The quality control at Pixar remains – Cars, aside – one of the miracles of the modern mainstream cinema; year after year, an innovative, original standalone picture which is worth the multiple viewings parents of DVD-owning children have to put up with (you’d be amazed how many grown-ups never want to see The Lion King again) and also pushes the envelope technically (now, 3D is an essential). And they’ve resisted franchising – with the exception of the Toy Story films, and they’ve held off for over ten years before getting a third one out (there’ve been four Shreks in the interim). If this isn’t as experimental as Wall-E, Up or Ratatouille, then it still holds its own in the tricky business of delivering a part three which matches a part two that was a rare non-sucky sequel. As it stands, this actually is a trilogy.
Andy, the child who owns the toys, is about to leave for college, and there’s tension as to whether the gang will go in a box in the attic, be put out for trash or ‘donated’ to a daycare centre – with Sheriff Woody alone being singled out to go along with Andy, presumably as a nostalgia item to clutter up his dorm room along with his bong and porn collection. Most of the film is a smart, dystopian vision with a prison break scenario – the toys are greeted at the daycare centre by some new friends, but find themselves duped into a hellish existence at the mercy of toddlers for whom they aren’t ‘age-appropriate’ and discovering that the jovial, Ned Beatty-voiced Lots o’ Huggin’ Bear (the Care Bear licensees obviously wouldn’t play ball) is a tyrannical yard-boss whose chuckly avuncular persona is a sham and who runs the place with the aid of a quisling crew (including a metrosexual Ken doll who is angry to be tagged ‘a girl’s toy’) and an eye-in-the-sky cymbal-clashing monkey (did anyone ever not think this was a creepy, nightmare-inducing plaything?). This is entertaining action-adventure stuff, with a superb peril sequence as the toys are carted off to the dump and survive all manner of grinding and burning dangers (paid off with a punchline to the joke about the claw-worshipping aliens which has been running since the first film), but the film finally shows its heart in a home-stretch bittersweet happy ending as Andy (who has, frankly, been a monster throughout the series) does the right thing by giving his toys to a little girl who will actually love them and spends his last afternoon before college sharing her play (you can be cynical about the notion of a seventeen-year-old boy having a good time with a preteen girl, but the scene defuses it all).
Pixar cram more ideas into their movies than anyone else – they are like those great old Jack Davis or Mort Drucker MAD Magazine strips which fit dozens of tiny gags and conceits into every panel. Here, all the regulars get good stuff to do: Mr Potatohead has to assemble a tortilla and a pickle version of himself, Buzz Lightyear is programmed into a romantically swivel-hipped ‘Spanish mode’ (with subtitles), Barbie has a soap opera up-and-down relationship with Ken (at one point, she tortures him by ripping up his 1967 Nehru jacket), Sheriff Woody is still trying desperately to hold it all together despite the Job-like sufferings inflicted on him by the God who wrote his name on his boot but still treats him (understandably) like an object. And the new characters are all wonderfully-conceived: a broken-down telephone convict, a thespically-inclined hedgehog (voiced by Timothy Dalton), three peas in a pod, a stretchy purple octopus. It engages with a lot of complicated things about the nature of play and toys and specific editorialising about types of toy (we see some 80s action figures and cutesy softies), and still has time to deliver spectacular action (the Indy-like opening is a crowd-pleaser) and simply silly humour.