Monday, June 21, 2010

Toy Story 3 (****)

Directed by Lee Unkrich


There's something poignant about the end of an era. For anyone born after 1985, the Toy Story films certainly feel like an era, cataloging times in our lives like snapshots. The first two, released in 1995 and 2000, respectively, were dazzling exhibitions in visual wonder and heartfelt characters. So, I guess it seems obvious that the sequel to two films that meant so much to me when I was a child would cause me to enter with some fearful trepidation. How could they possibly make a film that was on equal with the other two? Isn't one good sequel a miracle in itself? So, why try again? I'm glad they did.

All of the usual crew of toys are back: the hapless hero Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), the cantankerous Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) & his wife Mrs. Potato Head (Estelle Harris), the wrongheaded, but witty piggy-bank Hamm (Jon Ratzenberger), the vapidly adorable Barbie (Jodi Benson), the emotionally-insecure dino Rex (Wallace Shawn), the loyal, Southern-drawled Slinky Dog (Blake Clark), the foolhardy cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), and of course, the even-keeled leader (and Andy's favorite toy), cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks). Yeah, everybody's back, but their loyal owner Andy is getting ready to move off to college and the toys' lives seem to be in limbo. As Andy's mother coldly states, there are only three options: stored up in the attic, donated to the day care center, or worst of all, thrown out in the trash.

After a miscommunication between Andy and his mother, the toys end up getting shipped off to the day care center, where they are welcomed with open arms by the various toys that are already there. They're greeted by the hug-prone teddy bear Lotso (Ned Beatty), who happens to be the adorned patriarch of the toys there and is always followed by an ominously dim-witted baby doll with a lazy eye. The super-metro Ken (voiced delightfully by Michael Keaton) gives the gang a tour of the place (and falls in love with Barbie in the process), while the gang discover that they'll be staying in the next room--with the toddlers.

Everything seems great at first (finally they'll be played with!), until they realize how rambunctious and messy those young toddlers can be. They're slobbered on, colored on, thrown across the room, and by the end of the day, they realize they've been hoodwinked. In an attempt to be moved to the other room, Lotso less generous side becomes much more apparent, and the gang must find a way to escape and get back to Andy, or else they'll face a life of being miscared for and eventually thrown away. Can they make it out of this perilous prison together?

There's plenty of laughs spread around in this film. Watching Mr. Potato Head fit his body parts into a soft tortilla shell was one of the funniest moments in any of the films. I guess ten years is enough time to make these characters fresh comically. Like seeing Buzz Lightyear's settings get accidentally reset into Spanish; or Woody's tea party with a method-acting stuffed hedgehog named Mr. Pricklepants (voiced by Timothy Dalton). In a screenplay scribed by the Oscar winning Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine), this group of misfit toys has never seemed more charming or endearing.

In the vain of all the Toy Story films, though, it is the seamless blend between the funny and the serious that makes this movie so special. I'm sure this will break all kinds of records in the box office as thousands of kids drag their parents along for the ride, but I'm sure the adults will find a much richer film then expected. After all, this was not a movie created for children. It seems obvious that this is a film made more for former children; those who grew up with Woody and Buzz, now making their way toward adulthood like Andy does in the film. There was such an eerie connection between this film and my own life, and I can't be the only one.

It all leads up to a final fifteen minutes that I'll dare anyone to watch without shedding a tear. I'm never a fan of neat endings, but this film manages to conclude the entire trilogy in a way that's poignant without being sentimental, and satisfying without being contrived. I feel comfortable walking away from this film and knowing that it is the end, and you get a sense that the filmmakers feel the same way. By the end, even if everything wasn't perfect (Lotso's treachery is not completely convincing; and did they have to wear out "The Claw"?), you're glad they've all made it to this point.

It's come to that we expect this kind of excellence from Pixar (The Incredibles, WALL-E, Finding Nemo), but I certainly don't take it for granted. I can say comfortably that this is the greatest "part three" in any film trilogy, which is kind of like being the tallest midget, but I say that because despite my love for everything Toy Story I simply expected it to become watered down, like all sequels that take ten years to make. But this is not. This is excellent storytelling and filmmaking at its most basic levels, and the best film of the year so far.

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