A film review by Craig J. Koban July 8, 2010


2010, PG, 105 mins.


With the voices of:

Woody: Tom Hanks / Buzz Lightyear: Tim Allen / Ken Michael Keaton / Mr. Potato Head: Don Rickles / Jessie: Joan Cusack / Lotso: Ned Beatty / Rex: Wallace Shawn / Hamm: John Ratzenberger / Mrs. Potato Head: Estelle Harris / Mr. Pricklepants: Timothy Dalton / Andy: John Morris / Andy's mom: Laurie Metcalf / Barbie: Jodi Benson

Directed by Lee Unkrich / Written by Michael Arndt, from a story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Unkrich


The small miracle of the TOY STORY trilogy is how it takes characters that – under a normal plane of existence – are inanimate objects and creates emotive personas out of them that feel tangible and relatable.  There are human characters that lurk around the toys in these films, but they really are just secondary and less interesting than all of the plastic and wooden playthings that occupy the frame.  These characters are not just shiny and appealing objects to be played with; there are real personalities lurking behind their facades.  Characters like Woody the Cowboy, Buzz Lightyear, Mr. Potato Head and, yes, even Barbie have authentic insecurities, faults, and hidden pains.   

I think that this is the essential key to what made the original 1995 TOY STORY such a sublime delight.  Of course, that film was the very first feature from Pixar/Disney effort that abandoned using traditional hand drawn cels and, to infinity and beyond, dared to go where no one did at the time by making an entire film computer generated.  The technological innovations that TOY STORY spawned and pioneered cannot be understated: Like STAR WARS before it, which ushered in an entire generation of special-effects heavy entertainments, the John Lasseter directed TOY STORY was a watershed event for the art form: without the legitimacy it gave to pixelized creations, none of the computer animated films that were released in its wake would have ever been made at all.   

Yet, you can't just focus on the influential artifice of TOY STORY and its inevitable 1999 sequel.  The emotional core to these films and, in part, to the new TOY STORY 3 - is how they elicit our buy-in for these strange and eclectic characters.  Few films – animated or not – are able to adeptly bridge the always difficult gap between comedy, drama, sweetness, and high adventure, but the geniuses at Pixar certainly have with these films.  Perhaps more importantly, the films are exemplary family entertainments for how they appeal to young and old audience members alike: the films elicit an innocent, childlike sense of wonder in their pint-sized toys and their turbulent stories.  Adults, I think, vicariously recapture a long lost quintessence of the frivolity and carefree joys of their past by watching these films. 

If the first film and, to a degree, the second film in this series were about the transcendent pleasures of a child’s sense of discovery with new friends and confidants in his playthings, then the third film is certainly about the same child coming to grips with the fact that he has outlived his connection to the toys he once could not be without.  As a result, the toy characters themselves are equally struggling with their own moral dilemmas of both survival and maintaining their usefulness, dignity and purpose in life.   Andy in the last few films was a bright, energetic, and enthusiastic child, but in the third film he is 17-years-old, college bound, and seems more interested in his laptop than he does with his toys, which have all now retired to a dreaded storage box covered with dust.


Most of the toys from the precious entries are back: There’s the de facto leader, Woody (Tom Hanks); his second-in-command, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen); Jessie the Cowgirl (Joan Cusack), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris); Rex the Dinosaur (Wallace Shawn); and Hamm the Piggybank (John Ratzenberger).  Even though their sense of purpose in Andy’s life has waned considerably, they all nonetheless are trying to remain upbeat and positive for what they believe will be their next logical transition in life….the attic.  Buzz at one point, while trying to organize his clan, informs them, “We're going in the attic now, folks. Keep your accessories with you at all times. Spare parts, batteries, anything you need for orally transition.” 

The journey to the attic does not go without a hitch.  There is an initial struggle between Buzz and Woody as to which one will be going with Andy to college (rather reluctantly, Andy does decide to take Woody).  Then there is a rather large error when Andy’s mother mistakes a garbage bag filled with the remainder of the toys – that Andy wanted to go in the attic – as garbage and proceeds to place it by the curb of the house for pick up.  The toys, with Woody's assistance, escape their dreaded fate of being compacted, but they all emerge from their near-death experience with a lot of paranoia and apprehension about why Andy would just casually toss them away.  Woody desperately tries to explain that this is just a large misunderstanding, but his companions don’t believe him.   

Yet, the toys all decide to secretly enter a box destined for donation at a local daycare named "Sunnyside" (this film follows an obligatory movie law that states that any institution, hospital, etc. that have inviting names are not).  Woody remains suspicious of his strange surroundings, but the rest believe they are in some sort of Valhalla where they will be cared for and played with forever.  Then they meet the leader of the Sunnyside toys, a pink and cuddly stuffed teddy bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty) who always seems flanked by a large and eerily broken down baby doll and Ken (Michael Keaton)…yes…that Ken that certainly has an epiphany when he sees Barbie for the first time.  “Love your legwarmers,” he smoothly tells her, to which she responds, “Nice ascot.”   

