Thursday, July 1, 2010

Toy Story 3 Movie Review: Trying Very Hard to Measure Up to a Bar Already Set in the Stratosphere

Pixar has a rule about sequels in that they won’t go near them unless they have a really good story, so it may seem suspect that they’ve released a second sequel to the film that got them started on world domination of animated features: the 1995 hit Toy Story. In the pantheon of Pixar features, Toy Story 3 figures somewhere between that first film and A Bug’s Life.

Now you may be thinking to yourself, “Those are two fine entertainments so how can I go wrong with this one,” and you’d be right. Woody and Buzz Lightyear (still voiced by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen) are back in another rollicking adventure. Whereas the first sequel dealt with the guilt of letting your childhood toys fall by the wayside, this one is about the sorrow of having to leave childish things behind when you reach adulthood.

Little Andy is now headed off to college and (bizarrely) he’s required to pack up every last detail of his bedroom, relegating items to 3 categories: trash; attic; college. Funny, when I went away to college I left a room to come home to during breaks. The toys you’ll likely remember from the first two films: Jessie the Cowgirl (Joan Cusack); Mr. and Mrs. Potatohead (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris); Slinky Dog (Blake Clark, filling in nicely for the late Jim Varney); Rex (Wallace Shawn); Hamm (John Ratzenberger); and Barbie are all back, but have spent long years in a storage chest, desperately trying to get Andy to notice them once again.

Believing they are bound for the curb while Woody is headed for the “college” box, the toys eventually find themselves donated to a daycare center where they prefer to stay rather than face the incinerator. Once there, they meet some other toys including Ken (Michael Keaton, channeling that wonderful combination of menace and doofus only he can muster) and Lotso (Lots o' Huggin' Bear, that is, given a kindhearted southern gentleman’s congeniality by Ned Beatty). Lotso gives them a warm welcome to their new home and Ken gives them the grand tour (Barbie later gets a personal tour of his Dream House including a hilarious fashion show in which he too enthusiastically displays all his greatest outfits) and sets them to rest in the Caterpillar Room.

Little do they know that the Butterfly Room is the place to be with older children coddling and caressing the toys with great care, while their new kids are the toddlers. These aren’t just any old toddlers, but the kind seemingly without any adult supervision whatsoever who wreak absolute havoc on anything and everything they touch, dipping toys in paint, stuffing odd things in Hamm’s belly and mixing up the Potato parts.

The action comes in steady beats, as is the custom of Pixar’s films. Kids are likely to truly enjoy all the adventure aspects, but likely won’t appreciate most of the jokes geared toward adults. Will young children really understand the humor of the sequence when Buzz is accidentally switched over to Spanish mode and becomes a swarthy Don Juan lusting for Jessie? Unfortunately Antonio Banderas was not summoned for this voiceover. Perhaps his Dreamworks contract for the Shrek films forbids him from working with Pixar. There’s also a clever, if somewhat obvious, reference to Cool Hand Luke when the toys are kept behind bars after an attempted mutiny against Lotso: “Anyone caught out of his cell spends the night in the box.” But it’s those kinds of wonderful bits of humor that make kids movies enjoyable to their adult accompaniment.

As much as I enjoyed this third installment, I couldn’t help but feeling like something was missing. Perhaps the characters have grown tired, most of them seemingly just along for the ride because the voice actors have done and continue to do such a marvelous job. Also, in spite of a convincing wallop at the end, there is something lacking in the department of emotional connection that was in abundance in Toy Story 2. This may be the least of the three Toy Story films and probably won’t go winning the Oscar for Animated Feature, but it’s probably a much better way to spend a summer’s day than any of the other countless sequels to action films which will probably open this year.

Update: Edited to correct the full name of the character Lotso

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