Who knew Disney/Pixar's decision to re-release the first two installments of their crown jewel series, Toy Story and Toy Story 2, would prove so integral to one's experience of the latest, Toy Story 3? Seeing the two films back-to-back last October turned out to be more risky than they probably intended; the Oscar-nominated 1995 debut sparkled and shined over a decade later, while the sequel, once remembered as darker and deeper, was exposed as simply duller.
Seeing the first film again, on the big screen, probably set the bar too high for Toy Story 3, but it turns out to have been a necessary risk for the benefit of reintroducing the series' outstandingly realized, lived-in characters like blustering softie Buzz Lightyear, noble and vulnerable cowboy Woody and, of course, their life-giver, creative little Andy.
The third film, penned by Little Miss Sunshine's Oscar-winning writer Michael Arndt and helmed by Pixar worker bee Lee Unkrich, spends most of its running time nodding to its own rich history and then forgetting it, as the gang from Andy's room embark upon yet another impossible mission. This time they must escape from a daycare that seems too good to be true.
Andy's going off to college ' yes, it's been that long since the first movie ' and he's packed our guys away for attic storage. An inevitable mixup or two later and the crew end up at Sunnyside Daycare, where the playing never stops and the kids never grow up ' they're just replaced by new ones.
They're welcomed warmly by the alpha crew of Sunnyside veterans, led by big, fluffy Lotso (voiced by Ned Beatty with much more nuance than Kelsey Grammer's villain of the last film), who turns out to run the place with an iron fist. He and his lackies (including an effeminate Ken doll) take the cushy rounds with the loving, more responsible older kids and the new toys like Buzz, Woody, Jessie and Slinky (Blake Clark taking over for the sorely missed Jim Varney) get pounded on by infants like, well, playthings. The system cannot be changed and there is no escape.
This giant chunk of film is gorgeously shot and structured with intense knowledge of the films it parodies. From The Wizard of Oz to The Goonies, there are some half-forced laughs to be had with the Bruckheimer-esque material. But the script's limited skill with witty rapport and repeated callbacks to gags that didn't work in the first place ' Buzz's brief foray as a Spanish lothario seems like a throwaway gag from a bad Jim Carrey vehicle ' suggest that the filmmakers have nothing left to say about the state of being a toy. (Which, granted, how much is there to say that wasn't covered in the previous three franchise hours?)
That feeling of exhaustion is leavened, however, by small moments of, well, smallness. The series is never better than when it gives us a new view of ho-hum environs, and trips inside a garbage bag and inside a vending machine are thrilling.
Still, why the emotional distance? Where are the stakes? Everyone but Woody seems to have accepted their new lot in life from the start, and they're probably right to; the daycare kids are physically rough, sure, but they're hardly Sid-level dangerous. Besides, a life as an infant's chew toy is a life of great importance ' to a toy, at least.
The final act answers these questions wonderfully, poignantly and comprehensively: There is distance because the toys' and their creators' inner search is over. It just hasn't dawned on anybody yet. When it does, in a scene of overwhelming meta-minimalism, it feels like we as an audience have been in the same boat as Woody ' we can't see the forest for the fake plastic trees.
After all is said and done, Toy Story is Andy's story as much as it belongs to his toys, and we're not only in that theater to watch him, but we're seeing him the way that Pixar does. Andy's art awards dot the frame's edges, and the young man he's becoming is at least partially owed to his faithful toys. John Lasseter and his Pixar team are proud of Andy, and because of that, we can be proud to have grown up along with him.