I'm man enough to admit when I am wrong.
After a series of wonderfully original films that culminated with knock-out punch of "Ratatouille," "WALL-E" and "Up," I was worried about Pixar going back to the well for "Toy Story 3."
It wasn't that I had no desire to revisit Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the gang. I think 1995's "Toy Story" still stands not only as a game-changer in the film world, but as a lovingly-crafted and highly-entertaining story. Pixar only upped the ante in 1999 with "Toy Story 2," which was funnier, more exciting and had a surprising emotional depth--"Jessie's Song" was the first animated moment to ever make me cry. And the wonderfully cast of characters was always a blast to revisit--particularly Mr. Potato Head, Rex and the three-eyed martians (all together now: oooooooooohhhh!).
But then Pixar spoiled us. They raised the bar each time out and then vaulted over it so easily. The mixed pure creative genius with heart, soul, wit and technical artistry so beautifully that, for me, a new film from the company became not simply another release to look forward to, but an Event. There's not a bad film in the bunch and some, such as "The Incredibles," are among my favorite films ever made. The last two years, Pixar films have topped my year-end list. It was the rare studio that satisfied me fully each time out and made me want to see them continue stretching and surprising me with their magic.
So, for me, going back to the first series they had done seemed a bit disappointing. Had they lined up their creative best just to prepare for a possible separation from Disney? And when they stayed with the studio, did they just agree to "Toy Story 3" as a condition? Was this a cash grab? And, as a rule, don't second sequels usually suck?
Well, Pixar, I apologize. Because "Toy Story 3" deserves to be mentioned alongside the studio's best--right up there with "WALL-E," "The Incredibles" and "Up." It's a film brimming with so much invention, heart and goodwill that it may be impossible to dislike it. It's pure joy on display, constantly surprising us, thrilling us, making us laugh and then delivering an emotional knockout punch that will have everyone in the theater feeling guilty for growing up.
The first film tackled the tendency we have to love the new at the expense of the old and "Toy Story 2" dealt with abandonment and loyalty. Now, as the kids who thrilled to the first movie are growing up and moving on in the world, the film asks us to look at letting go. Is there a point where we've outlived our usefulness? What happens when we don't feel needed, when our friends begin to fade away and life moves on without us? Are we, ultimately, useless junk that can just be discarded? Will we just be thrown out and forgotten?
That's what the toys are dealing with as Andy, the young boy who so loved Woody and Buzz in the first installment, prepares to leave for college. Many of the old toys we loved in the first few films are gone, given away at yard sales or donated to other families. Those who remain--Woody, Buzz, Rex, the Potato Heads, Slinkie Dog and the martians--have sat in the toy box for years and are reduced to stealing Andy's cell phone and calling him just so he'll open the box and look at them once again.
Andy's mother tells him to clean out his room and decide which toys are trash and which are to be given to the attic--not that either option is appealing. Andy chooses to take Woody with him to college and puts the rest in a bag to go to the attic; but circumstances send the toys out to the curb and, after a daring escape, to a donation box for Sunnyside Day Care--a place that at first resembles a posh resort or, perhaps more appropriate to the movie's themes, a retirement village. The toys are welcomed with opened arms by the cuddly, purple and strawberry-scented Lotso Hugging Bear (Ned Beatty), who presides over Sunnyside alongside the droopy-eyed, eerily silent Big Baby and plastic, fantastic Ken (Michael Keaton)...who, of course, quickly locks eyes with Barbie (Jodi Benson).
It's not long, however, before the toys learn the truth: Lotso has a sadistic streak and rules over Sunnyside with an iron (yet furry) fist. The toys are relegated to the toddler room, where the tykes smash, toss, drool on and try to ingest the plastic heroes. Buzz is reset to his original Space Trooper mode and put in place as a prison warden. And Woody, who has tried to escape back to Andy, quickly gets wind of the situation and mounts a heroic mission to save the gang and get them back to their owner.
