Ben Franklin once wrote: "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." He'd probably add Pixar to that list if he were alive today. With the exception of Cars, the celebrated computer animation house has become an unmatched brand for high-quality entertainment, creating movies that tickle the funny bone, tug on heartstrings, and flatter the intellect with peerless visual concoctions. No other studio in Hollywood today can match Pixar's reputation for excellence.
But it's not the incredible imagery, clever gags and cunning characterizations that earn the studio its rep; it's Pixar's dedication to story. They understand that a film's narrative must stand on its own, reeling the audience in and building to a satisfying conclusion. It's why they spend years honing their scripts, layering in thematic subtexts and laboring over character choices and imaginative plot twists. It's the kind of creative common sense that Hollywood often forgets: Writing the story is the cheapest part of the process.
It can also be the hardest. Most film franchises seem to peak with the sequel, then crash their concept on the third installment. Leave it to Pixar to buck the trend, delivering a follow-up that matches if not exceeds it predecessors.
Launching into a slam-bang action sequence, Toy Story 3 begins, appropriately enough, inside a child's imagination — young Andy's to be exact. And what a goofy, exciting and wonderful place it is. In five short minutes, director Lee Unkrich makes clear why Woody, Buzz and the others live to be played with.
But children grow up into teenagers, and the film jumps to Andy's last days at home before leaving for college. (Believe it or not, it's been 11 years since Toy Story 2.) The toys that still remain in Andy's toy chest have reconciled that they will be retired to the attic, awaiting the day when Andy has kids of his own, kids that will play with them once again.
Of course, nothing goes as planned. A mix-up sends everyone but Woody (Tom Hanks) out with the trash. One escape leads to another until the toys find themselves at Sunnyside Daycare, which, at first, seems like heaven on Earth. Not only will they get played with but they'll never be outgrown. But paradise is soon revealed to be playtime hell as Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack) and the others become "toddler-fodder." Bashed against walls, drooled and drawn on indiscriminately, they quickly discover that there's no escape. The honey-voiced stuffed bear in charge, Lotsa Hugs (voiced by Ned Beatty), is actually a maniacal prison warden who uses goon enforcers — the most disturbing of which is "Big Baby" — to maintain order. References to Cool Hand Luke are strictly intentional.
Lotsa's right-hand man, however, is metrosexual Ken (Michael Keaton), who becomes instantly smitten with Andy's sister's abandoned Barbie. Will Woody escape the toy collection of a little girl and rescue his pals from their kiddie Abu-Graib? Will Ken rethink his allegiances? Will the toys find a home?
Though it takes a little long to set things up, once Toy Story 3's prison-break thriller kicks in, the movie becomes a mad and delightful dash to the finish line. In fact, writer Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) and his partners go absolutely nuts. The daycare setting is crazily inspired, the chase scenes are breathlessly ingenious, and the new supporting characters are as colorful as they are memorable. Whether it's a hideous cymbal-banging monkey, thespian Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton) or the strawberry-scented sadist Lotsa Hugs, Pixar once again demonstrates a genius for adventurous storytelling. Yes, Arndt indulges in some formula here — after all, how many variations on the abandoned toy scenario can you cook up? Still, the sentiments are so sincere, the friendships so tangibly honest, and the laughs so gleefully pure (Mr. Potato Head gets one of the best jokes), it's easy to forgive the narrative crutches.
In fact, the film's third act raises the dramatic stakes to a level that challenges what audiences expect from a children's movie. Pixar continues its recent exploration into mortality, culminating with a gut-clenching finale that may actually be a bit too intense for the wee ones. While all the Toy Story movies have addressed the concept of death in abstract terms (i.e. a toy's version of death), Woody and the gang actually end up staring into the abyss here: a fiery furnace of doom that threatens to reduce the theater to screaming tears.
While its thematic choices may not be as sophisticated as Up or Wall-E, for sheer emotional wallop, Toy Story 3 plants a lump in your throat that's hard to beat. It's a movie that embraces memory, loves life and acknowledges the bittersweet emotions that accompany the end of childhood. Offering nostalgia for those who experienced the earlier films when they were young, action-packed thrills for those who might have outgrown its squishier conceits, and imaginative wonder for those encountering Woody and the gang for the first time, Toy Story 3 is a wise and wonderful final chapter.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.