Toy Story 3 review - “Let’s go out on a high note!” says Buzz Lightyear near the start of Toy Story 3, a line that not only casts an air of finality over Pixar’s 11th opus but also throws down the gauntlet to director Lee Unkrich and his team.
How do they set about following two films that, in addition to creating a genre, have had a decade or more to nestle in their audiences’ hearts?
Like the playthings they revolve around, Toy Story and Toy Story 2 have become more than enjoyable ways of passing the time.
They have become cherished keepsakes, to be passed down from one generation to the next and periodically revisited – on DVD, TV and digital 3D – through ever rosier spectacles.
It’s not enough, then, for Toy Story 3 to succeed at the box office. It must be that rarest of things – an instant classic that stands shoulder to shoulder with its predecessors like the final volume in a leather-embossed saga.
At the same time, it can’t simply repeat old glories. It must seek out uncharted ground, introduce fresh protagonists and take familiar ones on an exciting, original and satisfying adventure. Short of asking Lee to reinvent the wheel, it’s hard to imagine a taller order.
The bad news is that 3 can never hope to replicate the childlike wonder and delight TS did 15 years ago. We’ve all grown up since then, and Buzz and Woody have as well – not physically perhaps, but morally and emotionally.
Yet the fact they are, ultimately, merely sentient objects means there’s only so far Unkrich can take them, a limitation that sees 3 – initially at least – dramatise concerns and neuroses that have already been articulated in the movies that went before.
Above all others is the encroaching fear of obsolescence that stalks Woody like a cancer: the dread his beloved owner Andy will one day outgrow him.
That day finally arrives in 3, the 17-year-old Andy (voiced as ever by John Morris) having long put away childish things as he and his brood prepare for him going off to college.
It’s no surprise, then, that this serves as catalyst for this third instalment, an overdue clear-out of his dust-gathering toys – Jessie the Cowgirl, Slinky Dog, dino Rex and all – resulting in them being sent by mistake to the Sunnyside Daycare Centre for a new batch of kids to play with.
But this apparent utopia isn’t quite the dreamland Buzz and co. think it is, fostering a desire for freedom that crafts 3 into a cartoon spin on The Great Escape.
Yet Unkrich has loftier plans than that, an apocalyptic final act at the local rubbish dump – awesomely realised in 3D as a festering hellhole that is pure Hieronymus Bosch – forcing Woody and friends to contemplate mortality itself.
It’s a remarkably dark turn of events that may force parents to have serious conversations with their nippers they might have hoped to forestall.
But let it be said that 3 is also continually, blissfully funny, both in the way it uses established characters and in its ingenious integration of new blood.
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Unkrich ups the ante from the off, realising one of Andy’s youthful reveries as a full-blown Old West escapade involving a runaway train, an exploding bridge and a giant porcine spaceship modeled on John Ratzenberger’s scene-stealing Hamm.
Although the real stand-out is the prison break itself, a superbly executed, Mission: Impossible-style extended set-piece that sees Mr Potato Head (Don Rickles) become Mr Tortilla, Woody confront a watchful monkey and a benign ‘Big Baby’ morph into an unsettling instrument of draconian oppression.
Of all the newcomers, Michael Keaton makes the strongest impression as an urbane Ken doll piqued by the notion he is no more than a Barbie accessory. (A dress-up montage to the strains of ‘Freak Out’ is a comic highpoint.)
Yet this is a film of countless pleasures, among them Timothy Dalton’s hedgehog thespian Mr Pricklepants, a flashback that reveals how Ned Beatty’s outwardly cuddly teddy bear Lotso lost his sunny side and a little girl called Bonnie whose imagination and innocence facilitate both the film’s heartbreaking climax and its optimistic open ending.
But what of Woody and Buzz themselves? It would have been easy for either to get lost in the crush, and there are times the former – sounding, via Tom Hanks’ larynx, slightly repetitive notes of desperation and neediness – nearly does.
But with Buzz, scripter Michael Arndt plays a blinder, introducing a hitherto unpressed reset button that turns this all-American Space Ranger into a tango-dancing Toreador.
For two pictures Tim Allen’s verbals have been consistently on the money and a ceaseless source of amusement.
Here, however, he must share equal credit with Javier Fernandez Pena, a lusty-voiced Spaniard who makes us view Lightyear in a whole new light. Arriba!
One of the best films of the year, Pixar’s long-awaited latest scores in every department. Funny, affecting and dramatically fearless, it’s as fine a threequel as you could hope for. Bring tissues – lots of tissues.