I've mentioned before that the film deals with darker issues, such as mortality, usefulness and abandonment. But what I should also stress is that "Toy Story 3" does it with the same amount of wit, joy and creativity that fuel every one of Pixar's masterpieces. The opening sequence is an action packed riot that perfectly captures the ingenuity and absurdity of a boy's imagination. The "prison film"-flavored sequences at Sunnyside pay homage to every great escape movie ever made Watching Mr. Potato head endure his out-of-body via a tortilla shell is one of those moments that had me collapsing in laughter while also marveling "who would have thought of that?" As is usually the case, this film is bursting at the seams with clever dialogue, close escapes and uproarious sight gags. One can come away from "Toy Story 3" absolutely spoiled by the creativity on display.
When "Toy Story" was released back in 1995, it had was notable not just for its pitch-perfect storytelling (which is still a Pixar staple all these years later), but for being the first computer generated feature film. I had a chance to watch the original a few weeks back and was amazed by how good it still looks all these years later. Due to advancements in technology, "Toy Story 3" looks even better, with the characters coming to beautiful, colorful life and the world they play in refined and made even vaster by the ever-extending amount of tools Pixar's wizards have to play with.
The new toys are welcome editions to the franchise. Conniving, yet still oddly cuddly, Lotso is a great villain, voiced with pure down home menace by Beatty. On his adventures away from the Day Care, Woody meets a group of toys just as committed to their owner as he is to Andy, and I imagine they have their own stories that could fill a trilogy--I particularly enjoyed the thespian porcupine and the Instant Message addicted Triceratops. Big Baby may be one of the creepiest cartoon creations I've ever seen, and Keaton steals every scene he's in voicing the fashion-loving, Barbie smitten mimbo, Ken (but he's not a girl's toy!).
It's worth noting just how much we've come to love these characters over the course of 15 years. As voiced by Hanks with his awe-shucks charm and Allen with over-the-top male bravado, Woody and Buzz have endured as one of cinema's most beloved buddy teams. But I was surprised just how big of a smile was put on my face just to see Rex, the Potato Heads and the Martians again (and yes, the martians still get some of the biggest laughs). As everyone (even the family dog) has aged, there's a sense of history between the characters, from a burgeoning romance between Buzz and Jesse (another surprising sweet spot in a movie full of them) to the sad commentary on the toys who have gone onto other places (poor Little Bo Peep), there's the sense that, yes, years have passed from the first one. Time is marching on. And when it happens to characters we love, it carries resonance--even if those characters are plastic.
Anyone can deliver a well-timed joke or a funny gag. What Pixar excels at is doing all that while making the audience invest in their creations. After three movies, we've come to love each and every one of these toys and, in its final stretches, "Toy Story 3" hits the levels of emotional perfection we've seen them return to time and again. There's a scene in an incinerator where the toys join hands and prepare for the worst--the seriousness and the subtlety used in this scene give it a surprising suspense and gravity, something most live-action dramas and action films can't sell. I wouldn't dream of spoiling the film's final 10 minutes, but suffice to say that there was a giant lump in my throat. Without giving anything away, the film ends on a note of pure bliss and sentiment and may be the most perfectly-realized trilogy capper I've seen. There's a gesture that Andy makes in one moment that is nothing more than a look on his face and the drawing back of his hand...and it's that one small, quiet moment that will likely drive a sledgehammer into the audiences' hearts. The film ends on a series of small grace notes, perfectly delivered to remind us all of the power of playtime and the important imaginary friends who helped us grow older.
And yet, Pixar makes it look so easy. There's never a sense that director Lee Unkrich trying too hard or hitting us over the head with the film's (many) big ideas. The film simply unfolds with an unflagging amount of energy, passion and joy. Is it Pixar's best? That's a hard determination to make in a field that includes "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles," "Ratatouille," "WALL-E" and "Up." But I will say this: "Toy Story 3" belongs in the same company as those films. Yes, much of its power comes because we've had two other adventures in this trilogy...but I would also argue that "Toy Story 3," particularly in its final moments, makes the first two "Toy Story's" even better films.
There's a mad love I have for Pixar. There is a pure whimsy and magic at work in everything they've produced. Their films have not only entertained me, they've enriched my life. I feel happier, richer for having been able to enjoy their artistry and see things from their perspective, letting their creative teams remind me of some of life's deepest truths. It pleases me to no end that "Toy Story 3" continues that tradition. I can't wait to see it again. And again. And again.