The first two films in Pixar's animated Toy Story franchise are brilliant bookends, models of technique warmed by humor and imagination. Toy Story 3, coming 11 years after the last one, should have been a letdown. I mean, how hard can you squeeze a golden goose before the bird calls a work stoppage?
No worries. Toy Story 3, decked out in nifty, non-showy 3-D, is a joy to behold. It hits every button from laughter to tears and lifts you up on waves of visual dazzlement. And you don't need to take a kid along to appreciate it. Jeez, people, we were all kids once. And the way the Pixar wizards re-create a sense of childhood wonder is damn near genius.
Cowboy Woody (again voiced by Tom Hanks with just the right blend of wit and hardwon wisdom) and astronaut Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen in playfully scrappy vocal form) are toys in crisis. Andy, the boy who gave these toys a home, is off to college. He's outgrown his playthings, including cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Barbie (Jodi Benson) and the Potatoheads (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris). Andy plans to put his toys in the attic. Instead, they end up in trash bags and mistakenly kicked to the curb to await the garbage truck. Yikes! Kids and adults with abandonment issues (you know who you are) might want to give this chapter a pass.
OK, take a breath. The toys make it to the Sunnyside Day Care Center, where they meet new toys, such as bizarro Big Baby, ditzy triceratops Trixie (Kristen Schaal) and Shakespeare-spouting hedgehog Mr. Pricklepants (a plummy Timothy Dalton). And Barbie finally hooks up with Ken, hilariously voiced by Michael Keaton as a closet case who's watched too much Project Runway. I'm kidding, but just barely.
The prospect of being played with by new kids delights Andy's toys. That is, until Lotso (Ned Beatty), a plush bear with ulterior motives, puts them in a roomful of hyperactive, toybashing tots. That scene is scary-funny. A later scene, in which the toys narrowly escape incineration, is just scary.
The fun returns in the nick of time. It's impossible not to giggle when Buzz gets his language button switched to Spanish. Still, there's no denying that Toy Story 3, vividly directed by Lee Unkrich from a richly detailed script by Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine), goes darker and emotionally deeper than its predecessors. The sequence in which Andy introduces his toys to a shy little girl named Bonnie (Emily Hahn) is a heartbreaker. So is the movie. Tag it as one of the year's best.