Friday, June 25, 2010

'Toy Story 3' is full of laughs, thrills and heart

Each summer we get a barrage of new big budget entertainments, some are good, even great, and some are just plain awful. Throughout it all though, one name remains a consistent source of quality entertainment: Pixar. It started 15 years ago with “Toy Story” and now all our favorite characters are back for a third adventure together.

A lot of sequels — let's face it, most sequels — are cheap cash-ins that hope to bring up more wealth before the well goes dry. Make no mistake about it, “Toy Story 3” will make buckets of money, and already has with a $109 million opening weekend take, but this is a film that equals its wonderful predecessors with an ideal blend of laughs, thrills and pathos.

The original “Toy Story” asked a simple question: What would our toys be like if they came to life when we weren't looking? The second film deepened the theme by asking: How do our toys feel when they are no longer needed or wanted? This new film further explores that theme when the toys' beloved owner Andy packs up to go off to college, leaving behind all his childish playthings.

In spite of the protests of leader Woody the cowboy (Tom Hanks), Andy's toys think they have the solution to their abandonment issues: get donated to the Sunnyside Daycare Center where there will be a never-ending supply of children to play with them.

Things aren't so sunny, though, at the daycare which is run by a deceptively cheery strawberry-scented bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty). Lotso sends Andy's toys to the toddler room where kids play rough and it becomes all too clear to the gang that their new home is a prison.

The latter half of the film becomes a parody of prison break movies that is rather ingenious and inventive, especially the way Mr. Potato is utilized. This escape sequence is thrilling, funny and even a little frightening as the toys are put into genuine peril. It is no spoiler to say they make it out, but there's a moment where it is unclear how.

All the major characters have returned including Woody, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie the cowgirl (Joan Cusack), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark replacing the late Jim Varney), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm the piggie bank (John Ratzenberger) and Barbie (Jodi Benson).

There are also lots of new characters often with too little screen time. Several big-name actors like Whoopi Goldberg and Bonnie Hunt provide only a few lines of dialogue to their characters. This is somewhat disappointing, but on the other hand if too much time was given over to introducing all these new characters in greater detail the film would've become overly bloated and unwieldy.

Beatty's Lotso is an effectively bitter villain, although his character follows similar beats to Stinky Pete from “Toy Story 2.” Of the new characters, it is Michael Keaton as Ken that really steals the show. His courtship with Barbie and his protests that he isn't a “girl toy” are some of the movie's biggest laughs. Timothy Dalton also scores as a hedgehog stuffed animal with serious acting aspirations.

For the first half or so, the film is merely an extremely well-crafted comedic adventure with a collection of old friends, but that is just the set up. Towards the end things become darker, richer and more interesting. The script by Michael Arndt keeps finding unexpected ideas, jokes and emotions. A development with Buzz is too juicy to reveal, but it is absolutely hilarious. As with
Arndt's “Little Miss Sunshine,” he manages to work within a formula and against it at the same time.

The conclusion, which unites the toys with Andy, finds the perfect way to wrap this story up. In quiet pauses and in the way Andy talks about his toys with great affection, there's a exploration of the relationship we have with our things that is done with a lot of grace. Sure, the things we buy are just inanimate objects, but we attach meaning to them and project emotions and memories onto them.

For a generation that grew up watching these films, the end will make their hearts swell. The final scenes are so sweet, so tender and carry a surprising emotional weight. You will leave the theater with a completely satisfied grin.

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