On the DVD for A Bug's Life, Pixar staffer and eventual WALL-E director Andrew Stanton coins the phrase "super-genius". At the time, Stanton was describing the film's technical advances, not its artistic merit, and yet the consistent first-class quality of everything Pixar has put out since the first Toy Story in 1995 pretty much embodies the term through and through. That includes Toy Story 2, which arrived in theaters eleven years ago with a key idea at the center: Woody (Tom Hanks) was actually a collectible, from a 1950's TV show called "Woody's Roundup". Not only is the idea itself just inherently cool -- seeing stacks of faux show memorabilia and meeting Woody's counterparts Jessie (Joan Cusack) and Bullseye is amazing enough -- but the almost automatic parallels it creates between the first and second film are organic and satisfying in a way that few sequels ever manage. As it turns out, "Roundup" was canceled in the wake of Sputnik and the subsequent space mania, in the same way Woody was nearly pushed aside by intergalactic ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) in the original movie, and it's this kind of brilliant detail that defines the difference between what Stanton was describing and "average" genius.
Toy Story 2 went on to score a 100% on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer and set the bar extremely high for sequels to anything, much less another Toy Story film, but audiences can rest assured that this third chapter is almost non-stop super-genius. There are at least three qualifying plot lines at work here, complete with several equally amazing ideas inside of them, all of which culminate in an emotional, well-earned finale that should please any Toy Story fan, young or old. On one hand, it isn't quite perfect, but at the same time, it is, with the film's almost non-stop high points easily blotting out the rare smudge on the movie's veneer.
Things kick off with a hilarious, exciting opening sequence that's best experienced following a refresher viewing of the original two films. I won't spoil it, but if readers consider how Toy Story 2 opened, it's not hard to guess what Toy Story 3 has in store. Frankly, the movie could have continued on this tangent for the entire running time and I'd have been more satisfied than I've been watching pretty much anything else 2010 has offered up. Nonetheless, we're returned to a world in which the toys' owner Andy (John Morris) is heading to college, and his mother (Laurie Metcalf) is prodding him to clean out his room in preparation. Through a series of mix-ups, the toys end up at Sunnyside, a day care center that seems like Heaven on earth, overseen by the pink, strawberry-scented Lotso Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty), or Lotso for short. Lotso assures the group, in his crinkly-eyed, wide-smiling and extra-kindly voice, that at Sunnyside nobody is ever outgrown; each year a new crop of kids arrives, and everyone gets played with, every single day.
Everyone is overjoyed except Woody. Loyal to Andy as ever, he splits from his friends in a bid to return home but ends up with another group of toys instead (voiced by Bonnie Hunt, Timothy Dalton, Kristen Schaal, and Jeff Garlin). Despite the detour, it turns out they have some crucial information to relay to Woody, and what follows is an escalating series of (super-genius) comic set pieces and increasing, heart-stopping danger. Toy Story 3 is darker than either of the previous two films put together, but it's almost impossible to deny the guts it takes Unkrich and writer Michael Arndt to determinedly push the characters into more and more dire situations, until the audience is genuinely unsure of what's going to happen next. There is a moment in the film that ranks among the darkest and most dangerous Pixar has ever animated, and yet they pull it off in a way that will reward younger viewers, reassuring them that, by being right there with them, they are as courageous as their favorite characters.
In all honesty, there is a hint of familiarity that Unkrich can't shake, both in general and specific terms (the story of Lotso is very Toy Story 2, and in an interesting twist on most Hollywood sequels, the participation of the series' nearly iconic returning voice cast is practically a side note to the story being told), but the technology has grown by leaps and bounds in the decade and a half since the first movie, and the technicians take advantage of every last tool at their disposal. Even in the brief moments that aren't blindingly original, Toy Story 3 is seriously gorgeous. Just like the previous two, the world in question is slightly stylized, but the film frequently looks photorealistic all the same. Human character animation has also improved almost exponentially. In particular, the animation for Bonnie (the daughter of Sunnydale's owner, voiced by Emily Hahn) perfectly captures childlike shyness. Like Dug in Up, the work here is a prime example of how the animators' meticulous study of real life (i.e. their own sons and daughters) allows the final product to leap past pat mimicry and into the realm of pure "performance".
Unkrich finishes with one last flourish, one that will probably bring even the most stone-hearted audience member to tears. Its effectiveness is increased tenfold because the moment is as much about the viewer's love for these characters as it is Andy's. Thanks to a company full of people who love and respect the series and characters much as the audience, Unkrich and Arndt weave the past and present together in the movie's final moments in a way that seems so effortless, yet so rare. Most sequels are approached by what new facets they can bring to the characters, but the leads of Toy Story 3 are plastic, and they're still basically the same after all these years. What Pixar has done instead is to offer everyone who's played alongside Andy every step of the way further insight on themselves and the way their devotion to the franchise parallels the story, and in doing so the film transcends super-genius, and becomes something else entirely. Pixar-genius, maybe. That has a nice ring to it.
Note: The screening I attended was in Disney Digital 3D, which was quite effective. I'm no 3D hater, so I can't tell you how much it will improve or decrease your respect for the new format, but Unkrich uses the effect well, mainly to enhance the scale of the toys out in the wide, wide world. The film is also preceded by a short called "Day & Night", which in my humble opinion is not one of Pixar's finer shorts. It's a nice animation exercise, and reasonably charming, but the message is a touch preachy, and the whole thing is likely to go over kids' heads.
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