After more than a decade away, Woody, Buzz Lightyear and most of the other toy favorites are back in theaters Friday for a third go-round in Toy Story 3, along with the familiar and charming voice cast of Tom Hanks (Woody), Tim Allen (Buzz), Joan Cusack (Jessie), Don Rickles and Estelle Harris (Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, respectively) Wallace Shawn (Rex), and John Ratzenberger (Hamm).
But in expanding the franchise into a trilogy, Pixar, the computer-generated animation hit machine and classic storyteller, falls prey to the law of diminishing returns. Toy Story 3, while a good film overall — occasionally soaring into brilliance — falls just short of the excellence established by its more impressive predecessors.
Like the aging, scratched-up toys in the third movie, the freshness has worn off the series, replaced by a familiarity that is at once comfortable and also less invigorating, much like the movie's plot: What happens when a child outgrows his playthings?
It's a solid premise, but certainly nothing new; Toy Story 2 dealt with similar issues of abandoned toys with cowgirl Jessie and her child owner who grew up and cast her aside to the aching tune of Sarah McLachlan's "When She Loved Me."
In Toy Story 3 a similar fate has befallen Woody, Buzz, et al, as their owner, Andy, prepares to leave home for college. This has most of the toys in a state of confusion, anxiety, and despair — especially when they hear Andy refer to them as "junk" to be put away in the attic. Except for Woody, whom Andy plans to pack up and take to college.
After a series of mix-ups, including nearly being thrown away, the toys find themselves in a day care facility, a paradise of comfort and relaxation for abandoned toys, with a steady supply of children eager to play with them.
Overseeing the day care toys is a cuddly Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear named Lotso (voiced with a gentlemanly western drawl by Ned Beatty), who invites the toys to live with him and the others, including the giant Big Baby and the fashion-conscious Ken doll of the Barbie collection (voiced by Michael Keaton, reminding us of his pre-Batman comic-actor years).
The toys are sold on the day care as their new home, but Woody decides his place is with Andy. The lanky cowboy with the drawstring manages to escape the day care center, only to be stuck in a tree until a little girl with a big imagination named Bonnie (Emily Hahn) rescues him. She takes Woody home, where he is welcomed by her other toys. But when a toy clown shares the awful secret of Lotso — he locks new toys in the toddler room to keep the tiny hands occupied with new playthings to pull apart, scratch, smash, and paint — Woody knows he must rescue his friends.
As the final third act of the movie kicks into high gear with a Great Escape-style rescue attempt, Toy Story 3 finally finds its creative footing and steps out of the long shadows cast by the previous Toy Story films.
It concludes in a fitting, though unnecessary, finale to the series that more or less justifies the existence of the third film.
Toy Story 3 was written by Michael Arndt, with some help from John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich at Pixar. Arndt won an Oscar for his quirky, upbeat Little Miss Sunshine script, but the dialogue and humor isn't as sharp or punchy as we've come to expect from a Pixar film.
Directed by Cleveland native Unkrich, who cut his teeth co-directing Pixar classics such as Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., and Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3 is a sturdy sequel that doesn't reek of dollar signs, or as a continuation haphazardly thrown together less for entertainment than to cash in on audience affection.
Toy Story 3 is also in 3-D. The added depth on the screen is barely noticeable and further proof that the present 3-D craze by studios is overhyped and typically adds little to the moviegoing experience. Save the extra $3 upcharge per ticket and buy a drink or popcorn.
While its purpose may be relatively pure, that the movie still falls short of the first two Toy Story films is proof that the series has been stretched too thin.
For as much as we may love Woody, Buzz, and the other characters in this toy box, Toy Story 3 shows it's time for Pixar to put away these toys for good.
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