We've got a friend in Pixar, no doubt about it.
Even when the better animation branch of Disney's empire gets too highfalutin for its own good — a gourmet rat in Paris, for example — there's a sense of integrity behind the computer keystrokes, of dedication to presenting something audiences haven't seen before.
The third leg of any trilogy isn't a likely place to find something special. Therefore, it is close to astonishing that Toy Story 3 surpasses nearly every other 'toon of the past 11 years since Part 2, including a few made by Pixar.
Toy Story 3 isn't merely the best movie of the summer — even with summer just kicking in — but an immediate candidate for best of the year.
Not a minute of this movie feels like a sequel made just for money, although Toy Story 3 will make a mint. Even less does it feel like a rehash of the first two hits — impressive since we've gotten to know the main players so well since their 1995 debuts. The way Pixar has preserved their identities and burned them into public consciousness is amazing.
In fact, in describing what was so good about Toy Story 3 to someone, I accidentally referred to them as "people" because their characters are so richly drawn. Then I realized it wasn't an accident; Woody, Buzz and their entire toy box posse are more real than most flesh-and-blood performers in movies these days.
Suitably, they've grown older since part 2. Not in a worn-out fashion, because their owner/friend Andy (voice of John Morris) always handles them with care, even when stashed into a box of childhood memories. Andy is preparing to go to college, faced with the conflict every child has when it's time to put away playful things.
Should these toys languish in a dark attic for a few more years, or get picked up curbside by a garbage truck? Like Andy, director Lee Unkrich and his team are stuck in sentimentally arrested development; too old to play with toys but wiser about the unavoidably emotional connection to them.
Through a series of expertly devised misadventures, all of the toys except Woody (Tom Hanks) wind up at Sunnyside Daycare, donated so kids can continue playing with them. It seems like a grand retirement, as explained by Lotso (Ned Beatty), a strawberry-scented teddy bear with a personality straight out of a Tennessee Williams drama.
Lotso has a selfish survival scheme in mind, sending the new toys to the Caterpillar Room where misbehaving children play rough while he and his minions relax in the Butterfly Room for nice kids.
Toy Story 3 rockets into high gear about halfway through and never lets off the throttle, as Woody attempts to rescue his friends. The stakes get higher and higher, until a climactic crisis so dark that for a moment I really believed this could be the end of their trail. Toy Story 3 resolves everything, leading to a clever curtain call that had me taking off the 3D glasses to dab away tears.
But this isn't a melancholy farewell. Toy Story 3 contains its share of laughs, from Barbie (Jodi Benson) falling for Ken (Michael Keaton), to Buzz (Tim Allen) enduring a hilarious bilingual glitch. Unkrich and screenwriter Michael Arndt keep the jokes and action flying so breathlessly that there's no time for a Randy Newman musical interlude after an early, eerie reprise of You've Got a Friend in Me.
But reading about the wonders of Toy Story 3 is like hearing Andy describe his fantasies starring Woody and Buzz, rather than watching them come to computer-generated life. You have to see it to believe it. What Pixar does better than any other artistic source is make us believe, including the notion that a fourth Toy Story, if it ever happens, would be even more carefully perfected than this.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/ movies.