Each new Pixar release comes with a bilateral expectations. On one hand, everyone eagerly awaits the next quality Pixar project. On the other, there is an undercurrent of wondering how long can Pixar maintain their streak of superior works. Toy Story 3 was a prime candidate for a Pixar stumble. It is the third go around with the same concept. A concept that has set high benchmarks with the previous two installments. History has shown that the quality of a franchise usually trends downwards with each sequel.
So does Toy Story 3 break the quality product expectations that Pixar has become known for?
Nope. Not even close. The streak continues.
Toy Story 3 is an engaging and worthy closing chapter for a set of beloved characters. No stumble by Pixar here. It works well on the dual levels of all Pixar pictures which allow children and adults to enjoy them simultaneously. The messages exist on different, but shareable, planes of intent. The story here is pretty much a retread of that from Toy Story 2 which makes it just a little less special than the first two movies. What it does have is a finality to it that should close the book on these characters.
Eleven years have passed between the last two movies and Toy Story 3 picks up with that time period being accounted for. Andy, the human owner of Woody, Buzz et al is on his way to college. This is a literal and figurative lifetime milestone for both human and toy characters. The little army men figures pick up on this right away and in precise abrupt military fashion bid their friends farewell and head out in quest of greener, and safer, pastures.
Toy Story 3 is a slightly more sober story about the passage of time. Off hand references are made about BoPeep and Etch-A-Sketch no longer being around. Just as in life. Acquaintances come and go. Sometimes by choice. Sometimes not.
With Andy going to college he is leaving his childhood and toys behind. Accidentally the toys are sent to a children’s daycare instead of storage in Andy’s attic. The film becomes a prison break from this point with the nemesis a prison leader in the deceptive shape of a pink, plush and strawberry scented teddybear Lotso, voiced by Ned Beatty.
Initially the toys are overjoyed at the prospect of being played with by so many children. It turns out to be short lived as they are sent to the day care version of ‘gen pop’ where they are mishandled by children to young to play with them. It is up to Woody to save the gang. Not just from the daycare but by eventually finding them all a new owner and home.
There is a lot of fun stuff during the day care section from Barbie meeting her soul mate in Ken, voiced by Michael Keaton. Ken comes complete with all the associated accessories including an extensive wardrobe and mansion. Buzz gets reset back to his factory settings and the followup reboot sets him to speaking Spanish with hilarious results. The ‘prison break’ sequence is well done too but contains some scary imagery that may scare younger movie goers including that freaky cymbal clanging monkey from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Visually, Toy Story 3 continues to carry the technological torch. The movie reflects those advances in subtle ways but retains the look of the previous films, especially for the toy characters in their detail and animation. The advances are used to flesh out the backgrounds. The world feels more real for it. Most notable is the animation of the human characters. The movement of their limbs is so fluid and life like.
The final minutes of the movie deal with the passing of the torch from Andy to a little girl Bonnie. He sees a kindred spirit. Andy recognizes that she possesses the same imagination and joy of playing that he did as a child. So with mixed feelings Andy entrusts his toys to Bonnie and heads off to the next part of his life journey.
Typical of Pixar’s mastery of storytelling those closing moments are carried off with aplomb. What could end up being manipulative or maudlin in lesser hands plays out as stirring, sad, happy and unabashedly touching and emotionally honest. The final moments puts one in touch with their memories and feelings. It makes one feel alive. This is where the real magic of Pixar lies. In storytelling. Not in technology.