Title: Toy Story 3
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
Director: Lee Unkrich
Screenwriters: John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack
There’s a flawless symmetry to Toy Story 3 that makes it resonate even deeper than its (remarkable, classic) predecessors. If the first two films celebrated the joy of childhood, this one — darker, scarier, and more demanding, though somehow just as much fun — is about the pain and necessity of leaving it behind. It opens with our toy heroes playacting a joyous make believe for their beloved Andy under a beautiful blue sky, and ends with Andy himself doing something similar for a young girl about to embark on her own adventure. Thrilling, bittersweet, and hilarious when it isn’t too heartrending to be funny, Toy Story 3 is this summer’s miracle. If another release offers half the joy, beauty, and unadulterated soul food of this one, I will be beside myself.
The film’s centerpiece is a prison break sequence as exciting and deliriously inventive as anything in The Great Escape. Andy is on his way to college, and Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), and the rest of the gang find themselves donated to Sunnyside daycare. Sunnyside’s toy world is run by a folksy megalomaniac teddy bear named Lotso (the brilliant Ned Beatty), who first sticks the newcomers in a non-age-appropriate playroom (the hyper little brats unleash some cruel and unusual punishment on the poor toys), and then just shoves them all into crates, having reprogrammed Buzz into his mindlessly righteous out-of-the-box self and fashioned him into a turbocharged prison guard.
The mission is to get out and get back to Andy, who, it turns out, meant to lovingly store the toys in his attic, not give them away. Their escape — a long sequence that made my face ache from grinning — has the momentum, visual coherence, and sense of play that not a single one of this year’s big-budget actioners has been able to muster. There’s one particular gag involving Mr. Potato Head and a tortilla that made me gasp and then very nearly squeal with delight. Another one involving a surveillance monkey (!) is very nearly as good. And there’s a brief scene inside a trash incinerator that brought tears to my eyes with its wordless, clear-eyed simplicity.
I could go on for pages about wonderful little details lovingly inserted by director Lee Unkrich and the rest of the can’t-fail-even-on-purpose Pixar team. I won’t, but let me just mention Lotso’s sidekick, Big Baby, which is exactly what it sounds like — a baby doll twice the size of the next biggest toy in the bunch. It waddles around, making perfectly normal but supremely creepy gurgling noises, and does Lotso’s bidding. Its left eye droops, its head turns 360 degrees, and it is easily the most unnerving thing I have ever seen in a family film. In a genre that, 99% of the time, settles for villains that are either generically evil or comically inept, Big Baby is a terrifying breakthrough.
The heart of the film is our heroes’ relationship to Andy, a perfectly normal teenager who’s put his toys away and is ready to step into adulthood (though he briefly contemplates taking Woody with him to college, as a childhood memento). Their realization that their time with him is coming to a close — and their eventual acceptance of that fact — functions as a beautiful, universal metaphor for grief; for learning to let go of the things and people you love, and find joy somewhere else. Here, too, symmetry: this process turns out to be at least as hard for Andy as for the toys. Toy Story 3 ends on a note of hope and confidence, but doesn’t minimize the wrenching difficulty of its subject.
That ending is the best scene in the best movie of the year, a deeply moving smiling-through-tears moment that I won’t soon forget. A lot has been written about the intense collaborative effort that goes into each Pixar film, and the razor-sharp emotional calibration of Toy Story 3‘s final minutes may be the studio’s crowning achievement. (It would vie for that title with the stunning montage that opened Up, and the stirring final shot of Monsters, Inc.) All good things must come to and end, but if we work hard and are kind and true, more will follow.