In preparation for the release of Toy Story 3, I made up a list this week ranking the first 10 Pixar movies. As I was working on it, I started to think about the movie coming out. As much as I love the characters already, I had no clue where the third film would fall on the list for me. Readers, I can’t believe it, but it turns out I have a new #1.
It’s been many years since the adventure in Toy Story 2. Andy hasn’t played with the toys in a very long time and it looks like they’re probably going to be put up in the attic. When they’re almost thrown away, the toys choose instead to be sent with donations to Sunnyside, a nearby daycare. Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty), the cuddly, strawberry-scented head of the Sunnyside toys, explains that with a new set of kids every year, the gang will never have to worry about being abandoned again! But even after seeing the apparent paradise, Woody leaves to get back to Andy. Almost immediately after he leaves, the rest of Andy’s toys discover some kids at the daycare are not exactly the gentle sort and they learn quickly there is something very rotten in the state of Sunnyside.
It’s almost redundant to discuss the performances of the recurring actors. The characters we’ve grown to love are still themselves. After so many more years of being together, they feel more like a family than they did in Toy Story 2 and 1, but Rex is still nervous, Slinky is still loyal, Hamm still has the snappy comebacks and Mr. Potato Head is still madly in love with the Misses. Buzz is still awkward talking to Jesse and Woody’s devotion still lies with Andy. Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Estelle Harris, John Ratzenberger, Shawn Wallace and Joan Cusack are all as great as always. Blake Clark takes over the voice of Slinky Dog after the death of Jim Varney and he does a fine job of keeping Slinky like his old self.
We discover early on that the toys have lost many different friends along the way to yard sales and charity drives. Some of our favorite minor characters are gone by the time we begin our story, including Etch-a-Sketch, RC, Mic, Lenny the Binoculars and Mr. Shark. It’s a bold move by Pixar, but realistically, would any kid have all of his toys by the time he finishes high school? When Woody calls everyone in for a meeting and there are only twelve other toys left, it becomes obvious that things really have changed since we last saw them. And Bo Peep is one of the toys that has gone. When I heard Annie Potts wasn’t going to be in this movie, I was very worried they wouldn’t even mention her absence. But they do, and the look on Woody’s face while he’s thinking about her is heart-wrenching. Any other studio might have kept her character in, as well as the other minor characters, but Pixar isn’t any other company. They did it the right way and it makes for a world where things aren’t always perfect.
So, we get to Sunnyside and there are some great new characters in the mix. Beatty has that great grandfather-y voice that’s perfect for the character. We also meet Big Baby, a baby doll that gets creepier and creepier as the film progresses. He has a “twins in The Shining” sort of eerieness to him, largely because of his broken eyes. Ken has been at the head of the marketing for the film, but there’s a reason for it; the character is brilliant. Like Barbie, Ken has been designed by Pixar to be just as awkwardly movable as the real doll. And this isn’t just any Ken. This is Ken circa 1975. He still has the plastic hair and the bad tan that Mattel thought was a good look 30-some years ago. It’s just a pleasure to watch him on screen and a lot of that has to do with the hilarious voicework by Michael Keaton. Ken feels very strong about his stance that he is not a girl’s toy, despite the evidence to the contrary.
Immediately, Ken falls head-over-heels with the Barbie of Andy’s sister. We got to see Barbies (all played by The Little Mermaid’s Jodi Benson) in Toy Story 2, but here we get to see more of her personality. She certainly matches Ken’s sensibilities, but there are moments of depth in there, played up mostly for comedic effect. In one of the more tense moments of the film, she makes a profound statement about authority derived by the consent of the governed. I laughed so hard as her fellow toys looked quizzically at each other. The chemistry between Ken and Barbie is a real treat. There’s nothing quite like seeing Ken realize there’s finally someone at the daycare that loves clothes as much as he does.
