so than, the films that preceded it is almost unheard of. In fact, I can only think of a handful: Return of the Jedi, The Prisoner of Azkaban, The Return of the King, Army of Darkness, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Just look at what happened to the Shrek franchise for a sad example of how threequels (and beyond) can ruin something great. Then again, if anyone’s going to pull off a hat trick, it’s Pixar, the studio with the nigh unimpeachable track record who in recent years have brought us Ratatouille, WALL·E, and Up. And of course, 15 years ago, they brought us their first feature film, Toy Story, which has always been my favorite.
Their attention to detail continues to be amazing: the cowboys ‘n robbers train heist that opens Toy Story 3 is the big-budget action-adventure version of the playtime scene that started the series. Then we see Andy’s mom videotaping him at play, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” kicks in, and I was in nostalgia heaven. But the song soon fades away and we see the toys scrambling to hide a cell phone in their chest in a desperate bid for Andy’s (the voice of John Morris) attentions. Andy’s 17 now, about to leave for college, and he doesn’t have much time for toys anymore.
The effect this has had on his toys is devastating. Woody (Tom Hanks) remains almost naively optimistic that Andy will put them in the attic, where at least they’ll have each other. The rest, including space ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), neurotic dino Rex (Wallace Shawn), and cranky Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), are worried that they’ll get thrown out. After all, over the years, other toys, including Bo Peep and Wheezy the penguin, have been sold or given away. As it turns out, Andy has the best of intentions: he puts Woody in the box marked “college,” and bags the others to take to the attic, only his mom (Laurie Metcalf) mistakes them for trash and puts them on the curb.
Woody chases after his friends, helps them to escape from the clutches of the Hefty bag, and they eventually wind up at Sunnyside Daycare. The place looks like paradise for our misfit toys. It’s run by a friendly bear, Lotso, with the agreeable voice of Ned Beatty. Barbie (Jodi Benson) finds her Ken (Michael Keaton). There’s a repair spa where damaged toys can relax while they get patched up. Best of all, there are plenty of loving children. They’ll be played with forever. Woody isn’t convinced and leaves in the hopes of getting back to Andy before he moves, leaving the others to discover that he had the right idea. Lotso turns out to be a dictator, ruling the daycare with a plush fist; he confines our heroes to the toddler room, where they’re abused and mistreated, imprisoning them when they try to escape.
I don’t think I’ll be ruining anything if I say that they do escape, and that their escape is both thrilling and hilarious in true Pixar fashion. There are some wonderfully inventive jokes, the best of them a sight gag which plays with the entire concept of a Mr. Potato Head toy. As for the cast, they all sound as good as ever; Hanks and Allen haven’t been this fresh in years, Rickles a grumpy treat as always. And who couldn’t love Cusack’s earnest whoops and yee-haws? The animation underscores and accentuates every slight inflection in tone or expression of emotion. I don’t know if Pixar’s animation team have outdone the sublime work they did on WALL·E, but there are certain moments when these plastic toys–who always seem real–are painfully human.
There is a spiritual element to the film and its themes of being forsaken and trying to find a path to recovery. I’m really not trying to play amateur critic–“Too late!” you cry–but there are several moments that cement this notion. At the beginning, the attic is referred to as a safe place where they’ll be warm and reunited with old friends. Later, after another character shouts, “Where is your kid now?” they slide into the hellish underworld of an incinerator. Pixar’s been telling us for years that bugs, cars, monsters, fish, and robots are just as intelligent and human as we are. The spiritual quest the Toy Story toys undergo from abandonment to acceptance is incredibly moving, and the best example of Pixar’s philosophy that no subject is too small or too weird to be loved and cherished.
But oh, this is not a preachy or somber film. As with the other Toy Story films, it is colorful, a marvel to look at, with a sense of humor and adventure that encompasses generations. And there are those deeper themes, wrapped within all of the fun and buoyancy, which Pixar has been refining over the last 15 years, and which serve to make their films miles beyond any other children’s entertainment. I hope they don’t make a Toy Story 4. I’m sure it would be great, and I look forward to the Toy Story short that will play before Cars 2, but the way this one ends is perfect. From the first film to the last, the series comes full circle, and I couldn’t be happier.