For being one of the most beloved children's film franchises of all time, the Toy Story films center on a rather deep existential crisis: are you a real toy if nobody plays with you? Toy Story 3 finds yet another way to approach this weighty philosophical issue with a deceptive lightness that leaves a childlike grin plastered on your face -- except when the filmmakers want to wring tears out of you.
It's been 11 years since Toy Story 2, and it seems like it's been that long since the toys' owner, Andy -- who is now packing for college -- has played with them. Andy makes the decision to bring Woody (Tom Hanks) with him and store everyone else in the attic -- a fate that they all seem fairly happy about. But a misunderstanding leads to the toys -- minus Woody -- ending up at a local daycare where the grandfatherly, strawberry-scented teddy bear Lotso (Ned Beatty) rules the roost. Turns out the toddler room at the daycare is actually a prison for our heroes, and Lotso and his henchtoys -- including the intimidating Big Baby -- are the wardens. When Woody learns the truth about Lotso, he returns to help his friends.
The understanding that conflict drives storytelling is ingrained in the Pixar ethos -- there is always a goal the characters are trying to achieve -- and Toy Story 3 is no exception. On the way to escaping, Buzz, Jessie, Bullseye, Slinky, and the crew must overcome a variety of little roadblocks, each more threatening than the last. Thankfully, screenwriter Michael Arndt doesn't settle for the easy solution to each of those problems. One of the many comic highlights involves Mr. Potato Head becoming Mr. Tortilla Head. The visual of this alone is ceaselessly amusing, but when you introduce a hungry bird eyeing him, the drama and the comedy both escalate.
While the airtight story hurtles along, the little details in the animation astound. From the realistic movement of fish in Finding Nemo, to Violet's swaying hair in The Incredibles, to the pouring of the wine in Ratatouille, Pixar movies almost always reveal their most remarkable technical achievements in throwaway bits of business, and in this film that moment is the way an empty garbage bag gets removed from the roll and opened. You wouldn't think such a mundane chore could leave you awestruck, but you realize with that little gesture that they've figured out how to animate air realistically -- it's easy to believe there isn't anything they can't do.
And of course this wouldn't be a Pixar movie without poignant moments that will leave adults crying like babies. The last 15 minutes of Toy Story 3 are an ongoing series of goodbyes -- including a show of solidarity in the face of imminent doom that's so moving you have to remind yourself that plastic toys are the catalysts for a lesson in humanity. Those prone to crying at movies will need to buy an extra seat just for the boxes of tissues they'll need during the finale.
But don't think it's a sad movie. Toy Story 3 has big and little laughs from the first frame to the last. It turns out that metrosexual Ken (voiced by Michael Keaton) has a dream house at the daycare, and his conversion from Lotso flunky to good guy -- thanks to his love for Barbie -- includes a riotous torture technique involving his wardrobe and a paddle ball. Another sequence, where Woody goes home with Bonnie -- the young daughter of the woman who runs the daycare -- features first-rate guest spots by Timothy Dalton and Bonnie Hunt, and gives Woody the most enjoyable day of play he's had in a decade.
The whole project is so masterfully conceived and executed that you either go along for the ride or sit in stunned appreciation for how singularly Pixar has maintained control over the creative quality of its output. It would stand to reason that eventually they will stumble by making something that doesn't measure up to the company's hallowed reputation. Toy Story 3 is nowhere close to being that movie.