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Toy Stories.

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn June 16, 2010 at 4:16AM

Toy Stories.

Many people seem to have a personal relationship with the Pixar brand, but the "Toy Story" appeal goes deeper than that. The first movie obviously launched an obsession with the company's clean storytelling methods, that singular charm equally accessible to viewers of nearly every age group, but it also tapped into a universal sense of nostalgia for childhood innocence -- except, of course, to viewers who were children, for whom the main premise of "Toy Story" was the ultimate fantasy. I was one of those younger viewers in 1995, and there's little doubt that a major aspect of the emotional weight in the third movie comes from recognizing that the generation that saw "Toy Story" in its youth has grown up. As a result, I found the experience of viewing the movie at yesterday's press screening particularly surreal because many of the children in the audience were too young to remember either the original "Toy Story" or its 1999 sequel.

The new movie lacks the conceptual freshness of the first entry, but still has the sort of smoothly-crafed entertainment value and intelligent reference points associated with the brand. Director Lee Unkrich takes the story in surprisingly dark (maybe even too dark) directions, with Andy headed to college and accidentally donating his old plastic friends to a preschool that turns out to be a kind of prison camp for neglected toys. As usual, it's easy to engage with the dashes of genre pastiche, as the movie oscillates from slapstick to classy film noir homage with ease. Kids won't follow some of the more extreme gags, which include a seriously metrosexual Ken doll and Buzz Lightyear's accidental transformation into the star of a cheesy telenovela when his input language gets changed to Spanish.

But what do kids know about great animation? Only its most basic appeal. Virtually every animated work I enjoyed as a child has grown better as I aged (that dream sequence in "Dumbo" is triiiiiiippy -- and remarkable in so many ways), and that includes "Toy Story," which I revisited upon its 3-D re-release last year. But I could tell something was unique about the movie when I first saw it at the Factoria Mall in Seattle with my 77-year-old grandmother, a child of the Depression known to voice her concern when something didn't add up. ("I don't get this picture!" she exclaimed in the middle of "The Truman Show.") She liked "Toy Story," but singled out the plot, not the visuals, as its main appeal. She took the animation for granted. "Toy Story" essentially normalized computer graphics for viewers by showing their ability to deliver familiar narratives as well as anything else. For obvious reasons, "Toy Story 3" provides the most technically satisfying experience of the franchise, but it basically continues the company's track record with competent storytelling. It's not essential Pixar; just the usual above-average deal.

Speaking of above-average: Pixar has been using 3-D ever since the short film "Knick Knack" came out in 1989, but its latest short, "Night and Day" really takes a fresh approach to the effect by using traditional 2-D characters and placing extraordinary depth within them. Watch the clip below to see what I mean: