This is what happens when you’re good at your job: Everyone expects excellence from you, and anything even slightly short of that feels like a letdown.
“Toy Story 3” is a gorgeous film – funny, sweet and clever in the tradition of the best Pixar movies – but because it comes from that studio’s nearly flawless tradition, including two “Toy Story” predecessors, the expectations naturally are inflated. Excluding “Cars,” Pixar has a perfect track record of animated classics, with the innovative “Toy Story” starting it all in 1995. And so the pressure’s on to come up with a tale that makes a sequel worthwhile.
The storytelling in no way is in question; it never is at Pixar, which is the fundamental reason their films are so strong. Neither is the voice cast, led once again by Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and Joan Cusack, with formidable newcomers like Ned Beatty thrown into the mix. The details are as vibrant and tactile as ever: the textures and expressions, the use of light, angles and perspective.
And the core concept – that toys have a rich, complex interior life when people aren’t around – still holds up and resonates all these years later.
If “Toy Story” hadn’t come out in 1995 and “Toy Story 2” hadn’t followed it in 1999, “Toy Story 3” would stand on its own as a breakthrough. Trouble is, those earlier movies do exist. And by comparison, this third installment doesn’t feel quite so fresh.
And then, of course, there is the 3-D – the trend of the summer, the thing that makes this “Toy Story” different from the first two. It’s not intrusive. It doesn’t consist of stuff being flung at you and plopped in your laps in gimmicky fashion. But as is so often the case, it’s also completely unnecessary.
That’s especially true with the kind of strong writing you have here. The script comes from Michael Arndt, an Oscar-winner for “Little Miss Sunshine,” based on a story by director Lee Unkrich, Pixar chief John Lasseter and “WALL-E” director Andrew Stanton. The words and the characters pop off the screen just fine on their own.
The premise is compelling: Andy (voiced by John Morris) is no longer a kid playing all day in his room with Woody (Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Allen), cowgirl Jessie (Cusack) and the rest. He’s heading off to college, and as he’s cleaning out his room, he must decide what to do with his old friends. Mom (Laurie Metcalf) gives him two options: stick them in a box for storage in the attic or throw them in a trash bag for the garbage men.
The toys, including the neurotic dinosaur Rex (Wallace Shawn), know-it-all piggy bank Hamm (John Ratzenberger) and wisecracking Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), are understandably freaked out by both prospects. Plus, they’re just sad to see their friend go and have all the good times end. It raises the kind of deep, existential question you don’t often see in a kids movie: If no one acknowledges you, do you still exist?
Through a couple of mix-ups (and some “Mission: Impossible”-style maneuvering), they wind up instead at a day care, which seems awesome: Kids play with you all day! And new kids are constantly coming through, so the toys will never be bored or lonely! It’s paradise – until they’re placed in the room with all the wildly grabby toddlers, rather than the older kids who play a little more gently. And the whole place is run with a firm, fuzzy paw by Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear (the excellent Beatty), who’s all Southern charm at first but is actually a Machiavellian tyrant. He’s like a pink, strawberry-scented Tennessee Williams character.
Among the other new cast members, Timothy Dalton is a total scene-stealer as a hedgehog in lederhosen named Mr. Pricklepants, a preening British actor, and Michael Keaton is perfect as pretty-boy Ken, who’s just as obsessed with clothes as Barbie (Jodi Benson) is. It’s some of the best work Keaton’s done in years, and a great reminder of how funny he can be.
Unkrich, who was a film editor on “Toy Story” and co-director on “Toy Story 2,” plays the petite prison elements of the situation for tons of clever laughs. There’s also a beautiful, sepia-toned flashback that explains the origin of Lots-o’s anger, as well as the back story of his chief enforcer, a creepy doll named Big Baby. But then “Toy Story 3” turns unusually dark as it heads toward its climax – it might be too intense for littler kids – before turning heavy-handedly sappy at the absolute end.
Adults in the audience will undoubtedly shed a tear or two. But that’s how good the folks at Pixar are: They make you feel genuine emotions for hunks of plastic.