Woody, Buzz, and the rest of their toy-box friends are dumped in a day-care center after their owner, Andy, departs for college.
The digit 3 in a movie’s title has often been a curse which has afflicted franchises as diverse as The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars, Alien and Spider-Man. The creative brainstrust at Pixar Animation has avoided that jinx with Toy Story 3, although it’s much darker and scarier, less captivating and not as flat-out funny as the predecessors.
On the upside, the movie directed by Lee Unkrich (who co-helmed Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo) is packed with a fabulous array of new toys that play with and, in some cases, tease and torment the established characters.
On the downside, the plot device which sees the virtual imprisonment of Buzz, Woody, Jesse & Co. in a day care centre, followed by an even greater threat to their wellbeing, sacrifices much of the boisterous fun and humour which made the earlier editions so enjoyable and popular among all ages.
The decision to entrust the screenplay to Michael Arndt (who won an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine), working from a story by Unkrich and Pixar gurus John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, probably indicates the studio was aiming for a more adult sensibility which acknowledges that 11 years have elapsed since the last chapter.
But there’s a fundamental problem with the toys-in-jeopardy scenario: does anyone seriously believe the filmmakers would dare to kill off, let alone injure, any of the much loved characters? The audience may be emotionally invested in these animated toys and care about their predicament, as I was, but there’s no way that disaster will befall them.
The inspired, high-velocity opening sequence sees a trainload of orphans hurtling along a track over Monument Valley which has been blown up, until they’re saved in the nick of time by Buzz Lightyear (again voiced exuberantly by Tim Allen). This turns out to be the fertile imagination of the toys’ owner Andy. After a series of homevideo-like clips, the story advances to the present, when 17-year-old Andy (John Morris) is about to leave home for college.
Naturally this causes consternation among the toys who fear they’ll be consigned to the garbage dump. Andy intends to store them in the attic but due to a mix-up, all but Woody (Tom Hanks) are sent to the Sunnyside day care centre, where the toys community is ruled by a seemingly genial, strawberry-scented, elderly bear named Lots-o'-Huggin' (Ned Beatty, affecting a southern drawl which would be right at home in a Tennessee Williams play).
Lotso turns out to be a despotic ogre who manipulates his underlings including the preening, vain fashionista Ken (hilariously voiced by Michael Keaton), the menacing Big Baby and a manic, cymbals-banging monkey.
There’s some laughs as Barbie (Jodi Benson) thinks she’s found her perfect match in Ken, who wittily tells her, 'You don’t know me from G.I. Joe," while Woody hangs out at the home of day-care kid Bonnie (Emily Hahn) and her playthings including the pompous, thespian hedgehog Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), who insists, 'I’m trying to stay in character."
The new arrivals are assigned to the Caterpillar Room, a hellhole where thuggish ankle-biters beat the daylights out of them. When they protest, Lotso locks them up.
The final half-hour is a rapid-fire series of attempted escapes, rescues and betrayals, culminating in an exciting finale and schmaltzy postscript. That’s all neatly executed, and the movie is rich in glorious detail in 3D. But in tackling the theme of toys that are outgrown by their owners, the filmmakers have lost some of that essential magic.