Silver Screen: Toy Story III ****

Silver Screen: Toy Story III ****
by Bryan Miller

Toy Story was as big a game-changer as the film industry has seen in the last decade and a half. It established Pixar, which has gone on to be the studio with the best hit-to-miss ratio by a wide margin, as a major player, and introduced the computer animation that would come to edge out hand-drawn cartoons as the dominant medium for kiddie entertainment-- and make grownups going to cartoons more acceptable stateside. That computer animation lends itself particularly well to the new 3D technology, and for better or worse (note: worse) the ubiquity of computer animation is essential in perpetuating 3D. Even as Pixar released hit after hit, with headier fare (WALL-E) and arguably better movies (The Incredibles, Ratatouille), Toy Story remained the bar against which all other computer-animated movies were judged. Just as it was inevitable that the original would generate a sequel, the popularity of 3D provided an obvious hook for a third attempt, as it will inevitably breathe new life into too many ramshackle two-installment franchises. To that end, Toy Story III feels a bit like a cash-in, hitting all the familiar points (cue Randy Newman song!), packing in as many self-referential jokes as possible, and basically retooling the theme from Toy Story II. It's an awfully enjoyable cash-in, though, still as funny and charming as ever, so while it's pretty non-essential it's also well worth watching. Director Lee Unrich, who has previously been involved with the series as an editor and codirector, opts to stick to a timeline, allowing as many years to pass in the Toy Story world as in our own. In 1995, toy-owner Andy was three; now he's eighteen and ready to head to college. The angst his crew of toys felt in the last film, as Andy edged toward adolescence, has reached something like acceptance. Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and Jessie (Joan Cusack) have resigned themselves to retirement; old people head to Florida, but old toys head to the attic for their golden years. But a mix-up on moving day finds the toys consigned not to the upstairs but the trash heap, causing all of them-- save for the ever-faithful Woody-- to believe Andy intended to throw them away. With a little collective effort, they manage to find their way to a daycare center instead, which they believe to be a land of perpetual playtime. But the toy dream turns into a plastic nightmare when they discover that Sunnyside Daycare is a kind of prison camp run by the sanguine but secretly sadistic Lotso (Ned Beatty), a teddy bear-turned-warden who protects his loyal inner circle of toys by consigning all the new arrivals to the not-so-ominous-sounding Caterpillar Room, where they are essentially played to death by roughhousing toddlers. Woody, alone on his own journey, which finds him joining an acting troupe of toys that does tea parties for a little girl, catches wind of the daycare madness and rushes to Sunnyside to free his pals one last time. There's a cloud of almost existential dread hanging over Toy Story III, and at times the whole enterprise feels downright somber; it's as though Bambi's mother wasn't shot in one horrible moment but rather withered slowly onscreen as she died of some wasting disease. Near the climax the characters reach a level of death-acceptance that was near horrific. It might be a little much. But for the most part Toy Story III propels itself forward on a stream of ironic quips and nifty sight-gags. It avoids the excess of pop-culture references that mar the abysmal Shrek movies, although this time around it does indulge in a few of the discordant double-entendres that characterize the infernal green ogre's series. Still, Toy Story III wins out through sheer attrition, whether the quips are coming from old favorites like Wallace Shawn's nervous T-Rex or the bickering Potato Head couple (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris). The best new addition here is a metrosexual Ken doll (Michael Keaton) whose loyalties are torn between his lush life in the dream house with Lotso and his new love, Barbie, who's allied with Buzz and company. Although Toy Story III never evinces any real necessity to exist, it justifies its existence through sheer charm, even as it serves as a harbinger of potential sequelitis to strike Pixar (look for Cars II, coming soon-- or don't) and perhaps end the studio's incredible creative streak. The 3D is superfluous here, too, as it usually is, proving once more that what made Toy Story stand out wasn't the flashy computer technology but rather endearing characters and a great story, well-told. Note: Further evidence of Pixar's inventiveness can be found in Toy Story III's opening animated short, the sublime "Day and Night," which is almost too conceptual to properly describe. Two amorphous characters frolic on an-all black screen, each serving as a window onto the same world. Through one character viewers see the world on a hot summer day, and through the other on a balmy night. They do battle over whose world is superior, until ultimately they come to a kind of harmonious accord. It's a nifty little fable for our divisive era, but, more to the point, an incredible showcase of sight, sound, and imagination, one worth the ticket price all by itself.