Another year, another Pixar movie and an all-but-assured lock for Best Animated Picture of the Year. The long-anticipated Toy Story 3 is here, and with it marks the return of Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang that is responsible for introducing audiences to CG-animated cartoons. Nostalgia runs high and Pixar once again turns in remarkable effort, but after Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up, Toy Story 3 feels small in comparison. Pun only slightly intended.
Toy Story 3 may seem like a rare cash grab for the sequel-shy production studio; though Pixar has sequels to Monsters, Inc. and Cars coming soon, up until this point its only previous sequel was Toy Story 2 - a movie that somehow managed to better than the original. Pixar has taken risks in the past and been rewarded handsomely for them, though owner Disney has its eye on studios such as DreamWorks Animation that have large, lucrative franchises being churned out on a semiannual basis; given the current economy, it's not too surprising that Disney wants to invest in its known properties. Toy Story is by far and away the franchise people think of when the word "Pixar" is mentioned, and Woody and Buzz are the closest pairing to a modern day Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
Toy Story 3 is not a cash grab, of course, but a natural conclusion to the character arcs developed in the first two movies. The toys belong to Andy, but Andy, 15 years older, is preparing to go to college - and there's no room for toys in college. In fact, Woody, Buzz and the rest haven't been played with in years and are dreading the upcoming moment of truth: do they get donated, shipped to the attic or thrown in the trash? The toys do in fact get donated - if to some degree by accident - and while Woody is insistent they find their way back to their rightful owner, the other play-deprived toys are delighted to learn they're now in a daycare, which means endless amounts of playful children. The rude awakening comes when they learn they've been designated to the toddler room, a hellish pit of misery and torture where young children bang, throw and paint the way to early toy funerals. When the toys try to escape, they learn that the huggable bear Lotso is actually a coldhearted dictator who brutally rules the daycare. Can the toys escape Lotso and get back to Andy in one piece? And even if they do, what will become of them?
Pixar has always done a phenomenal job of tying its stories with relatable human elements; Toy Story 3 is a coming-of-age story, but told from a different perspective. The first movie showed Andy at his playful best; the second hinted at him outgrowing his toys. The third completes that journey, as every kid must face the day they decide to keep or give up their childhood toys they never believed they'd outgrow. I still have my Legos, partially with the assumption that someday my kids - who don't yet exist - will play with them, but also because it's hard to fathom giving up my favorite toys, even though I will never play with them again. With Toy Story 3, Pixar taps into that nostalgic feeling and once again delivers a solid comedy-adventure.
I don't know if I was tired or in a bad mood or what, but Toy Story 3 didn't blow me away the way other recent Pixar films have; the nostalgic elements were there, but as intelligent and well-made as the movie is, it doesn't feel like an improvement over the first two movies. The visual effects are amazing and a thousand times better than what Pixar was doing 15 years ago when the first movie was released, but the fact is that some of the shine has come off the Toy Story world. Just a little bit. Though Pixar introduces us to several great new characters, including Ken (voiced by Michael Keaton), there's nothing substantially new about Toy Story 3; having just watched the first two again not too long ago, they were funnier and more entertaining because they had more new ground to break. Toy Story 3 has to scrounge for original moments and build upon previously told jokes.
Toy Story 3's shortcomings are minor, however. The movie is still extremely enjoyable and the animated film to see this year. Director Lee Unkrich, who directed the second Toy Story as well as Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc., is genius at times; the day care "horror" shots stand out as evidence of brilliant filmmaking, something you typically won't see in CG films from rival studios. Toy Story 3 also picks up the pace in the second half and gets surprisingly intense toward the end, to the point where you really don't know how the toys are going to survive. As mentioned before, the visual effects are incredible.
Toy Story 3 is a very, very good movie, but when compared to Pixar's recent classics and especially the first two Toy Story movies, it's a little underwhelming. Still, it's great to see Woody and Buzz back in action, presumably for the last time.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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