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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.
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Leonard Maltin reviews “Toy Story 3” at his site, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Crazy.