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Movie Review

Toy Story 3

Friends to the end; A darker ‘Toy Story’ takes a while to lift off, then soars into the realm of Pixar’s best

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / June 18, 2010

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When it comes to movie sequels, the third time is rarely the charm. Threequels are usually a desperate attempt to squeeze life out of a fading brand, and there’s not much in the first half of “Toy Story 3’’ to make you think any differently. How can this be? We’re talking about Pixar, the gold standard not just for family films and computer animation but pop culture as a whole. How can John Lasseter’s gang of super-geniuses fall asleep at the switch?

Turns out they’re only playing possum. After an hour or so of going through the motions — albeit entertainingly — “Toy Story 3’’ rouses itself, rung by rung of visual and conceptual invention, until it can stand close to the level of Pixar’s best. More than that: The heart still beats in this franchise’s digital chest.

Not to scare you off, but “Toy Story 3’’ is also about death, and life after death. It’s certainly about endings. What happens to toys when the child grows up — when the beloved Andy (now voiced by John Morris) heads off to college? Most of his playthings are headed for the limbo of the attic: spaceboy Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), timid Rex (Wallace Shawn), doughty Hamm (John Ratzenberger), the Potato Heads (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris).

Only Woody (Tom Hanks) is granted entrance to Paradise: Andy wants to take him along as a dorm-room mascot. Before that can happen, though, mistakes and misadventures result in all the toys being rerouted to a place that only looks like heaven: a local day-care center run by an after-hours cabal of toys with an ax to grind. Chief among them is Lotso (Ned Beatty), a plush, strawberry-scented huggie-bear who’s a little too reminiscent of Andy Griffith in “A Face in the Crowd.’’ In other words, don’t turn your back on this guy.

Up to now, the movie has been engaging but not close to Pixar’s usual game, especially since the company upped the stakes with “WALL-E’’ and “Up.’’ (By contrast, the short that plays before “Toy Story 3’’ is a breathtakingly ingenious comic collision called “Day and Night’’ — so inherently visual I can’t describe it in words — that announces a new Pixar talent in writer-director Teddy Newton.)

Despite Lasseter gaining control in 2006 of Disney animation in general and this sequel in particular, there’s an ordinariness to the dialogue and too many contortions to get the characters where they need to be. The jokes seem old. The toys do, too. That’s the point, but it’s also beside the point.

It’s when “Toy Story 3’’ becomes a jailbreak movie that it comes into its own. Playing with genre always gets the Pixar juices flowing, and the writers (director Lee Unkrich, plus Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Michael Arndt) mount our heroes’ escape from their day-care Alcatraz with fiendish wit and enough complexity to flatter 6-year-olds and their parents. Everything starts clicking into place, not with far-fetched plotting but the sort of exalted higher thinking of “Monsters, Inc.’’ and “The Incredibles.’’ The movie starts to lift off, then to soar right over the walls of the family-movie ghetto. The 3-D that in the early scenes seems merely a gimmick becomes a subtly drawn stage in which grander gags and fresh emotional resonances can unfurl.

The newer characters come into focus, too. Michael Keaton has been drafted to play a Ken doll as a preening metrosexual fop, one whose bravado crumbles when his vintage collectible Nehru jacket is threatened. There’s a stuffed hedgehog with a Laurence Olivier complex voiced by Timothy Dalton, a depressive clown (Bud Luckey), a screeching mechanical jailhouse monkey, an eerily silent Baby Doll (shades of the mutant toy in the original “Toy Story’’), and a tough-talking toy phone (Teddy Newton) out of a noir classic. Someone has even thought to throw in a stuffed Totoro, on loan from Hayao Miyazaki’s dreamy universe.

Woody and his friend go through a few changes, too. “Toy Story 3’’ hits a high point of comic surrealism when Mr. Potato Head is forced to reinvent himself as Mr. Pita Bread Head — it’s harder than it looks, especially when a pigeon turns up — and Buzz goes through more personalities than Joanne Woodward in “The Three Faces of Eve.’’ A mistimed electronics reset turns him into Spanish Buzz Lightyear, an achingly funny Latin lover hankering for a paso doble with Jessie. (The soundtrack obliges with a flamenco remake of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,’’ courtesy of the Gipsy Kings, over the end credits.)

Unkrich and company keep pushing the envelope, though, and “Toy Story 3’’ ultimately brings the characters to a Stygian recycling plant — a junk underworld worthy of WALL-E himself — where they’re forced to contemplate an annihilation that is total and complete. This is heady stuff for a kiddie flick, evidence of Pixar’s larger recent concerns, and at first glance it sits uneasily with the make-believe whimsy of the “Toy Story’’ franchise. How metaphysical, exactly, do we want Buzz Lightyear to be? (A dad I talked to after the screening said his 7-year-old handled it fine but that he was glad he left the 4-year-old at home.)

Yet the tale needs to go that far into the dark to come back into the light, and for the first time in a “Toy Story’’ installment, the twists of the climactic scenes and the emotions they conjure up carry a weight that feels deeply and powerfully earned. It’s a sign of the innate grace of the Pixar philosophy that this feels like it could be and should be the last “Toy Story’’ movie, and that our final glimpse of Woody and his friends is in the only afterlife a toy could ever want.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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'Toy Story 3'

Pixar doesn't toy with winning formula

In the beginning Pixar had Woody and Buzz and the gang. The formula worked, and they're back for a third go-round.

TOY STORY 3

Directed by: Lee Unkrich

Written by: Unkrich, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Michael Arndt

Starring: the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton, and all the rest of the gang

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s 3D IMAX screens at Natick and Reading

Running time: 103 minutes

Rated: G (one creepy dolly and one very convincing depiction of the gates of hell)

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