The best children's movies are the darkest ones. Not unrelentingly so, but with enough unsettling moments to seep into one's subconscious and remain there into adulthood. Younger kids may not even fully grasp them, but that gives them all the more impact, hinting at a bigger, more dangerous world out there where parents can't make everything alright in the end. Hundreds of safe, cheerful stories from my childhood have merged in my memory into one pleasant blur, but I can remember with vivid detail the disturbing sensation of watching Dumbo and Timothy overrun with pink elephants. I didn't even fully understand what drunkenness was, but that didn't prevent the pink elephants from appearing when I closed my eyes at night, smiling their twisty, demon grins. It was their empty black eye sockets - that's what got me.
A list of children's film classics would be a catalogue of similar nightmares. The dipping of Toons in Roger Rabbit. Mufasa's death by stampede. The Willy Wonka's boat ride to Hell. My little sister spent a good chunk of her childhood in mortal fear of Monstro the Whale. Toy Story 3, along with the earlier two films in the series, is a movie that is destined to join that list of beloved films, and more than any Pixar film to date, it goes to those disturbing places. Considering that the two previous Pixar films have involved the heartbreaking death of a major character in the opening minutes (Up) and the near extinction of the human race (WALL-E) that's saying something.
Toy Story 3 strikes a good balance between acknowledging the dangers of being a toy while letting the imagination take over before anything gets too traumatizing. Boy did my imagination run with it. Mr. Potato Head, for example, is shown to have parts that can operate independently of his potato body. How far does that ability extend? If Andy loses every part but the mouth does it still maintain his personality, hanging out with the other toys, cracking wise with that Don Rickles voice? What happens when the toys go up into the attic? Do they go into some kind of hibernation or just stay up there going slowly mad? I consider it high praise to report that these ideas took up residence in my imagination and have refused to leave.
Of course, this being a Pixar production the movie is a fun and exciting adventure story not some kind of grim horror show, although a monstrous, broken baby doll comes close. With all the fun the material is still stunningly weighty, addressing subjects of friendship, loyalty, the passing of youth, mortality, and pretty much the meaning of life. You could be forgiven for scanning to see if Ingmar Bergman has a screenplay credit.
I read the Pixar team was reluctant to do a third in the Toy Story series. I assumed it was for quality control reasons (why risk pulling a Godfather Part III ?) but now I suspect they were hesitant to push the story to the places a third installment would require them to go. Toy Story 2 pretty much concluded Andy's childhood, ending with Woody and Buzz content that their time with Andy was fleeting and that experiencing it was worth accepting any consequences down the road. Now with the third installment the only thing left to do is see is how that decision from years ago holds up in the face of cold reality when Andy is packing up to leave for college, and their possible fates are attic if you're lucky and hefty bag if you're not.
All the credit in the world to the Pixar team for telling this story and not going the easy route. There was probably no shortage of story ideas with simple action plots (the toys help Andy fight some bullies) instead they stuck with this sophisticated approach. Through a series of mix-ups Woody and friends end up donated to Sunnyside Daycare where Woody and Buzz have a debate about their course of action, with Woody insisting its their responsibility to return to Andy, and Buzz deciding their duty to Andy is fulfilled now that he's reached adulthood. Woody is right that their purpose was to be there for Andy no matter what, but try telling that to a group of toys who hours ago seemed to be on the fast track to the landfill. Explaining why undying loyalty to Andy should be the be-all, end-all of their lives Woody's argument edges close to that of a religious zealot. Take a step back about to consider how rare it is for an animated film aimed at a family audience - Hell - how rare it is for any Hollywood film to present a complicated situation without a clear right side and a clear wrong side.
The story twists and turns from there. The attic starts looking pretty good once daycare is revealed to be a prison camp where the ruling toys use the newbies as cannon fodder to absorb the abuse of rampaging toddlers. As is usually the case with Pixar there is also a colorful cast of new characters, so much so that characters that would be the star of any other film, like method acting porcupine doll Mr. Pricklepants, barely getting any screen time here. There is also ample comedy along the way, especially some tremendous laughs when the daycare toys tamper with Buzz Lightyear's circuitry.
By the end the variety of awful fates have been explored, but even when things are at their most frantic - a visit to the incinerator is particularly heart-stopping - Toy Story 3 never loses track of the heart of the material. The film briefly makes explicit the connection between the Andy/Toy and the Parent/Child relationship offering a peak at why these stories resonate so strongly. The climax of the film is an emotional powerhouse on par with ET's farewell to Elliott.
When one starts praising Pixar it is difficult to stop. They've maintained a level of excellence so high for so long it deserves comparison with the most trusted brands in film history, Hitchcock or Spielberg at their peak, or the golden age of Disney Animation. I could go on for pages on their loving attention to visual details alone (I never tire of Woody's floppy, rag doll run) but after viewing Toy Story 3 I think the facet deserving of the most attention is Pixar's commitment to quality writing.
Pixar have such a dedication to the craft of screenwriting, a knack for zeroing right in on the heart of the material, that these films would be mega-hits were they computer animated, used traditionally cel animation, stop motion, live action, or shadow puppets on a wall. One after another their films have rode roughshod over the box office and then lodged securely in the public consciousness. Toy Story 3 has shown up a full decade after its predecessor yet the audience's love for these characters is so deep we pick up the story in progress without missing a beat. No doubt other studios would love to crack the formula of Pixar's success, but its right there, plain as day. These are simply great stories, flawlessly told.
Verdict: What's left to say? This film cements Woody and Buzz as icons of children's entertainment and the Toy Story trilogy as Pixar's crowning achievement. If I dock it a point it's because I may prefer Toy Story 2's perfect blend of the story's themes with action and comedy, and Toy Story 3 may have a handful of scenes that are merely very good instead of great. There. Thats the most negative thing I can think to say about this fantastic film. See it. 9 out of 10