Andy outgrows his anthropomorphic amigos Buzz and Woody in “Toy Story 3,” the franchise’s third (and final?) installment — and as it turns out, 15 years after launching the computer-animated toon revolution, Pixar has outgrown them, too. Whereas “Toy Story 2” treated auds to a character-based sequel that handily justified its existence, this tertiary adventure delivers welcome yet nonessential fun, landing well after its creators have grown up and succeeded toying with more sophisticated stories. Nevertheless, the stereoscopic 3D release, which reportedly out-tested all of Pixar’s previous efforts, should dominate summer playdates.
From the outset, we can sense different hands at the reins. Like the original, pic opens with 6-year-old Andy acting out wild narratives for Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the gang — only this time, director Lee Unkrich (who came up through Pixar’s editorial department and handled co-helming duties on “Toy Story 2,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo”) plunges us into Andy’s imagination, which follows childhood logic but looks more like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.
Andy’s toys are fiercely loyal to their owner, with such playtime being their raison d’etre (though the “Toy Story” movies have long hinged on a rather arbitrary notion of what qualifies as the healthy treatment of toys). Homevideos advance us through a dozen years, disposing of Bo Peep and a few other key players along the way. It’s gutsy to see Pixar stripping back its ensemble — the Green Army Men effectively desert, rather than be donated — in contrast to the unwieldy, ever-growing ensembles of most toon sequels (though Disney Consumer Products has plenty of new characters to be excited about).
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Now 18, Andy is packing up for college. Clearly oblivious to the Roundup gang’s value, he tosses all but Woody into a garbage bag, which his mom mistakes for trash and takes out to the curb. So begins a convoluted adventure that leads the toys to Sunnyside Daycare Center, which at first appears to be an improvement: The toys haven’t been played with in ages, and here, they’ll get daily attention. Plus, they’ll have plenty of new friends, including “Big Baby” and a Dream House-dwelling Ken (Michael Keaton).
But there’s a dark side to Sunnyside, which is overseen by a folksy, strawberry-scented pink plush named Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty). “Lotso” lost his owner years ago, and now he runs the place like a prison. Where the first two “Toy Story” installments served as rescue movies, with characters nobly putting themselves in danger to save their friends from harm, this one instead follows the jailbreak genre.
Take a step back, and the film seems to be about the idea of toys coming to terms with being outgrown by their owners — however, everyone but Woody seems perfectly fine with being donated at the outset (and Jessie’s song already addressed such abandonment issues quite poignantly in the second movie). As character arcs go, this one doesn’t seem particularly compelling: Woody must convince the others to break out of Sunnyside and find their way back to Andy’s attic, where they can wait until he needs them again — as delusional thinking goes, this tops even fresh-out-of-the-box Buzz Lightyear’s identity issues.
Pixar has essentially set an impossible standard for itself, having previously delivered the rare sequel that improves on the original, then followed that up with a run of exceptional work. This latest script, written by “Little Miss Sunshine’s” Michael Arndt from a story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Unkrich, feels more gag-driven than the studio’s previous efforts — essentially borrowing a page from DreamWorks Animation, chasing snappy humor over heart-on-their-sleeve sentimentality, within a few months of DreamWorks going the Pixar route with the sincere storytelling of “How to Train Your Dragon.” (It’s worth remembering that former Disney CEO Michael Eisner once intended to make “Toy Story 3,” sans Pixar involvement, when relations between the two studios broke down in 2004.)
The visuals look gorgeous as ever, making classy use of 3D to enhance the drama, while staying true to the original aesthetic. Humans are notably improved, especially young Bonnie (Emily Hahn), who takes Woody home at one point and introduces him to the film’s most appealing new characters, including Shakespearean hedgehog Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton, whose perf amusingly suggests another level of split-personality delusion among toys) and scatterbrained triceratops Trixie (Kristen Schaal).
The latter bodes well for Rex’s romantic prospects, which seem far better than Barbie’s, since Keaton plays Ken as an effeminate closet case (imagine the outcry had Pixar attempted an equivalent racial caricature). But the pic wants laughs, and it’s willing to dilute the respect Lasseter showed this borderline-absurd world to get them, goosing auds with punchline-driven cutting, pop-song montages and throwaway silliness. Surely kids could have done without the bathroom humor, though much of the comedy takes the high road, such as an inspired bit in which Buzz is accidentally switched to Spanish-language mode.
But “Toy Story 3” is best when it’s being serious, and the final 15-minute stretch — from the moment the toys are dumped at a landfill through the tear-jerking finale — pays off feelings auds invested 15 years ago. Still, there’s no reason these scenes couldn’t have come 80 minutes earlier (had the toys not escaped their first brush with the garbage truck), which would have left room for the film to explore the curious ontology of being a toy after escaping such a near-death experience.
Pic is preceded by Teddy Newton’s visionary six-minute short “Day and Night,” an invigorating blend of stereoscopic CG visuals and old-school hand-drawn animation. Set against a black background, two characters serve as windows to opposite halves of the day, their playfully layered dance of sound and spectacle suggesting exciting creative directions Pixar could explore in the future.