“Reach for the sky.”
That’s how it all began, 15 years ago: A laconic, drawling challenge from an intrepid pull-string sheriff in a tense bedroom standoff with a tuberous one-eyed desperado. There was swagger and panache in this self-assured proclamation that a new power had entered the fray, that the rules of the game had changed.
From Day One, John Lasseter and Co. reached for the sky. Their heads were in the clouds from the get-go — from the first shot, in fact. Toy Story wasn’t just the first fully computer-animated feature-length film. It was practically a manifesto: The industry was on notice.
Coming in the early days of decline of the Disney renaissance formulas, Toy Story broke rules and took risks. There was no boy-meets-girl / coming-of-age drama; no yearning hero or heroine with assorted sidekicks; no song-and-dance show-tune production numbers. The hero, Woody, was sympathetic but flawed — jealous, vain, insecure and not above ignoble acts — and in need of comeuppance and redemption.
At the same time, despite undercurrents of snark and cynicism among the rank and file of Andy’s toys, Toy Story wore its heart on its sleeve with disarming sincerity. Overtly sentimental and nostalgic, it was a celebration of imagination and play, of childhood innocence, of friendship and devotion. Despite the now-dated computer animation, there was a tactile familiarity to Andy’s toys: Behind the scenes, one sensed animators playing with Etch A Sketches and Slinkies.
The tension between Woody and Buzz Lightyear was emblematic of the film’s blend of old and new. Woody was vintage and old-school, evoking the swashbuckling poetry and moral heritage of the Western as well as the traditionalism and values of his 1950s’ pull-string milieu. Buzz was all bells and whistles, exciting and futuristic in a retro way, like Tomorrowland at Disney World. He was Star Wars to Woody’s Hopalong Cassidy — and, like Andy, Pixar embraced them both, combining cutting-edge animation technology with narrative traditionalism. It was about both the toys and the story, and it set the tone for Pixar’s subsequent work.
Four years later, Pixar amazingly topped this dazzling first achievement with one of the finest sequels ever made, conquering new storytelling heights even as it mined deeper emotional territory. Where the original cut Buzz down to size with the revelation that he was a toy and not a real space ranger, Toy Story 2 drew Woody into a head-turningly larger world of franchise collectability, at the same time confronting him with mortality and especially with the inevitability of Andy growing up and leaving childish things behind.
Toy Story 2 was The Empire Strikes Back to the original’s Star Wars, with one glaring difference: Where The Empire Strikes Back ended on a transitional note that cried out for a third chapter, Toy Story 2 cross-examined and revealed its characters’ relationships and destinies with such utter finality that there would seem to be nothing left to say about them. Eleven years later, Pixar’s track record of excellence makes it hard to imagine them messing up Toy Story 3. On the other hand, is Toy Story 2 too tough an act for any conceivable threequel to follow?
Well, almost. The bar isn’t set quite as high, but Toy Story 3 finds ways to turn some of its challenges into strengths. For Woody especially, it’s a welcome opportunity for a victory lap. Where both previous outings explored his frailties as well as his better qualities, the third chapter gives him a chance to be the hero Andy always knew he was. An inspired opening sequence somehow honors the openings of both previous films at once, revisiting Woody’s glory days in Andy’s fantasies in a new cinematic idiom. This is Woody’s true self, and in Toy Story 3 he stays gratifyingly true to form.
As for Buzz, his character development arc may be more or less complete, but sometimes you don’t have to develop a character to do new things with him. Toy Story 3 is more gag-driven than its predecessors, but the gags are funny, and the characters ride high on the audience good will they’ve earned twice over.
In part, Toy Story 3 plays out the scenario that Woody and Buzz knew was coming, and more or less accepted: Andy is a young man now — and college-bound. Whether the toys wind up in the attic or the garbage, or passed on to other children, their defining relationship with Andy is coming to an end. Already some old faces are missing (even Woody’s sweetheart, Bo Peep), and the toys have been left in the toy box for who knows how long; to play with Andy one last time is almost too much to hope for. And then what?
However it plays out, these characters know by now who they are, and so do we. At times, we know them better than some of them seem to know one another. At one point, though Woody knows otherwise, the other toys mistakenly think that Andy has thrown them out — and they refuse to believe Woody. Sooner or later someone will say, “Woody was telling the truth after all!” Shouldn’t they know him better than that by now? For that matter, while the initial mistake is certainly understandable, it might have been nice if the toys knew Andy better than that.
For Woody, all that matters is being there for Andy, even if “there” means “in the attic.” The other toys aren’t sure that getting donated to Sunnyside Day Care doesn’t sound like more fun, but Woody is grimly emphatic: “Day care is a sad, lonely place for washed-up toys with no owner.” Sunnyside for Woody has the same emptiness for Woody that Shady Oaks holds for Carl in Up; it’s the end of the road.
When the toys do wind up at Sunnyside, Rex brightens at the sight of a rainbow on the door, and the new faces — an avuncular, well-worn purple teddy named Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty), a slightly creepy Big Baby doll with one droopy eyelid, a large plush Totoro (woo hoo!), and (much to Barbie’s wide-eyed astonishment) a fabulous Ken doll — couldn’t be more welcoming. But Woody remains stoic. Day care might not be a bad end, but the bond with Andy hasn’t been severed. Their relationship with Andy must end — but not like this.
At times Toy Story 3 feels a bit less fleet-footed than its predecessors, though there’s nothing that doesn’t work. Lee Unkrich, who co-directed Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo, directs with a sure hand. The story is stuffed with wit and invention, such as a couple of premise-bending applications of the Potato Heads’ modular body parts and some hilarious riffing on Ken and Barbie.
The second half picks up the pace, combining goofily inspired prison-break tropes with an Indiana Jones-style gauntlet of terror (a juxtaposition inviting comparisons to Chicken Run). Toward the action climax comes a moment of unexpected poignancy as old friends stare into the face of infinity and beyond with a simple gesture of solidarity.
And then, in the end, one last surprise. Woody and Buzz have long known that losing Andy was inevitable, but there’s someone else who hasn’t: Andy himself. It is Andy, poised on the threshold of adulthood, who shows a new side.
It’s here that Toy Story 3 offers one of the most emotionally powerful moments in the series, ending the trilogy on a lump-in-the-throat high note and sealing the deal on one of the most satisfying third chapters to one of the best trilogies of all time. Toy Story 2 remains the high-water mark, but in this finale, Pixar once again reaches for the sky.
P.S. Toy Story 3 is preceded by “Night & Day,” a surreal six-minute short that’s as experimental and daring as anything Pixar has produced. Their coming feature output may be sequel-heavy for a while, but if this short is any indication, the spirit of discovery is alive and well at Pixar.
Content advisory: Some scary scenes and menace; occasional bathroom humor and mild innuendo. Fine family viewing for all but the most sensitive children.