Toy Story 3 opens today (see times below)

Our rating:

After years of producing films of evolving maturity and sophistication, it’s legitimate to consider whether Pixar and its parent Disneynot immune to the sagging economyare milking its first and most lucrative cash cow for an easy money grab by unveiling Toy Story 3 15 years after the original entry and 11 years after its sequel.

Notwithstanding the studios’ motives, this third outing of Pixar’s beloved playthings fits firmly into the studio’s blueprint of growing with its original core audience. Andy (accordingly voiced by John Morris in all three films) is now 17 years old and leaving for college, and Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and the rest of the playroom worry they’ll be consigned to the attic or, worse still, the trash heap. As the soldiers say, “When the trash bags come out, we Army guys are the first to go.”

Fearing the unknown but still yearning relevance, the gang escapes to an alluring daycare with a sinister underbelly. They are greeted by a virtual island of misfit toys, run by Lots-o’-Huggin’ (Ned Beatty), a strawberry-scented pink bear with a genteel Southern façade that masks a plantation owner’s cruelty. Backed by Lotso’s hench-dollsthe spookiest Big Baby this side of Chucky and a metrosexual Ken (Michael Keaton, having a blast)our newcomers are banished to the Caterpillar Room, a hellhole director Lee Unkrich depicts with the frenzied madness of an early Sam Raimi horror flick or the riot scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

From there, Toy Story 3 becomes, of all things, a taut prison-break flick, with Lotso playing the part of the warden from Cool Hand Luke. He brainwashes Buzz by flipping the “demo” switch beneath his battery cover, leaving it to Woody to help his mates escape using some Mission: Impossible-style strategizing.

The visual design (3-D version not necessary) is still gorgeous but now contains hues of a comforting retro quality. And, the series’ trademark humor is as snappy as ever, although obvious, uneasy chuckles at the expense of Ken’s foppishness (“Like your as-cot,” Barbie coos to him) and Buzz’s amorous Spanish language mode are the sort of things Shrek sequels do.

But, only Pixar could craft a charming fable about facing one’s mortality, including a relatively macabre turn that sees our plastic protagonists linking hands in quiet acceptance of a seemingly inevitable fiery fate. While trying to find his way back to Andy, Woody is innocently nabbed by a toddler named Bonnie, whose bedroom is filled with a troupe of stuffed animals headlined by a British hedgehog named Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), who treats every imaginary tea party or outer space adventure like a West End production. As Woody joins in their playtime, a look of sheer, long-lost ecstasy creeps across his face, overjoyed to be working again … needed again … wanted again. The scene carries topical poignancy, to be sure, but more broadly, it showcases the universal urge to find happiness and meaning in our existence.

The script by Little Miss Sunshine scribe Michael Arndt always couches these thematic complexities in terms of workmanlike fun until the poignant final five minutes, which pack an emotional punch rivaled only by Up‘s opening montage. Oozing with bittersweetness, the denouement’s lesson about both treasuring the past and letting it go elegantly concludes this seminal trilogy. Behind your smile will be a lump in your throat, as Toy Story 3 just might send you rummaging through the boxes in your attic.