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TOY STORY 3
(****)
Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Diected by:
Lee Unkrich
Writers:
Jared Stern, Michael Arndt
Starring the Voices of:
Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Jodi Benson
Length:   102 minutes
Released:   06/18/10
Rating:
G suitable for  all audiences
" ...the last twenty-odd minutes of the film is as beautiful a stretch of film-making as you are likely to see anytime soon..."  
When the original “Toy Story” film was released in 1995 as the first feature-length offering from Pixar Animation, it faced the considerable challenge of whether audiences raised on traditional 2-D animation would be willing to sit for an entire film brought to life via the new-fangled technique of computer graphic imagery. It was a gamble that paid off considerably for all concerned--the film was an enormous hit with critics and audiences alike and helped spearhead the biggest revolution in animation since the release of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” nearly six decades earlier--but when it came time for the inevitable sequel, it meant that the stakes were raised even higher the second time around. Not only did such a thing have to succeed on its own terms, it had to somehow live up to the lofty expectations created by the original . Amazingly, 1999’s “Toy Story 2” managed to not only live up to the challenge of creating a worthy successor, it surpassed it with a startlingly mature work that reminded us of why viewers loved the original so much while simultaneously giving them a more deeply felt and emotionally resonant story and characters that had been developed in thoughtful and intriguing ways that would prove to be the envy of most adult-oriented films of the era. As a result, a film that had once been intended as a direct-to-video throwaway would become not just one of the few sequels generally agreed to be the superior of its predecessor, but one of the most instantly beloved cinematic experiences of our time. Now, after a twelve-year wait, “Toy Story 3” has finally arrived and it faces arguably the biggest challenge of the entire trilogy--not only does it have to live up to the unbelievably lofty expectations created by the first two films, it has also been charged with being the savior of what has so far been one of the most disappointing crops of summer movies to come along in a long time. Astonishingly, it manages to pretty much pull off the impossible once again--while it may not surpass the previous films in terms of originality or quality, it is definitely their equal and the result is a work so effortlessly charming and emotionally powerful that even those unfortunate souls who have been recently subjected to the likes of “MacGruber” and “Sex and the City 2” will find their faith in the power and glory of film at least temporarily restored.

Instead of ignoring the 12 years that have passed since the release of the previous film, “Toy Story 3” tackles them head on with a story that kicks off with the now-grown Andy preparing to leave home for college and his remaining playthings trying to come to grips with the fact that he no longer needs them. While packing up his room, he retrieves Woody (Tom Hanks) from his toy chest to take with him to school while bagging up the others--including Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack) and the Potato Heads (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris)--to be stored in the attic. Through a chain of events, the bag is mistaken for trash and after rescuing themselves from a fate worth than eBay, the toys assume that Andy doesn’t want them anymore and, despite Woody’s protestations, stow away in a box headed for the Sunnyside Daycare Center, a place where they are sure to be given more love and attention than they have received in years. When they arrive, Sunnyside seems like paradise--plenty of kids, plenty of new toys to hang out with and a benevolent leader in an avuncular strawberry-scented teddy bear known as Lots-o-Hugging Bear (Ned Beatty)--so much so, in fact, that when Woody tells them that they need to return to Andy, the rest of them decide to stay behind and begin a new chapter of their lives As it turns out, appearances are deceiving and the seemingly benign. Sunnyside is really a toy prison ruled with a stuffed iron fist by Lotso, who is still suffering from a long-ago plaything-related trauma and who takes out his hurt on any new playthings that come along. Having successfully escaped Sunnyside only to land in the hands of the shy and sweet little girl Bonnie (Emily Hahn), Woody learns about what is really going on behind the walls of Sunnyside and bravely decides to sneak back into the place in an effort to rescue his friends before they wind up as broken-down bits of landfill.

