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Toy Story 3

Disney/Pixar’s 11th animated feature brings us back to the beloved characters that started it all and have become a global pop culture phenomenon. Hearing that Randy Newman score and catchy Oscar-winning song will make you feel right at home. You can trust that another adventurous, heart-warming and imaginative tale will be told yet again. That you can expect.

What will completely throw you for a loop here though isn’t just the fantastic storytelling, but how you’ll find a smile plastered to your face throughout the entire film. Sure, you’ll belly-laugh and feel for these devoted toys but by the end, you’ll be choked up for these nylon and plastic children's playthings.

It’s been over ten years since we last saw Andy’s toys and while we aged along with him, his beloved toys did not. All they long for is what they always wanted, to be played with, a selfless desire that gives them both purpose and meaning. Yet with Andy (John Morris) going off to college in just three days, they have every right to be worried. What will their fate be? They’re too used to be collector’s items. Who would buy them? They’ve seen friends sold off in yard sales (poor Wheezy and give up a moment of silence for Bo Peep), so despite their years of faithfulness, they realize it’s either the attic or in a garbage bag on the curb.

Venerable cowboy leader Woody (Tom Hanks) tries to console his friends, reassuring them they are still Andy’s and that he wouldn’t let anything happen to them. It’s hardly any comfort though and space ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) knows Woody cannot guarantee they won’t face obsolescence.

The roll call of familiar faces are few: there’s cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) with Bullseye in tow, cantankerous Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) with his doting wife, Mrs. Potato Head (Estelle Harris), insecure dinosaur, Rex (Wallace Shawn), sardonic piggy bank, Hamm (John Ratzenberger), reliable Slinky Dog (Blake Clark, replacing the late Jim Varney) and a trio of Pizza Planet Aliens, all determined to stick together, no matter what.

Ultimately, it’s up to Andy to choose their fate and it’s a decision that unintentionally sets the story in motion. It’s the kind of motion that we have come to expect and embrace in a Toy Story movie. Our toy friends always need to find a way home and in the process learn a thing or two about themselves and the world around them. In doing so, they often wind up helping us realize a thing or two as well.

After a trashbag mix-up and some quick thinking, the toys, including Barbie (Jodi Benson), wind up in a box labeled “Sunnyside”, which turns out to be the name of their new home. They soon discover they’ve been donated to a day-care center, where veritable misfit toys reside, led by Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear, nicknamed Lotso (Ned Beatty).

Smelling of strawberries and delivering a folksy first-impression, he comes across as the consummate host. But is he? In his friendly, sing-song drawl, Lotso shares with the toys how they are now in a place where they will always be played with by children.

Yet something doesn’t feel right and we soon learn that Lotso, his number two, Ken (Michael Keaton is a hoot!) and their muscle, Big Baby, have quite an operation at Sunnyside, one that doesn’t live up to its name.

The whole thing doesn’t sit right with Woody, who takes it upon himself to get his friends out of this danger zone where toddlers slam you against the floor and slobber all over your head. Woody is inadvertently introduced to a sweet young girl named Bonnie (Emily Hahn), and her role-playing toys: a lederhosen-wearing hedgehog, Mr.Pricklepants (an excellent Timothy Dalton), a rag Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), Trixie the blue triceratops (Kristen Schaal ) and Buttercup (Jeff Garlin), the mythical unicorn. All of them are gingerly treated and active players in Bonnie’s own toy stories, a far cry from Sunnyside.

Once the rest of the toys swallow their feelings of abandonment and decide Sunnyside is not the place for them, the great escape begins! In no time, they hatch an elaborate plan that results in hair-raising thrills and absolute hilarity. After all, improv and implementation is what these toys do best. On their own, left to help each other survive various perils and possible destruction, we see a humanity and dignity from them that poignantly pervade this endearing story.

While I’m crazy about any creation from Pixar, I wasn’t so hot on the idea of sequels. I’d preferred that the movies stand in and of themselves. But this delightful viewing experience is proof that, like any film, it all comes down to a solid script.

What makes these sequels work so well is how they effortlessly live up to their title, they are toy stories that have much to offer. Writer Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) injects quite a bit into this story, yet it feels more like a multi-articulated action figure then a stuffed toy. He starts out with a spectacular opening action scene complete with a mushroom cloud full of a barrel of monkeys which thrusts us back into the imagination, wishing we could stay there forever.

Arndt pulls on the heartstrings where it counts, though. He manages to include everything we love about this world and the characters we care about. One of the more touching scenes at the end is not written for a toy but for Andy, which turns out to be a bittersweet coda to the Toy Story movies, hopefully. I love these characters as much as anyone but, like Andy, I know when to move on, and it’s an ending that adds graceful closure to a beloved franchise.

Director Lee Unkrich worked on the previous Toy Story films and knows that in order for this one to work, familiarity needs to be balanced with new locations, themes and emotions. I’m not going to even give details on how he and his crew exceed these elements on all levels.

Still, there is a great deal of expectation for Pixar’s very first threequel. We all know that by the third movie in any franchise, the creative well starts to dry up a bit. Not do with Pixar. The creative team is firing on all cylinders, delivering what is actually the funniest of the three films with the requisite top-notch animation present.

Not only does Pixar know how to produce colorful animation that pops with real weight, depth and texture but they also know how to incorporate 3D. Somehow the 3D adds even more to the beautiful visuals on-screen, accentuating not detracting what the audience will see. Regardless of presentation though, be it 2D, 3D or IMAX, the heart of the film will connect and that’s all that matters.

It’s a real pleasure to return to these characters. Not only are they all back but the cast sound like they are just as happy to back up on the screen. Toy Story 3 is the first film I have seen this year where I cannot find any flaws.

(Note: You’ll want to make sure you remain seated for the traditional end credits hilarity and don’t miss Teddy Newton’s short “Day and Night” before the movie starts. It’s a cute and cool retro-looking animated work that features two identical 2D creatures (hence the title), who both have different 3D visual displays in their torsos. If you liked the opening montage to last year’s “Up” then you’ll recognize that composer Michael Giacchino fluidly complimenting the tone and emotions. It’s a fun and charming short actually has a surprisingly timeless message to it.)

This review also appears on David J. Fowlie's own site, Keeping-it-Reel.com

David J. Fowlie

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