BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Woody, Buzz Lightyear and other toys must cope with the impeding adulthood of their owner Andy.
PROS: Excellent vocal talents; engaging story by turns funny and bittersweet; many pop culture reference peppered throughout.
CONS: Realization upon the ending credits that, after fifteen years, the Toy Story franchise no longer seems genuinely fresh; Lots-O-Huggin’s “origin” story.
It’s hard to believe that fifteen years have passed since the original Toy Story first appeared in theaters. Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Hamm and Mr. Potato Head caught everybody off guard during the winter of 1995 and won over every possible skeptic of computer animation, helped by not only Pixar’s determination to chart new frontiers with the form but also by their creative team’s ability to spin a story that captured the magic and wonder that suffuses the best children’s books and movies, no matter what the said age of those children. (And yes, partnering with Disney gave them an audience that they might not have had.) If its sequel disappointed, it did so only slightly, and only in relation to the other work Pixar had made; after all, when your worst movie was Cars, you were still higher than most people’s successes.
A third film was inevitable, though had its challenges. Given how well moviegoers regard the first two entries, given the hype that precedes and inevitably taints movies today (to say nothing of the cynicism with which contemporary audiences view most releases), and given that it’s been eleven years since Toy Story 2 first played in theaters, could a Toy Story 3 possibly live up to any expectations? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. In a summer where Liam Neeson and company do their best to whip a creaking A-Team into fighting shape, and where Sarah Jessica Parker and friends leave both sex and the city behind, it comes as a welcome, wonderful relief that Toy Story 3 provides more engaging, coherent action than The A-Team, more style and fashion sense than Sex and the City 2, and more heart than anything thus far in release this summer. Better still, with Toy Story 3, the franchise does something that other cannot do: it grows up.
It sort of has to. As Toy Story 3 opens, Woody (once again voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz (again Tim Allen) and the rest embark on a mission to steal Andy’s cell phone. Why? Andy is now a teenager, and starts college soon, which means, as Jessie (Joan Cusack) knows all too well, that such play dates as those they had at the movie’s beginning (a sheer delight involving toy trains, Troll dolls, and barrels of red monkeys), are over, and they must contemplate life as toys kept in the attic. Though a series of mishaps and mix-ups (all handled with the deft, suspenseful touches reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark), the toys find themselves at a daycare center, where they are warmly greeted by Lots-o-Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty, who voices Lotso like a cuddly Willie Stark), but they discover that, though Lotso’s corrupt hierarchy, they are relegated to the toddler room. Woody manages to escape and finds brief sanctuary among a young girl’s toys, but after learning how Lotso came to be at the daycare (a sequence that is one of the movie’s few false notes), he resolves to rescue the toys from the daycare and return to Andy, even if it means spending their remaining days in his attic.
The story, of course, would be engaging on its own. However, this being Pixar, screenwriters Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkirch (who also directed) manages so many other nods to pop culture and the nature of toys themselves that the movie’s 103-minute running time seems immensely full. Even a brief listing of wonders is incomplete: a toy worm (called Bookworm, played by Richard Kind) keeps the instruction manuals of all toys, which comes in handy when Lotso demands that Buzz be reset to factory mode (and later is reset in Spanish); a toy monkey and screeches and claps its symbols whenever it views an attempted escape by other toys; a gambling den atop a vending machine (where toys play for Monopoly money, naturally). And to forget to mention the vain clotheshorse Ken (voiced perfectly by Michael Keaton) living in a Barbie Dream House would be unthinkable, as would Woody’s plan to escape from the daycare, which gives more than a passing nod to both The Great Escape and Mission: Impossible.
Still, one misses some of the things that made the first two movies so special. By now viewers know that the toys do not come to life in the presence of people, yet people are surprisingly absent from most of the movie. The relationships that children have with their toys, too, have changed; what was once shown so well in the first two movies though action is explained though dialogue, causing the movie to become more expository than it should be.
But these are minor quibbles. Most of the contemplative dialogue will soar over the heads of children under the age of twelve. For those who grew up with these movies, and for those who are well into their own adulthood, Toy Story 3 will serve as a reminder both of how great it is to actually have been able to engage one’s imagination as a child, and to face the bittersweet knowledge that, at some point, one has to put away childish things.
(I of course have not mention Pixar’s short film Day & Night, which plays in front of Toy Story 3. Suffice to say that this marvelous story of Day and Night meeting and discovering the positive aspects of one another’s qualities helps whet one’s appetite for the main feature, and is a worthy entry in the Pixar canon.)