Although it would have been easy enough to simply coast on the success of their previous efforts, Pixar has instead spent the last few years taking advantage of the enormous goodwill and trust that they have built up with audiences by making enormously ambitious works such as “Ratatouille,” “WALL*E” and “Up” that have defied conventional notions of what can and can’t be done in an American animated film. As a result, “Toy Story 3” may strike some observers as an oddly retrograde move in many ways--while it serves as a very funny spoof of “The Great Escape,” the story seems slightly inconsequential in comparison to the previous films and the notion of toys dealing with the concept of having their owners outgrow them is one that was already dealt with in the previous film via Jessie’s unforgettable flashback. However, as the film shifts into its extraordinary final section, it quickly becomes apparent that the artistic hurdle that screenwriter Michael Arndt, director Lee Unkrich and the rest of the Pixar team have set for themselves this time is to find a way to give these characters and their stories to a fitting and dignified conclusion that allows them to go out on a high note instead of tarnishing years of cherished memories with an endless array of weak spinoffs and sequels perpetrated by people unwilling to let go of the past. This is an extremely tricky and difficult thing to pull off, as anyone who has seen any of the “Shrek” sequels can attest, and without going into detail about what transpires, I can assure you that the last twenty-odd minutes of the film is as beautiful a stretch of film-making as you are likely to see anytime soon in the way that it manages to effectively pay off the feelings and emotions that the films have generated in audiences over the last fifteen years (especially those who were little kids back in 1995 and are now heading into adulthood themselves) in ways both hilarious and heartbreaking and concludes on a note that will have even the most jaded audience members brushing back a tear or two.

The conclusion is so incredibly effective, in fact, that it may blind some viewers--I know it did with me at first--as to just how much fun everything leading up to it is. Perhaps recognizing that this would most likely be the last playtime with these characters, the film sends them off with a bang with an exciting and fast-paced tale filled with thrilling set-pieces that never go so far as to overwhelm the proceedings, goofy slapstick for the little kids and amusing in-jokes for older viewers--anyone who has feared in recent years that Pixar’s recent artistic pursuits have stymied their ability to simply entertain will certainly be reassured by the delights in store here. Whenever the action threatens to flag for a minute, something new and inventive crops up and supercharges the proceedings; in the funniest bit, Buzz’s voice mode is inadvertently switched into Spanish and while hearing his familiar lines in another language is funny enough at first, the film actually develops the joke further and what eventually transpires is both genuinely inspired and genuinely hilarious. As per usual for a Pixar film, the voice casting is absolutely perfect--all the old favorites get their moments to shine and there are nice turns from such newcomers to the fold as Beatty as the menacing Lotso, Bonnie Hunt as a doll as sweet, sensible and level-headed as she is and Timothy Dalton as a theatrically-inclined doll who frankly deserves more screen time. Of the newcomers, however, Michael Keaton pretty much steals the show as the clothing-obsessed Ken doll who finds his loyalty to Lotso thrown into turmoil with the arrival of Barbie (Jodi Benson)--he takes what could have been a lame gay caricature and brings so much humor to the proceedings that it will make you once again wish that he would get back to making movies on a regular basis again.

At the screening of “Toy Story 3” that I attended, the audience was pretty much divided even between little kids and grown-ups who were there either out to see it themselves or to accompany the tykes. Obviously the little kids were excited, but one could detect a certain level of anticipation on the part of the adults as well as though this were more than just another movie. From the moment that the film started, it was obvious that every single person in that theater was immediately captivated by what they were seen and it maintained that spell until the very end. In fact, not only did the place burst into spontaneous applause once it ended, everyone pretty much stuck around for the bonus cookies that played during the end credits and then broke into a second round of applause when they ended. Trust me, if ever there was a film that deserved two rounds of applause, not to mention all the accolades that it is sure to receive across the board, it is “Toy Story 3.”

Critic's Note 1: Like seemingly every animated film to come down the line these days, “Toy Story 3” is in 3-D and while the process is used as intelligently as one could hope for--as with “Up,” it is used primarily to provide viewers with a more immersive experience than to simply throw things at the screen--it once again means that the resulting image is nowhere as bright and colorful as it might have been without the interference of those damn glasses. My advice is to find a theater playing it in 2-D and see it that way--not only will you be saving yourself a few bucks (not to mention any number of possible germs and from improperly disinfected glasses), you will get to see it in a version that hews much closer to the visual style of the first two films.

Critic's Note 2: As with most Pixar films, “Toy Story 3” is playing with a new animated short. This time around, the film is entitled “Day and Night” (no relation to the upcoming Tom Cruise boondoggle) and while it is best experienced knowing as little about it in advance as possible, I will say that its blend of CG imagery and traditional animation is a visual delight and that it provides so many big laughs that it would be considered the unquestioned highlight of any film program that didn’t have “Toy Story 3” immediately following it. In other words, make sure that you get to the theater in plenty of time..

TOY STORY 3 © 2010 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2010 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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