Toy Story 3
Credit: Disney/Pixar

You won’t be alone if you go to see Toy Story 3 with ginormous expectations. After 15 years, the original Toy Story remains — to me — the most ticklish, delightful, and transporting of all Pixar films; its menagerie of innocently devoted, jabbering bedroom toys has become as beloved a part of the American pop culture family as the Simpsons or the Seven Dwarfs. Walking into this second sequel, I knew what I wanted: to be carried away, yet again, by the antic charm of Woody the noble, common-sense cowboy (voiced by Tom Hanks with his trademark acerbic snap), the irresistibly self-adoring action figure Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), the cranky Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), the mouse-that-roared dinosaur Rex (Wallace Shawn), the squeaky-cool alien LGMs, and the rest of the gang. I yearned to be dazzled and touched by the speed and repartee, and by action scenes that have a kiddie Indiana Jones ingenuity. I wasn’t disappointed. Yet even with the bar raised high, Toy Story 3 enchanted and moved me so deeply I was flabbergasted that a digitally animated comedy about plastic playthings could have this effect.

Andy, the boy owner of our toy pals, is now all grown up and about to head off to college, which leaves the toys feeling like relics. All they want is to be played with; that’s how they’re made. Will they now be stowed in the attic — a slightly depressing if still acceptable fate? Or will they (gulp) be thrown out? When Andy’s mom mistakes an attic-bound trash bag full of them for, well, garbage, they end up being carted off to a day-care center.

Upon arrival, they meet a new batch of playthings, who look like they belong on the Island of Misfit Toys. They also meet the stuffed animal who runs the place, a drawling Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty), who explains that they will now be played with every day by an eager crop of kids. It sounds a little too good to be true — and it is. Besides, they’ll no longer be Andy’s toys. They know, in their synthetic joints, that they’re being put out to pasture, and the awareness that they are not wanted creeps up on them, and us, like a giant swelling teardrop. All of a sudden, a Pixar movie has the poignance of a Tennessee Williams play, and that sense of fragility — of once-loved, now-outdated toys fighting for dignity and survival — haunts the entire movie.

Yet Toy Story 3 isn’t soggy. It’s as madly mischievous and inventive as Toy Story and its sequel, from the mushroom cloud of a Barrel of Monkeys that caps the film’s Wild West fantasy prelude to the brilliantly skewed suspense sequences that transform the day-care center into the set for an elaborate, child’s-play version of a prison-escape thriller. (When a Fisher-Price Chatter Telephone started to talk like a film-noir informant, I knew I was in movie heaven.) Toy Story 3 represents a virtuoso performance by the Pixar team, led by director Lee Unkrich (the codirector of Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo). I think it’s the studio’s greatest achievement since The Incredibles, and — just maybe — since the original Toy Story.

The beauty of the Toy Story films is their special, two-tiered vantage. We experience most of the action from a toy’s-eye view. But we’re always reminded that they’re living in a much bigger universe than they know — that they’re characters and objects at the same time. That’s why they’re never more winning, or psychologically rich, than when they flaunt their (deluded) egos. Buzz gets so full of himself this time that he turns into a Latin lover, literally speaking Spanish when he’s reprogrammed. Woody’s tug of valor and vulnerability has never been more affecting, and Lotso makes a memorable heavy: exquisitely devious, with a Dixie-senator courtliness and a backstory worthy of the Phantom of the Opera. If you’re wondering where the fresh jokes are, fear not. The movie has delirious fun with Big Baby, a damaged infant doll who’s a rubbery, droopy-eyed zombie. And then there’s Ken — yes, the Ken (voiced by Michael Keaton, having a ball), who’s a different sort of zombie, a polyester-brained dandy who lives in a dollhouse and wishes that it were still hip to be square. Like every other toy in the film, he comes with his own hilariously specific mental universe.

Fifteen years after Toy Story, its heroes look more old-fashioned and analog than ever. They really are relics in a world of techno gizmos. Yet all they’ve ever wanted is a home, and in the supremely moving final scenes of Toy Story 3, their simple desire to be played with is the furthest thing from selfish. It mirrors a child’s own essential need to indulge her imagination through play. Toy Story 3 is a salute to the magic of making believe. A

Toy Story 3
  • Movie
  • 102 minutes