(by Dustin Putman
Each year, it is with fevered anticipation that Pixar Animation Studios release their newest offering. No one does animated family films like them; their concentration on heartfelt stories and memorable characters over easy toilet humor and jokey pop-culture references are the key ingredients to their success. Indeed, most of their movies are universally loved by children and adults alike, and it's easy to see why. With that said, there is one element that has somewhat scuffed up their last few efforts: momentum. 2008's "WALL•E" AND 2009's "Up" both featured extraordinary opening acts, tender and visionary and emotionally resounding, but then gradually lost these things during overlong middle sections that became too jokey, chaotic and repetitive, as if the makers did not trust their material and, thus, felt the need to start pandering to the younger audience members. "WALL•E" and "Up" ultimately reclaimed solid footing by their ends, but there was the sense that the pictures as a whole could have been even better had the purity and drama within their tales been trusted a little more. These same things could also be said about "Toy Story 3," a fine quality film in its own right, but one that has lost a bit of the freshness of its terrific predecessors, 1995's "Toy Story" and 1999's "Toy Story 2." Article continues below
Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie the Cowgirl (Joan Cusack), and the rest of their fellow toy cohorts are all back, but they have been cooped up for years in their owner's bedroom toy box. You see, Andy (John Morris) is now seventeen and ready to go off to college. He hasn't needed his childhood friends in a long time, but his toys have held up hope that he might one day return to them. Such a notion quickly becomes more and more of a pipe dream when Andy's mom (Laurie Metcalf) tells him to throw away the toys he doesn't want and box up the rest for storage in the attic. Desperate to not end up in a landfill, the toys stowaway in a box being donated to Sunnyside Day Care, where they dream about once again being wanted and played with by a whole slew of little boys and girls. Unfortunately, the reality does not meet their expectations when they are faced with a rowdy group of toddlers who do not know how to care for them. With Woody adamant that they must stay true to Andy and return to him even if it means biding their time in the attic until they are passed down to his children, they begin to plot their escape. Leaving Sunnyside won't be so easy, though; the toy community is overrun by a plush bear tyrant named Lots-o (Ned Beatty) who isn't about to let them leave.
Helmed by Lee Unkrich (co-director of 2003's "Finding Nemo," 2001's "Monsters, Inc.," and "Toy Story 2") and co-written by Michael Arndt (2006's "Little Miss Sunshine"), John Lasseter (2006's "Cars") and Andrew Stanton (2008's "WALL•E"), "Toy Story 3" is best when it is exploring the natural process of life—more specifically, the end of childhood. Of course, toys aren't actually alive, but if they were, what would this mean for them? Does Andy growing up spell death for his playthings, or might there be a way for them to still bring happiness to other children? These are provocative issues, but necessary ones, par for the course for a studio that has never shied away from themes involving one's mortality. The conflicts faced by Woody and his pals are tenderly set up, and an early montage showing the passage of time that leaves Andy a teenager who no longer has interest in his toys is devastatingly inevitable. Also captivating: their attempted escape from the trash and their initial misleading introduction to Sunnyside.
As Woody leaves his friends for a time and experiences the newfound love of a child named Molly (Beatrice Miller) who finds and takes him home with her, Buzz, Jessie, Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Mrs. Potato Head (Estelle Harris), Slinky the Dog (Blake Clark), and the rest of the group are forced to become prisoners under the firm, furry arm of Lots-o-Huggin-Bear. Their horrific mishandling by the smallest children of the day care is no fun to watch, and their big, involved scheme to bust out of the confines of Sunnyside while under strict surveillance by Lots-o and his minions greatly slows the pace down and loses, for a time, the inner heart that has always been prevalent throughout the "Toy Story" series. A flashback delving into Lots-o's past is also too much like the superior sequence in "Toy Story 2" where Jessie talked about being abandoned by her owner Emily after she grew up; the difference is that this time it holds no impact and is played for unnecessary laughs. At 103 minutes, the running time is twenty-two minutes longer than the compact 81-minute original, and that time difference could have easily been shaved off this one. Director Lee Unkrich meanders just as he should be barreling forward with the plot, and it is a flaw that decidedly sets it apart and casts it as the weakest of the three movies.
If the film has some issues in its second half, let it be known that they are overcome in time for the wonderful third act. The final scenes, which bid adieu once and for all to Andy's childhood while saying quite a lot about the value of memories and the changes that must be faced in life, are especially affecting and carried out with just the right bittersweet touch. "Toy Story 3" is earnest and wise in its ways, if not consistently magical. The production values are as high as ever, with sparklingly detailed animation, inspired voice work from all involved, and an appropriately nostalgic call-back to Randy Newman's "You've Got a Friend in Me." What is lacking is the sense of discovery; by now, viewers are more than familiar with the world of "Toy Story," and nothing drastic is done to truly rejuvenate it. It's a fitting end to the series, with just the right conclusion. Let's hope the franchise stops where it's at so Pixar can now return their concentration to newer, more innovative ideas. They are too good to be exhausting their time with sequels.