Initially, Lotso welcomes the new denizens with open arms, and even though it does outwardly appear that all will be fine for Woody and his troupe, he still remains troubled by what he sees.  His concerns are indeed correct: the area that Lotso sends the newbies to is a hellish and freakishly violent war zone were the youngest – and most hostilely aggressive – toddlers nearly rip the toys apart when playing with them.  Woody manages to leave before his companions discover their fate, but becomes really determined to rescue them when Lotso and his gang show their true colors by imprisoning all of them.  A prison break plan is soon hatched. 

On a pure technical side, TOY STORY is the most impressive looking of the lot, and there is rarely a moment where the images are not painstakingly beautiful in their rendering (granted, Pixar had 15 years of R and D to smooth out the kinks of their freshmen efforts).  What amazes me the most from the new film is its blissful sense of generosity in its imagery: they is something for the eye to drink in and savor in nearly every corner of the frame, especially when the group comes to the daycare, which floods the screen with toys both familiar and foreign.  TOY STORY 3, just as much as its antecedents, is a powerfully transformative escapist experience for how it creates its lush and detailed toy universe set within the larger human world. 

Wicked imagination and daring innovation also abounds throughout the film; you always gain a sense of the ingenuity of the makers' creative impulses.  There is a fantastically rendered opening fantasy sequence in the Wild West that culminates – literally – in a mushroom cloud of Barrel of Monkeys.  Then there is also a playful montage involving Ken modeling his metrosexual 70’s-era wardrobe to the elated Barbie and an even slyer gag later that comes up when the outward homoeroticism of the character is commented on by another toy with a mocking groan and head shake (Ken may all be about the ladies, by his sense of style states everything to the contrary).  There are other sights which tickled me, like a droll scene where the Fisher Price Chatterphone spills the beans to Woody is a scene that could be right out of THE GREAT ESCAPE and another darkly amusing sequence involving a clown toy named Chuckles - that is decidedly not so happy at all - that reveals the depressing origins of Lotso.   

Perhaps more than any other entry, this TOY STORY focuses considerably on action, which is kind of a mixed blessing.  However, it’s really hard not to be enthralled with the late-breaking suspense sequence where the daycare is retrofitted to a prison from toddler hell.  Some of the cliffhanger-induced mayhem is worthy of an INDIANA JONES feature mixed in with some cheeky referencing to captivity dramas like the aforementioned THE GREAT ESCAPE and THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.  Watching Woody and his gang attempt to escape Lotso’s vile clutches is thrilling, especially near the end when everyone seems to be just on the cusp of total destruction.  Late in the proceedings, it truly becomes doubtful if the toys will even make it out alive at all.

Thankfully, the film escalates to an emotional crescendo at its conclusion, which builds to a sincere, tender and borderline tear-inducing finale where Andy comes to the realization that his toys need to be given to someone younger that shares his past spirited enthusiasm and never-ending love for them.  The ending is ingeniously conceived, but ironically problematicit will speak volumes to all of the adult viewers that fondly remember a time when they reached a transition in life where once cherished heirlooms of their bedrooms simply need to be discarded.  The empowering sentimental heart of this scene, I think, will be totally lost on wee-young moviegoers, who will fail to understand the significance of this very moment.

Make no mistake, TOY STORY 3 is a wondrously alive and high-spirited sequel made with the utmost integrity and consummate professionalism.  The voice cast is back too in resoundingly fine form.  Hanks and Allen make an appealing odd couple again, and Don Rickles cracking wise as Mr. Potato Head and Wallace Shawn’s self-doubting and self-delusion dino are still just as infectious.  The newer players that are most welcome are Ned Beatty – suggesting a gentile and well mannered toy hiding the heart of a cruel villain – as Lotso the Bear and Timothy Dalton is a hoot as his self-aggrandizing and pompously snobby Mr. Pricklepants, who treats his existence as a performer with the brevity of Shakespeare.  And how cool is it to see an unhinged and deliriously wacky Michael Keaton return to his comedic roots as the polyester-suited Ken doll that really, really tries to overcompensate for being largely a "girl’s toy." 

I came out of TOY STORY 3 enjoying it, but not overwhelmingly loving it.  Revisiting this lush world is welcome, but I am not altogether sure just how essential it is:  This third entry lacks the astonishing freshness, boisterous originality, and unyielding “wow” sensation of discovery of the first film and the artistic quantum leaps of the second film.  Of course, there could be little that the director (Lee Unkrich, who co-directed TOY STORY 2) and writer Michael Arndt (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE) could possibly do to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle allure of the earlier entries.  That, and if you scrutinize the film compared to other masterstroke works of the recent Pixar canon (like RATATOUILLE and UP), TOY STORY 3 feels more like a well-made, mass marketed commercial endeavor than an artistic one that covers new hallowed ground (the new film is in 3D, and even though the effect is satisfyingly muted and subtle, it still subverts and underexposes the lively color palette that the film would have had with a 2D presentation).  All in all, TOY STORY 3 still remains a very decent curtain call to the most famous and cherished CG animated series ever conceived, but I am not entirely convinced this is the final film in the series.  The end has on a sense of fitting closure, but hints at future tales to come.


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