Review: Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3

Like most sequels, Toy Story 3 follows in the formulaic footsteps of its predecessors.

Unlike the blueprints for most sequels, however, Pixar’s formula is good. As a result, Toy Story 3 is a warm, very funny, character-based adventure that is filled with inventive turns. Broken down to its essence, it’s still “toys get separated, must get home,” but the film finds new ways to explore old dilemmas. Rather than simply amp up one element at the expense of another — more explosions! more villains! — everything remains well-balanced. New characters are introduced, yet they don’t steal the spotlight away from the core cast.

When I first saw Toy Story in 1995, the animation looked so remarkably different that I was distracted from following the story. In the decade and a half since then, we’ve become accustomed to watching computer-assisted animation; it’s become the norm, to the point that it seldom draws attention to itself (although I still found myself marveling at the differing textures among the toys). Nowadays, the bigger distraction is 3D, which, to my mind, seldom adds anything to the experience. The same is true with Toy Story 3; the 3D may do wonders for others, but it does nothing for me.

The point, however, is that Toy Story 3 doesn’t need 3D to make it a worthwhile viewing experience; it’s a great movie, period. And that comes back to Pixar’s real strength: story.

Toy Story holds up because it has a good story and believable characters. Never mind the fact that nearly all of them are toys; we can empathize with Woody when he feels threatened by the arrival of new toy Buzz Lightyear because we’ve felt threatened, fearful, and insecure by the arrival of a new sibling, or a cool new classmate or workmate or mutual friend. Likewise, Toy Story 2, which came along four years later, still holds up because the thought of immortality (in Woody’s case, in a collectors’ museum) might cause us to consider giving up our friends, which ties into extended riffs on the meaning of friendship itself.

Toy Story 2 built on the themes established in the first film while also feeling like a solid bookend to the tale. After all, these are just toys; they could have more adventures, but where else could they go? And perhaps that’s why it took 11 years for a third installment to appear. John Lasseter might have felt the Disney corporate imperative to make another sequel, no matter what, but he also had to recognize that Pixar’s reputation — and his own — rests on the integrity of the storytelling. To dash off a direct-to-video sequel simply to capitalize on a familiar title might have been much easier, but would have done irreparable harm.

Instead, Lasseter and his collaborators — including Andrew Stanton, director Lee Unkrich, and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) — concocted an ode to childhood and maturity. Young Andy (John Morris) is now 17 and preparing to go to college. His mother (Laurie Metcalf) reminds him that he must decide what to do with his toys.

The toys are in a panic. Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Rex (Wallace Shawn), and Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) are convinced that they’re heading for the dumpster. It’s been years since Andy played with them, and they’ve been feeling the neglect. Jessie (Joan Cusack) worries that she’ll be abandoned again. Even Andy’s beloved favorite, Woody (Tom Hanks), confides to Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) his uncertainty about their mutual future. What’s a toy to do?

Through a series of misunderstandings, Andy’s toys, along with his younger sister’s not so beloved Barbi (Jodi Benson), end up at a day care center, where they are warmly welcomed by the cuddly bear Lotso (Ned Beatty). They are toured around the facility by Ken (Michael Keaton), who looks like Barbi’s soul mate, and it looks like the toys are in heaven. They see children playing kindly with toys … why, it’s a dream come true!

As usual, Woody is skeptical, an unexpected villain will be revealed, and breathless action sequences will emerge at a moment’s notice.

While it cannot be denied that certain plot mechanics are quite familiar, and sentimentality is over-indulged to the point of bathos, a spirit of contagious fun permeates the picture. Toy Story 3 manages the difficult task of both extending and concluding a series of films that have entered the national consciousness. And it’s done so in an honorable, joyous manner that everyone, child, adult, or grump old man, can embrace.

[Toy Story 3 opens wide today.]