Friday, June 18, 2010

Three really is the charm for 'Toy Story'

The toys of Toy Story 3 face an uncertain future.

I don’t remember having a favorite toy as a kid. And by the time I was ready to head off to college, I certainly didn’t have a neglected toy chest languishing in a dusty corner of my room. But that’s not the case with Andy, the boy we met in the original Toy Story. Andy may be too old to play with his toys anymore, but he hasn’t had the heart to discard them either. And he definitely has favorites.

For Andy, toys are like friends he’s outgrown, and that idea provides Toy Story 3 with enough poignancy to suggest that we may have reached the end of the Toy Story road. Volume 3 – in 3-D, of course – preserves enough of what we loved about the original to keep fans happy. The voice work is first rate, the story, strong and at least one of the humorous touches proves a show stopper. Not surprisingly it involves the stouthearted Buzz Lightyear, voiced by Tim Allen.

Look, I could have done without the 3-D, and it’s certainly not what makes the biggest contribution to the success of Toy Story 3. Credit for that, I think, goes to the filmmakers' heightened awareness of passing time and changing circumstances. They don’t shrink from the sadness involved in letting go of childhood and moving on with one’s life. All of this, of course, invests the toys we’ve come to know with real emotional life: In this episode, our old friends must contemplate what happens when they’re no longer needed to offer comfort and support and, just as importantly, to stimulate young imaginations.

Oddly, and perhaps even daringly, this edition of Toy Story quickly evolves into the story of a jailbreak. Our favorite toys – Woody, Buzz, Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head, Jesse and others – wind up at a day care center where the younger children abuse them. Having yet to master the fine art of play, the littlest kids tend to use toys as battering rams.

Once the toys realize their predicament, they begin seeking an escape route. Even though Andy’s college-bound, the toys want to be there for him, nestled safely in the attic should he ever call. Never mind how the plot arranges all this; but know that it’s done with a reasonable amount of aplomb.

Going in, I thought I’d had enough of these characters, but they still inspire affection. Woody (Tom Hanks) seems his old true-blue self; Buzz (Allen) proves as earnest and funny as ever; and the rest of the cast is in fine form with Ned Beatty adding a new wrinkle, as Lotso. a cuddly bear who’s not quite as benign as he first appears. Lotso turns out to be the villain of the piece: The script wisely makes room for a backstory explaining how he got that way.

The script by Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich builds toward Perils of Pauline-style melodrama with a few flourishes that may unnerve smaller children. At one point, the assembled toys ride a conveyor belt to incineration at the city dump, a sight that gave me slight case of the creeps. The toys swallow hard and join hands, establishing a bond of affection, acceptance and resignation. They believe they’re facing certain death.

Although, at times, the movie proves a trifle short on snap and crackle, Unkrich -- who also directed --- keeps the story moving, introducing new characters with flare and humor, and making room for lots of amusing asides.

I particularly liked the way the story made use of Barbie (Jodi Benson), this time giving her a love interest, the unashamedly square Ken (Michael Keaton). Ken’s dream home includes a special room where Ken can change clothes. Ken, who’s very into clothes, seems to have only two qualities, neither of them endearing: egotism and narcissism. He's so vain, he probably thinks the movie's about him.

Any group that can make three movies, and give each one a distinct identity while ensuring that they’re all of a piece deserves high praise. Pixar -- the Disney-owned brand behind the Toy Story movies -- has done that with Toy Story 3, and the box office very likely will reward the company’s efforts. For once, a sequel that can’t be called a ripoff.

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