The Simple Pleasure of 'Toy Story 3'

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Pixar Animation Studios/Walt Disney Pictures


As Charles de Gaulle dryly observed, the graveyards are full of indispensable men. One might add, in a related vein, that the attics are full of indispensable toys--once central players in a childhood fantasy, now upstaged, outgrown, and consigned to the corrugated purgatory of a cardboard box.

Such is the cruel afterlife facing the eponymous heroes of Toy Story 3 as the film opens. In the 11 years since the last installment of the Pixar franchise, their half-pint custodian, Andy, has grown up, and as he prepares to debark for college, retirement looms for Buzz Lightyear, Jesse, Rex, Ham, the Potato Heads, and the rest of their narrow Toyverse. (Though not Woody, who initially appears fated to accompany Andy to school as a childhood memento--a touching plan, but one that, if my own collegiate memories are any guide, would likely entail Woody being refashioned into a bong by sophomore year.)

Andy, however, makes the mistake of putting his attic-bound ex-playmates into a plastic garbage bag, and his mother makes the mistake of assuming this was not a mistake. After a brief flirtation with the sanitation department (it will not be the last), the gang finds themselves delivered to a local daycare, presided over by a Strawberry-scented pink bear named Lotso (short for "Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear"), who promises them an endless stretch of play-filled days with a rotating cast of kids who will never grow old. This Paradise is no sooner found than it is lost, though, and the bulk of the film delightedly toys (so to speak) with the conceits and conventions of the prison-break genre.

By Pixar's lofty standards, Toy Story 3 is not a particularly ambitious film. Unlike most of the studio's offerings, it lacks any particular ideological infrastructure (The Incredibles's quiet embrace of individualism, Wall-E's indictment of consumerism, Up's exploration of grief and renewal). Though it reprises the original's metaphor of disposability as mortality, it does little to extend it--as Toy Story 2 did by weighing a pristine immortality against the everyday messiness of love and loss. Nor does it mark a visual milestone in the manner of Wall-E.

But if Toy Story 3 doesn't quite represent the transcendent whole of recent Pixar pictures, it boasts its share of transcendent moments: a fashion show put on by Barbie's new Ken; a flamenco display by Buzz's Latin alter-ego; a baby doll playing Darth Vader to Lotso's Emperor; and (trust me on this) Mr. Pita Head. The returning vocal cast--Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, et al.--is characteristically excellent, and the newcomers are, if anything, better still. As Lotso, Ned Beatty offers the most compelling portrait of avuncular villainy since, well, Ned Beatty in Network, and Michael Keaton's Ken is the quintessence of himbo-ism. Tucked away in smaller roles are such talents as Jeff Garlin, Timothy Dalton, and Whoopi Goldberg.

And, as it has done before--who can forget Brad Bird's glorious Edna Mode?--Pixar saves a few gems for contributors who typically find themselves on the other side of the lens (or rendering machine, as the case may be). As sad clown Chuckles, artist/animator Bud Luckey (last heard as the narrator in the Pixar short "Boundin'") has the film's best monologue, the chilling tale of a good bear gone bad. But a close runner-up is the jailhouse wisdom of the Chatter Telephone voiced by Teddy Newton (who also directed the marvelously high-concept short, "Day & Night," that precedes the feature).

Toy Story 3 may be, relatively speaking, a simple pleasure. But a pleasure it remains, by turns earnest and ironic, wistful and wicked. For all its clever allusions, the movie never descends into idle knowingness or manic jokery. And if its closing scenes tip somewhat further toward sentimentality than is customary, it is an understandable indulgence. Toy Story was, after all, Pixar's first-born, and the 15 years of ensuing maturation seem to have passed in the blink of an eye. As it should, Toy Story 3 offers a worthy, heartfelt, sendoff to Woody, Buzz, and the gang--from Andy, from Pixar, and from all of us.


See also: Christopher Orr on the secret to Pixar's success.
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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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