Pixar’s “Toy Story” movies just keep getting better. The latest, and I hope not last installment, “Toy Story 3,” has more emotional power than either of its predecessors. Come to think of it, it also has more emotional power than most of the live-action movies out there.
Expertly mounted in 3-D, the movie begins with the 6-year-old Andy’s toycentric imaginings, complete with thrill-ride-type pyrotechnics for his favorites, including homespun cowboy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), comically stalwart Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and the rest.
What makes this sequence so thrillingly comical is that it parodies the Jerry Bruckheimer-Joel Silver school of blam-pow filmmaking even as it tops its effects. It’s also a marvelous demonstration of how movies can inspire kids to create entire fantasy worlds. (The “Toy Story” films certainly serve that function.)
But the pyrotechnics turn out to be a prequel to the central story. Andy, now 18, is college-bound. Excepting Woody, he packs up his toys for the attic, but his mother mistakes the bag for trash. This sets in motion a series of events that lands the lot, including Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris) and Jessie (Joan Cusack), inside the precincts of the suspiciously cheery Sunnyside Day-care Center.
Looking forward to a lifetime of playtime with an inexhaustible supply of tots, Andy’s toys soon realize, to their horror, that Sunnyside, presided over by a strawberry-scented plush named Lots-o-Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty), is no refuge: It’s more like a prison. Woody, initially smuggled into Sunnyside with his friends, must ride to the rescue, as “Toy Story 3,” which began as a riff on hypercharged action movies, turns into a jailbreak escapade – and a surprisingly effective one, too.
Director Lee Unkrich and his screenwriter Michael Arndt understand that whimsy and slapstick in this series can only take you so far. The almost nightmarish scenes of confinement at Sunnyside are keyed to an even darker subtext: the sadness of Andy’s toys at being abandoned. Once they were happy. Now their only choice, even if they break free of Lots-o and his minions, is the attic.
Before he turns savior, Woody, in yet another mix-up, finds himself ensconced in the playpen of little Bonnie (Emily Hahn), whose gaggle of toys rivals his old pals’ eccentric charms. (I particularly liked Timothy Dalton’s Mr. Pricklepants.) Much later, Bonnie and Woody and the rest will figure in a denouement that is one of the most moving leave-takings I’ve ever seen in an animated film.
It never fails to amaze me – though, given all the precedents, it shouldn’t – how animated and computer-generated creatures can trigger such deep-seated human emotions. The “Toy Story 3” filmmakers don’t play down to their audiences, young or old, and perhaps this is why they are able to move so effortlessly between hilarity and sadness without missing a beat. They understand that life is a rollercoaster continuum.
Kids watching “Toy Story 3” will recognize right away that this is something special. It speaks to them in their own language, which, of course, turns out to be everybody’s language. The best children’s films aren’t only for children. Grade: A (Rated G)
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