Review: "Toy Story 3"

by Todd McCarthy
June 10, 2010 4:23 AM
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Photo copyright © Pixar

It's been 11 years since “Toy Story 2,” and the long delay suggests a challenge: Arguably, never have there been two sequels of an exceptional original film that both reached the same high level of initial achievement. Not under discussion here are long-arc, literary-based, multi-part single stories such as “The Lord of the Rings” or “Harry Potter,” nor series based upon a recurring central character, such as James Bond, where the individual plots are essentially unrelated. No matter what franchise starters you bring up--”The Godfather,” ”Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “Alien,” “The Terminator”--the third installment is most often where filmmakers trip up. So Pixar, with its remarkable track record of 10 big hits, all very good films, was well advised to proceed cautiously, no matter how strenuously Disney applied pressure over the years, with another “Toy Story.”

Does “Toy Story 3” break the jinx? Pretty much so, yes. Attended to in every creative department with all the care that one has become accustomed to expect from Pixar, the new film, after a slam-bang action teaser, takes perhaps a bit longer than necessary to put all its pieces in place. But once it kicks in to unexpectedly become a prison-break thriller, it fires on all cylinders all the way to the finish line.

The main reason Pixar has established itself as the best film company in the world is that its top priority is story, story, story. No matter how dazzling the technique (the 3D is perfectly judged here), how funny the gags or how sly the characterizations, the narrative superstructure is as sound as the engineering for the Eiffel Tower or a 747, the plot as satisfyingly consummated as in a novel by Dickens or Hammett. There are visible formulae at work here, to be sure, especially with the emotional injections administered at the beginning and end, but they convey honest and valid sentiments lying at the heart of the attachments of characters that now have long histories, both with each other and the audience.

There's a lot of tiresome talk these days about the “four quadrants” of the public a big film must hit to become a blockbuster. In a way, that job sounds easier than what “Toy Story 3” pulls off, which, beyond appealing to the general public, which all Pixar films do, is to simultaneously offer strong lifelines to toddlers and late teenagers; for anyone who saw the first two entries as a little kid, there will be not only nostalgia value but explicit reverberations stemming from the upheavals of leaving home and cutting youthful attachments. If it hadn't already been used, a perfectly suitable stand-alone title would have been “Childhood's End.”

As always, however, the audience targeting and serious carpentry merely serve the purpose of delivering loads of fun, which “Toys Story 3” does in abundance. The nonstop imperilment of the madcap opening, which plunks most of the familiar characters down in a tense chase involving an old Western train and a “Cars”-era Corvette through Monument Valley, ultimately leads straight into the same suburban bedroom Woody, Buzz, Jesse and the rest have long occupied.

This very day, however, the toys' fates are to be decided, not in a game, but for real. Andy, to whom Woody has devoted himself for most of the boy's 17 years, is leaving for college and must decide if his old toys will be going with him, stashed in the attic, given away or thrown out. “Every toy goes through this,” Woody counsels his nervous pals, who by mistake wind up in a bag piled with garbage by the street. The upshot of this is just the first of enough close shaves and narrow escapes to fill an old serial or an Indiana Jones adventure.

Things become even more interesting once the gang lands at Sunnyside, a day care center that, at first glance, looks like paradise. Here, it is playtime all day long; the toys will never be neglected nor outgrown, as there will always be new kids coming along to love them for a season. The place is presided over by a genial old bear named Lotso, a honeythroated gent with a cane who could scarcely be more comforting and reassuring. Not only that, but Barbie, who joined the group last time around, is enthralled to find residing there her perfect match, Ken, who is sent up not only as a shallow, duplicitous twit but as a preening clotheshorse even more obsessed with wardrobe than his female counterpart.

Alas, Sunnyside has its dark side. Ruling with a cushy fist, Lotso, wonderfully voiced by Big Daddy Ned Beatty, assigns the newcomers to the Caterpillar Room, a ghastly hellhole where brutal rugrats beat the daylights out of every toy in sight. When the group protests, the fat man makes prisoners of them, triggering a succession of apparent escapes, false hopes, twists of fate, rescues, betrayals and just desserts that comprise a breathlessly entertaining final act that's capped by an emotionally pertinent final kicker.

Although the vibrant script was written by a newcomer to the Pixar fold, Michael Arndt, who made his name with his first screenplay, “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Toy Story 3” is entirely of a piece with the first two, the result of continuity of personnel on all the pictures across the years. John Lasseter, who directed the first two but now oversees all animation for Disney, stepped aside in favor of Lee Unkrich, who edited the first installment and co-directed the second (in addition to “Monsters, Inc. and “Finding Nemo”); along with these two, Andrew Stanton, who co-wrote “1” and “2” as well as writing and directing “Nemo” and “WALL*E,” also receives official story credit. But the production notes inform that the concept for the third installment was hatched at a retreat that also included producer Darla K. Anderson and Pixar stalwarts Pete Docter, Bob Peterson and Jeff Pigeon (one can only assume that considerable thought, speculation and discussion about possible story angles had started long before that).

The passage of years has not prevented the voices of veterans Tom Hanks (Woody), Tim Allen (Buzz Lightyear), Joan Cusack (Jesse), Don Rickles and Estelle Harris (Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head), Wallace Shawn (Rex) and all the rest from seamlessly picking up where they left off more than a decade ago. Without spoiling anything, great fun emanates from Buzz switching modes of operation at key points, and some of Lotso's minions, notably a stretchy octopus and a hideous percussionist monkey, are inspirations.

