'Toy Story 3' is an emotional roller coaster you'll want to ride again
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, June 18, 2010
"For every laugh, a tear must fall" was one of Walt Disney's most famous nostrums. The secret of Disney's success hasn't been lost on Pixar's John Lasseter, who has taken those words to heart since teaming up with the studio. Last year, "Up" reduced viewers to blubbering sobs in the first heartbreaking 20 minutes. In "Toy Story 3," Lasseter and his team plunge the audience into a collective case of empty- nest syndrome, with a dash of mortal terror thrown in for grins. And again, they make it work.
"Toy Story 3" still possesses the enchantment and wonder of the first movie, which when it was released in 1995 unleashed untapped potential in the forces of Baby Boomer nostalgia, mythic storytelling and the aesthetic and expressive depth of computer animation. "Toy Story 3" builds on that tradition, presenting "Toy Story" rep players Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack) as familiar, if gently used, old friends. (Their now-grown owner, Andy, is voiced by Jon Morris.)
This is Pixar's first Imax movie, and it's also in 3-D. Although the benefits of technical bells and whistles aren't immediately apparent, the color scheme and bold visual design look terrific, right down to the little details for which fans have come to adore just about anything Pixar sprinkles its magic dust on (like the yoga studio bumper sticker on Andy's mom's car, or the way they infuse dull VHS tape with a burnished, nostalgic glow).
Cannily, the producers and screenwriter Michael Arndt have set "Toy Story 3" during the week before Andy goes to college, which just about fits the generation of kids who came of age with the first two films, and strongly chimes with the anxieties and bittersweet feelings of their parents. The story revolves around fears of abandonment and the inability to let go, with Buzz and Jessie and the gang being sent to a day-care center that winds up being, as one survivor puts it, a place of squalor and despair, "run by an evil bear who smells of strawberries."
That bear, voiced by Ned Beatty, heads up his own gang of left-behinds, including a hilariously vain Ken doll (Michael Keaton) and a terrifying baby doll who does her master's bidding like a battered, once-cute-now-creepy toddler zombie.
The toys' breakout from the day-care center winds up being the ballast of "Toy Story 3," which takes its cues from "Cool Hand Luke" and assorted prison-break flicks, and culminates in a scene of near-death, which, after several episodes of darkness and peril, seems gratuitously excessive. But for every tear, a laugh: a new group of toys Woody meets includes a veddy serious hedgehog named Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), who approaches pretend tea parties with the thespian seriousness of Daniel Day-Lewis. "We do a lot of improv here," explains a unicorn named Buttercup (Jeff Garlin). Later, one of the original toy characters undergoes an amusing change in character that leads to "Toy Story 3" being the first of the franchise to need English subtitles.
Ultimately, every "Toy Story" movie is about story, not just the film's plot or narrative, but the stories the characters want to be in when Andy plays with them. It's just this deep sense of longing -- inevitably giving way to loss and acceptance -- that will bring adult viewers to that Disney-approved point of smiling even as they weep openly.
It's an emotional dissonance Pixar has always been supremely comfortable with, as "Toy Story 3" once again proves with knowing humor, wildly imaginative visual virtuosity and bittersweet rue. Why choose either glee or despair, they insist, when you can have both?
Contains some themes that may be frightening for the youngest viewers.