This does become a prison break film (right down to a very Cool Hands Luke-like speech from the antagonist) fairly quickly, but it’s so nicely and cleverly adapted into the Toy Story world that it feels like a natural progression. Andy’s toys have worked as a team for so many years, it’s not so far-fetched that they could pull off what they do with their escape. Each characters has a specific role in the plan and it’s a delight to watch them carefully knock down each barrier to their escape. But make no mistake; there is some sinister stuff going on. It’s still alright for kids to watch, but the antagonist is chilling. I’d even go as far to say that the villain in Toy Story 3 is the most effective and cruel Pixar villain yet!
One of the most entertaining parts of the film comes from Buzz’s… personality deviations. First, Buzz reverts back to his delusional space ranger self, thanks to the bad guys and their use of his instruction manual. It’s always fun to see crazy Buzz, especially when he tries to use his gadgets to apprehend the prisoners. But we also get to see Buzz’s Spanish mode (discovered when his friends try to switch him back). Thanks to the subtitles, we know Spanish Buzz isn’t that far off from delusional Buzz. While I adore Tim Allen’s perfomances over the years as Buzz, I really thought Javier Fernandez Pena’s Telenuvo-like voice for this alternative Buzz was so funny, especially with the subtitles. And man, can Spanish Buzz dance! After seeing Jesse “for the first time”, he almost immediately woos her with the dance of love… right in the middle of their great escape. Since no one in the group speaks Spanish, only the audience realizes he still thinks he’s a space ranger. It’s great to see the character re-envisioned, if only for a short period. Speaking of re-envisioned, keep an eye out for Sid Phillips in his exciting new career!
A special addition to Toy Story 3 is Bonnie, the daughter of a woman who works at the daycare. She has that same imaginative spark Andy had so many years ago and it’s enchanting to watch her play with her own toys. Speaking of her toys, they were a great addition in their own right. Timothy Dalton plays Mr. Pricklepants, a lederhosen-wearing porcupine who believes in method acting. We also meet Buttercup, a stuffed unicorn played by the deep-voiced Jeff Garlin. I was absolutely thrilled that Bonnie has a stuffed Totoro that acts and sounds like Totoro! But my favorite was Trixie (Kristen Shaal), the triceratops with a penchant for internet gaming. We only get a peek at these characters, but there’s so much plot in this film, I don’t think Pixar could have gone more in depth without losing the pacing that works so well.
Much of the credit for what makes this film work goes to John Morris, who has been the voice of Andy throughout the entire series. It takes a while, but we do get to see just how much his toys mean to him. You get the strong feeling that Andy will be a great father someday and Woody and the rest of the toys had something to do with it. And you get the feeling that everything will be alright, but in some ways, this film is about sacrifice. It’s not the ending they wanted or expected at the end of Toy Story 2, but it’s ultimately a happy ending. The movie is very funny, but it’s also extremely emotional. There are particular moments where you aren’t sure what’s going to happen to them. I really was on the edge of my seat like a little kid the whole time. I only realized after the film was over that despite watching the film in an almost completely filled IMAX theater with plenty of children, everyone in the theater was dead silent. There was something that gripped us all about the movie and it was thrilling to know that the children around us knew how great this film is.
What makes me most amazed about the film is that it completes a wonderful series, a series that builds on it’s emotional complexity. I am going to be bold and say it; the Toy Story series is the most consistently great trilogy of all time. But despite Pixar’s commitment to making great films, I have no doubt in my mind that Toy Story 3 should be the last film in the series. It ends on a good note (on a joyful note, actually, especially if you stay for the credits) and another film would ruin that. However, one of the first things I said after leaving the movie was that I really hope Pixar will put the gang into some animated shorts (like the company has done for with the Cars characters on Disney Channel). I would love to see more of the newer characters along with the ones I grew up with. A few hours after the movie, I found out Pixar is planning just that. And I can’t wait.
Overall: Toy Story 3 is easily the best film of the year. Only Pixar could craft such an outstanding ending to one of the best series of all time. And for that, I award it my first ever perfect score.
5 out of 5 stars
FYI: I did see it first in IMAX 3-D, but I think it was just as good visually in 2-D. However, “Day and Night”, the fascinating short that precedes the movie, is greatly enhanced by the 3-D.