Yes, you should see Toy Story 3. It is probably the most consistently entertaining and well-written movie to come out this summer, and I include Iron Man 2 in that statement. It’s not quite as good as the first two installments in the series, but Toy Story 2 was so long ago (it was released in 1999) that I honestly didn’t remember enough to make a detailed comparison. Nor did I care to. I was too busy grinning at the antics on screen and feeling glad that even though I didn’t ask for a third Toy Story movie, it didn’t show any evidence that Pixar had run out of gas.
The story is pretty simple this time around and even sort of echoes the plot of the second movie. Many years have passed since Toy Story 2. Andy has grown up and doesn’t play with his very much toys any more. When it comes time for him to pack up his things and go to college, a set of snafus causes most of the toys to end up in a daycare center. Everything seems great at first with plenty of kids willing to play with the toys and a kindly bear named Lotso watching over everything. But there is a dark side to the daycare center, and Woody soon realizes he has to rescue his friends.
From the beginning, we are made aware that change is inevitable and that all things must eventually end. The first thing we notice when we see all the toys gathered together is that several of them are missing, having broken or been sold off in the elapsing years. Throughout the movie, all the toys are aware that the times will never be the same. Even Andy comes to realize this in a moving scene towards the end. Although the good guys may triumph, their victory may turn out to be bittersweet in the end. Therein lies the simple power of Pixar movies and what places them head and shoulders above animated efforts from other studios. Where other movies derive their stories from parodies and references to pop culture, Pixar movies appeal to something more universal. These movies will still be powerful and relevant 50 years from now. Shrek can barely survive a viewing ten years later (do any current teenagers even understand Shrek 2′s joke about a man escaping on a White Bronco?).
None of this is to suggest that the movie is heavy in any way. If anything, Toy Story 3 is more comedic and less concerned with emotions and character development than its predecessors. With the possible exception of Barbie, nobody really changes from beginning to end. Mostly, the Pixar animators rely on our previous familiarity with the characters in order to get us to care about them (and it works just fine). Although the pace of the movie is by no means frenetic, it is still constructed as a long, brilliantly conceived and choreographed escape/chase sequence. There are some mad geniuses at Pixar who apparently thought up every possible physical permutation a toy could go through and how each can be employed in an action sequence. You especially won’t believe what Mr. Potato Head manages to do with his detached limbs.
All of this is aided by the finest technical work ever seen in an animated film. The state of the art hasn’t advanced so much since the first Toy Story that the difference will be jarring, and Pixar knows better than to show off its technical prowess at the expense of storytelling. There aren’t really any awe inspiring moments, but the worlds have been rendered with meticulous attention to detail. Sometimes just taking a toy’s eye view of the interior of a vending machine makes it seem all new and strange all over again. And then there’s the bit where the movie renders a wet, furry teddy bear. The computer cycles required for that scene are staggering to contemplate.
The voice actors of the movie are consummate professionals who won’t distract you with recognition of their voice. Nonetheless, there’s an astonishing list of known names playing sometimes very small roles throughout in addition to the three main leads of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and Joan Cusack. My favorite casting choice is Jodi Benson as Barbie. You last heard her as the voice of Ariel the Little Mermaid, and she clearly has some fun toying with the princess image. There is also Whoopi Goldberg as a jelly octopus, Timothy Dalton as a dramatically inclined hedgehog, and Michael Keaton as Ken. When you’ve convinced Batman to play an ambiguously metrosexual girl toy, you’ve pulled off a coup. But as I said, you won’t know most of these people by their voices. Their job is to tell you the story first and foremost, and Pixar has managed it brilliantly. This is that rare third movie which won’t have to hide in the shadow of its predecessors.
But please, Pixar. The toys deserve their rest now. Even their story must eventually end.
P.S. The accompanying short feature is called Day and Night. It’s literally indescribable. It only makes sense as an audio/visual experience and any attempt to distill it to mere words will do it a grave injustice. It’s also the best animated short Pixar has yet produced. You’re in for a treat.