Box office analysts are pinning their hopes for summer on Toy Story 3. It's a lot to ask of any movie, even a franchise in the Pixar dynasty. But with its familiar friends, new nemeses, and prison-break plot, not to mention its 3-D graphics, Toy Story 3 might turn the tide of lagging ticket sales.
The movie opens with a glimpse of the halcyon days — back when Woody and the gang were still active players in their owner's imagination. A rip-roaring train chase full of explosives and killer monkeys situates the audience in that timeless age of Andy featured in Toy Story 1 and 2. However, the reminiscence quickly gives over to the inevitable moment when Andy, now 17 and college-bound, opens his toy chest and decides the fate of the toys he has long since outgrown.
Indeed, the original cast of toys has already been whittled down: Bo-Peep was sent to a new home presumably years earlier, and within the first 15 minutes of the film, the green toy soldiers parachute out the window to avoid being thrown away. (There is something endearing, albeit fatalistic, about their recognition that little plastic toys are always the first to go.) The remaining bunch — Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Bullseye, Rex, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Slinky Dog, Hamm, and the little green aliens — faces the prospect of either living in the attic, where they will all be together, or being tossed in the trash.
A series of mishaps and misunderstandings sets them on a path toward a third option: the donation box to Sunnyside Day Care. Run by the seemingly tender and affable Lots-o-Huggin' Bear (known as Lotso), Sunnyside is like a retirement home for toys where everyone is played with and loved — or so Woody and friends are told. Soon enough, the true nature of Sunnyside shines through: Newly donated toys are merely fodder for roughhousing toddlers, and Lotso rules like a tyrant with villainous goons to keep troublemakers in check. When Woody and the group try to escape Sunnyside, the film enters the realm of adventure and thrill, where the 3-D element as well as Pixar's razor-sharp graphics and wit truly thrive.
Toy Story 3 is as clever as its predecessors, playing on our love of old toys (Lotso's posse of ruffians play roulette on a Fisher Price See 'n Say) and conjuring up a host of toy-world hijinks. (Like when Buzz is switched from English-speaking to Spanish-speaking and instantly transforms into a stereotypical Latin lover.) The film occasionally falls back on cheap laughs at the expense of the effeminate Ken doll and throws in a little slapstick, but it never loses its otherwise droll imagining of toys, their personalities, flaws, aspirations, and quirks. (On the flip-side, it sure knows how to scare; I will have nightmares of empty-eyed Big Baby for the rest of my life.)
Perhaps most significant, Toy Story 3 does not shrink from the more difficult questions. What happens to toys when they're broken, unused, or lost? Is there life after Andy for Woody and Buzz? The film gets just to the edge of maudlin without tipping over, as it takes these questions of objects, emotional investment, and loss head-on. And after 15 years of making us laugh, the Toy Story franchise has probably earned some sentimentality.
Opening Friday, June 18th