This is going to be a pretty short review, because honestly, what more is there to say about Pixar? They’re currently on a streak of 10 or 11 films (Cars being perhaps the only exception) of such consistent quality unmatched since Stanley Kubrick went on his 30-year, 9-picture reign of creative dominance. And I was clearly wrong a couple weeks ago when I said that Toy Story 3 wouldn’t receive the same critical acclaim as Up or WALL-E; it’s getting that, and possibly then some. A Best Picture spot is pretty much already locked up (which would give it the honor of being the first sequel nominated for Best Picture when its predecessor(s) was not), and it will take a serious upset for How to Train Your Dragon or The Illusionist to release the studio’s stranglehold on Best Animated Feature.
How is it that Pixar has now, not once, but twice managed to make a Toy Story sequel that not only avoids feeling like a bland rehash, but actually pushes the series to new heights? Contemplating this, I am reminded of what I wrote in my John Hughes tribute a little while back: engaging filmmakers care about their characters. I believe the Pixar animators care about their creations, consider those pixelated proxies to be as deserving of respect as a real person. The fact that the Toy Story series has been released roughly in real time, so that Andy’s aging in the films is about equivalent to how much time has passed in real life, really helps with this. We get the impression that these characters really exist, and we just drop in now and then to watch their adventures; when we’re not there, they have lives that continue on.
Many of Pixar’s characters can be listed among the all-time greats: Dory, WALL-E, Anton Ego, Carl Frederickson. But I think that Sheriff Woody remains the greatest. Buzz Lightyear might be more memorable with his flashy costume and snappy catchphrase, but Woody has all the depth, makes all the tough decisions. In the original Toy Story, he learned to accept that Andy could share his love for Buzz and others without the expense of his affection for Woody. In Toy Story 2, he had to choose between immortality in a museum and staying loyal to the boy he loved and who loved him.
Now, Andy is heading off to college, and once again Woody faces a severe test of loyalty: does he go with Andy and leave his friends behind, or join them and live out his days in a day care center, where he will be constantly loved and played with? It becomes a remarkably complicated question, fraught with implications regarding aging, love, friendship. In my humble opinion, the film gets a little too caught up in sentimentality in its final scene (does Andy have any REAL friends? Teenagers going off to college usually reserve those kinds of sad, longing stares for you know, actual people), but we can forgive that when the intentions are so genuine and the previous action so heartfelt.
One of the key parts of Pixar’s success is that it’s humor works on two levels: the basic sight gags and juvenile jokes for kids, and then a whole layer of witty dialogue and pop culture references that only adults will catch. In that way, Pixar is simply following in the tradition of similar family entertainment like Sesame Street, The Muppet Show (and their movies), and Nickelodeon shows like Rocko’s Modern Life. I particularly appreciated the numerous homages to classic films in Toy Story 3: the keen observer should be able to pick out the references to John Ford’s westerns, Cool Hand Luke and animation master Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, My Neighbor Totoro.
The voice cast is, as always, excellent, with series mainstays Tim Allen, Tom Hanks, Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn, Don Rickles, Estelle Harris and John Ratzenberger clearly right at home with their familiar characters. Out of the newcomers, I was particularly impressed by Ned Beatty as the sage but menacing Lotso Huggin’ Bear, and Michael Keaton as the flamboyantly straight Ken doll (whose outfits are all based on actual Ken and Barbie products). Timothy Dalton also has an all-too-brief cameo as the classically trained actor/hedgehog, Mr. Pricklepants. It’s all the usual kinds of inspired absurdity.
I would need to watch the original two again before I declared Toy Story 3 the best in the series, and Finding Nemo and WALL-E remain atop my list of Pixar favorites. Toy Story 3 also lacks a single passage of bone-chilling brilliance to match Up’s “Married Life” sequence or Anton Ego’s speech at the end of Ratatouille. But really, let’s not get that picky, right? Toy Story 3 is fun and thoughtful entertainment. That’s all we’ve come to expect from Pixar, and they seem perfectly content to deliver.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars