‘Toy Story 3’: A whole other dimension

June 16, 2010

I will admit to having a particular soft spot for the “Toy Story” films which, aside from memories of watching them with my kids when they were small, has a lot to do with their place in film history.

 

“Toy Story,” released in 1995, was the first animated feature that was completely computer-generated. It was a huge thing and changed films as we know them – to the point that, today, traditional hand-drawn animation is an endangered species.

 

But “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” were more than just novelties or cartoons. They were also both dazzlingly imaginative and wildly funny. And, thankfully, “Toy Story 3,” opening Friday, lives up to its heritage in every way.

 

Forget every other computer-animated film that’s on the schedule for this summer: “Toy Story 3,” which is in 3D, is the one computer-animated film that you need to see. In a summer full of big-budget bombs and unfunny comedies, “Toy Story 3” delivers in all the ways it needs to: as a comedy, as an adventure, as a thriller – and as a tear-jerker. No, your kids won’t cry – though they may be frightened by the climactic scene in which the toys face all-but-certain doom. But you will or, at a minimum, you’ll be seriously choked up.

 

Fifteen years after the first film, “Toy Story 3” features most of the same toys from the first two movies. But their days as playthings are almost over. Andy, the toys’ owner who was a tot in the first film, is heading off to college, cleaning out his room – and making some hard decisions regarding those toys in his toy chest that have gone unplayed-with for so long.

 

Afraid they’re headed for the garbage dump, the toys themselves make an escape, hiding in a box of things being donated to a local daycare center. It seems like heaven at first: a place where kids play with toys all day long. But the toys quickly realize what a mistake they’ve made, when they experience their first day in the hands of toddlers for whom the toys are not age-appropriate.

 

Battered and bruised, they discover that, in fact, they’re trapped in the toddler part of the daycare center, tricked into staying there by older, more experienced toys, who assign themselves to the room with the older children. Quicker than you can say “prison break,” Andy’s toys are plotting their escape.

 

Written by Pixar veterans John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and director Lee Unkrich (and “Little Miss Sunshine” cowriter Michael Arndt), “Toy Story 3” is light years – make that Buzz Lightyears – ahead of the original in terms of how refined the visual imagery has come. You need only look at the human characters – Andy, his mother and sister – to see just how far computer animation has advanced. (Notice how alive the eyes are, something that Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture technique – “Polar Express,” “A Christmas Carol” – have yet to figure out.) The 3D is fine, if unnecessary.

 

But the first two “Toy Story” films worked so exceptionally well because they understood the importance of extremely well-written scripts – screenplays that had terrific, innovative stories and wonderfully surprising and funny dialogue. They were movies for kids that were also delightful for adults. And that formula hasn’t changed in the decade and a half since the first one.

 

Which is what lifts “Toy Story 3” above such recent entries as “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Shrek Forever After” and the upcoming “Despicable Me.” Those films are all imaginative and funny in their own way – but none of them has the depth of vision and of feeling that the “Toy Story” films have embraced.

 

This isn’t just a movie about wacky toys that come to life and have exciting adventures. It’s a gripping tale of loyalty, friendship and the stark reality of aging and moving on. That sounds kind of heavy, but kids won’t be fidgeting during the message sections of the movie. Instead, they’ll be caught up in the characters, who are never less than fully human, even when they’re made out of photorealistic plastic and faux fur.

 

The voice actors have a great deal to do with the reality of the characters, particularly Tom Hanks and Tim Allen as attractive opposites Woody the cowboy and Buzz Lightyear. But the rest of the cast – Don Rickles, John Ratzenberger, Joan Cusack, Estelle Harris and Wallace Shawn – also bring these animated inanimate objects to life in funny and moving ways. And Ned Beatty offers a homespun quality as Lotso Hugs, a plush pink bear they meet at the daycare center.

 

“Toy Story 3” is that rare sequel that lives up to and even surpasses its progenitors – and one for which you need not have seen the first films to enjoy the story. It’s a pure winner, with more suspense and laughs than any live-action film so far this year.

 

It’s not just the best animated film of the year – it’s also one of the best movies, period.

 

 

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