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The Toys Are Back in Town (And Better than Ever)

By Roxana Hadadi

All of the Pixar films that have delighted filmgoers for the past 15 years – “Finding Nemo,” “Wall-E,” “Up” – have a lot indebted to the animation studio’s first work with Disney, “Toy Story.” And with “Toy Story 3,” which comes nearly 11 years after “Toy Story 2,” Woody, Buzz and the whole gang prove they’ve still got it.

When “Toy Story” was released in 1995, it was like nothing anyone had ever seen before: The 3-D animation, bright colors and highly expressive characters made the whole film pop. Plus, a charming story about the meaning of loyalty and friendship didn’t hurt, and the formula worked again in 1999’s “Toy Story 2,” which introduced new characters like cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), trusted horse Bullseye, a legwarmer-wearing Barbie (Jodi Benson) and three squeeze toy aliens (Jeff Pidgeon) to a mix that already included Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), piggy bank Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Mrs. Potato Head (Estelle Harris) and Slinky Dog (Jim Varney in the first two films, now Blake Clark).

At their core, “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” were not only about the relationship between a human and a toy and the love and support they provide for each other, but also about the camaraderie and understanding that exists between fellow toys. They all share the fear of one day being replaced or thrown away (as Jessie experienced with former owner Emily, a sadness she explains in “Toy Story 2”), and that horrifying idea helps band them together, creating real bonds. Their selflessness and courage elevates these characters from just being anthropomorphic bits of plastic with the ability to talk – they’re our friends, too.

But in “Toy Story 3,” those glory years may be gone. Their owner, Andy (John Morris), is now 17 and days away from heading off to college; as a teenager, he rarely plays with the toys anymore. Instead, they have to steal his cell phone and place it in the toy bin in order to coax his interest, but even then, he can’t be bothered. Though most of the toys are saddened by the idea that they’ve grown apart from Andy and frightened that they may be thrown out or given away when he packs before leaving for school, Woody isn’t having any of it. He has faith in Andy, and the rest of the toys should, too, he lectures – their owner would never let them get dumped or donated, specifically to a local daycare facility, Sunnyside. He loves them more than that.

Well, Woody is kind of right: When the time comes to pack, Woody gets placed in a box meant for college, but all the other toys are put in a trash bag to be placed in the attic. Andy’s mom, though (Laurie Metcalfe), gets confused and takes the bag out to be thrown away – a move the toys misunderstand and take personally. Frustrated and defensive over what they think is Andy’s decision to trash them, they decide to voluntarily go to Sunnyside to get played with daily – and Woody, in trying to persuade them not to go, gets stuck in the car, too.

When they reach Sunnyside, Woody still wants to go back home – but the other toys are wooed by the heroes’ reception they get from a purple stuffed bear, Lotso (Ned Beatty), who is the leader of the daycare center’s toys. A smooth-talking, strawberry-scented bear with a cane and a slow drawl, Lotso welcomes the toys to the center, gives them a whirlwind tour of its facilities and tells them they’ll be staying in the Caterpillar Room, next door to Lotso and his group’s Butterfly Room. Thoroughly persuaded, Jessie puts her foot down and says the toys are staying – and Woody, still devoted to Andy, leaves.

But as Woody struggles to get home and the new toys try to fit in at Sunnyside, slowly both come to realize that not everything is as it seems. Maybe Andy hasn’t really forgotten them, and maybe Lotso isn’t such a nice guy. And maybe, just maybe, even toys can go home again.

It would be unfair to point out flaws in “Toy Story 3,” because there just aren’t any: The dialogue is witty, the action scenes are exciting and the new characters – such as Chuckles the Clown (Bud Luckey) and Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton) – have great backstories and development that make them instantly likable. From the first scene, where Woody, Jessie and Bullseye face off against evil villain Hamm and the train-robbing Potato Heads in one of Andy’s play sequences to a dress-up montage featuring Barbie and Ken to a Spanish-speaking Buzz, every plot twist generates laughs for both kids and adults. The only downside, really, is the 3-D – it makes moments like the opening car chase pop, but over the course of the film, it’s not used enough to really make the extra dollars worth it.

Instead, what works so well about “Toy Story 3” is that it stays firmly in a place where the outside world exists, but not in a kitschy way – for example, while the “Shrek” films rely on pop culture and over-kids’-heads jokes to win over parents and older viewers, “Toy Story 3” appeals to everyone’s youthful nature. We can all relate to the joy that comes from having a favorite toy and the emotional connections we have with our friends, and those kind of plot points make the film personal for each of us. Only subtle winks here and there (like Barbie and Ken gushing over how they feel like they’ve known each other forever) allude to what viewers already know about what’s going on outside the “Toy Story” world, and that ability to stay wholly in the film’s character keeps the fantasy cynicism-proof.

And of course, it wouldn’t be a “Toy Story” film if there wasn’t a message about friendship, devotion and selflessness in here somewhere, and thankfully the morals are still refreshing and much-appreciated. It’s good to know that some things, even though they may be 15 years older than when we were first exposed to their greatness, only get better with time – and this latest film in the “Toy Story” franchise is certainly one of them.

 

Roxana Hadadi last reviewed "The Karate Kid."

Looking for something more adult? Here's our review of "Jonah Hex."

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