The one slight indulgence is the running time; at 103 minutes, (not including the new 3D short, “Day & Night,” that precedes it) “3” is 11 minutes longer than its immediate forerunner and 23 minutes longer than the original. While scarcely excessive, the film still feels a couple of pounds over its ideal fighting weight.

Leonard Maltin reviews "Toy Story 3" at his site, Leonard Maltin's Movie Crazy.

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  • DaniLee | September 25, 2010 4:36 AMReply

    This is a fantastic movie. Very creative and so different from the first and second parts. I loved it. The new characters just add diversity to the group. I would have liked to see the whole gang from the other two movies. I have a three year old that is a true woody fan and I know I'll be wearing a woody costume this Halloween. Ken and Barbie were great additions, I'd say they almost stole the show.

  • Lauren | June 20, 2010 11:31 AMReply

    I graduated from high school exactly one week ago, and seeing the same emotions, fears, concerns, and sadness reflected in this movie, in andy and his mom and his toys made me cry more than any movie ever has. It was released at just the right time, and it is having the same effect on all of my friends. we were kids whent he first two cam out., and now the story applies to us so much. truly magical

  • Jamie | June 19, 2010 3:41 AMReply

    I just saw it today with my friends. On the way home, we were thinking about how we really do feel like Andy. We were 4 when the first movie came out and 6 when the second one came out and now we are 17 or 18 and going into college, when the third one came out. Its just crazy how fast time goes by and everything changes in the blink of an eye. It was an amazing movie and well worth that 11 year wait. Thank you pixar for continuing our childhood movies and having it being nothing shy of brilliant.

  • Holly | June 19, 2010 3:28 AMReply

    Watched it today, with friends. I loved it! Might just have to go watch it again.

  • ellen | June 19, 2010 2:34 AMReply

    I watched it with my grandkids tonight. It was amazing...sad.....intrique...humor....terror....just a great movie for all ages. I would have ended it differently actually it is the way I thought they were going and then didn' ending would have allowed for a 4th ....a new generation...but who am I....LOL

  • shelby | June 19, 2010 2:18 AMReply

    saw it today and really enjoyed it. glad i wasnt alone with crying. it really made me miss being a kid. why did i have to grow up?!

  • Deanna | June 19, 2010 2:04 AMReply

    After much anticipation, it is finally here. I think my husband and I might have been looking forward to seeing it more than our 2 boys ages 9 and 4. My husband and I both cried during it. I honestly can not think of a movie we have held more dear to our hearts over the years. Disney and Pixar never disappoint. I can only hope there will be a 4 but at the same time hope they end it at 3 on such a high note. Can't wait to see it again!

  • TANYA | June 19, 2010 1:58 AMReply

    Went and saw it today with my 4yro,mom & dad. And i wanna go see it again..Can't wait to add it to my collection of 1 & 2. doesn't matter how old you are it was great.

  • Wendy | June 19, 2010 1:54 AMReply

    I saw the movie today with my family, daughter 7 and son 12. We all absolutely LOVED Toy Story 3. Be ready for a tear jerker Moms and Dads!

  • Tom | June 19, 2010 1:11 AMReply

    I thought it was very good and very funny. Best of the three.

  • robert | June 18, 2010 11:42 AMReply

    i Loved all the Pixar Movies :))))

  • Helen | June 18, 2010 11:31 AMReply

    FAIR WARNING: My teenaged daughter and her friends - all graduating seniors - saw this movie last night and apparently cried their eyes out through much of the movie. Apparently it hits the sentimental button with a sledgehammer... She also made a comment that it may be a little scary in parts for the very young.

  • Linda | June 18, 2010 10:10 AMReply

    I just saw Toy Story 3 and think it is wonderful. Geared to entertain all ages. It truely has a story line that keeps you engaged, forgetting it is animated. Pixar never lost the edge with this series.

  • Caterina Pryde | June 18, 2010 9:21 AMReply

    Great, insightful, intelligent review. Thank you! Wish Hollywood would realize that story is where to put the money.

  • Frances | June 18, 2010 7:00 AMReply

    I loved both Toy Story Movies and can't wait to see this one. The best part is that I get to relive all over again with my son.

  • Tom | June 18, 2010 6:56 AMReply

    I just saw it best movie ever it was very good and i'm 19 it really brought forth nostalgia. I reccomend this movie to all.

  • Chelsea | June 17, 2010 6:23 AMReply

    I can not wait to see this movie! My kids and I have all enjoyed the other two. As I was doing some light reading on the upcoming blockbuster hit, I stumbled upon this little gem I thought you all would enjoy...
    Have fun!

  • Joe E | June 16, 2010 2:04 AMReply

    The driving distance between Emeryville, California and Hollywood is 366 miles. The creative distance between PIXAR and Hollywood can barely be measured in light years.

  • Scott S | June 12, 2010 9:47 AMReply

    "The main reason Pixar has established itself as the best film company in the world is that its top priority is story, story, story."

    If only this was the mantra of every studio executive. STORY. STORY. STORY.

    Looking forward to the movie.

  • Chet | June 12, 2010 8:49 AMReply

    Very nice review. If it's any consolation Todd, I had never read your stuff when you were at Variety, but ever since Roger Ebert brought you to my attention in his blog post, you have become one of my "must read" sources. It was my loss to have missed you for so many years.

  • Yuri | June 11, 2010 11:04 AMReply

    Great! Thanks to your review, Joey really wants to see it now. He was a little iffy before... :)) The only question -- is Toy Story 3 better than Breaking Bad?

  • Jack | June 10, 2010 6:23 AMReply