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The experience of Toy Story 3 begins with "Day & Night," the most inventive short Pixar has yet produced, about a pair of two-dimensional, amorphous characters whose bodies reveal three-dimensional worlds. The concept is hard to explain but effective and fairly dazzling, yet another example of Pixar tackling a seemingly impossible concept and coming back with winning results.
For the last few years Pixar has followed up these imaginative shorts with features that were even more impressive, exploring new worlds and complicated characters with narrative complexity that most live-action films never even attempt. With Toy Story 3, for the first time since Cars, the studio has failed to outdo its previous effort, making a film that's merely very good rather than astonishing. It is just as good as the first two Toy Story films, but that's exactly the problem; in the mid and late 90s those movies were revolutionary, but Pixar has grown up since then and several other animation studios have caught up. We know now that animation is capable of even more, and while Toy Story 3 is still one of the most carefully crafted and satisfying studio films of the year so far, it's rooted in a past that the studio has successfully grown out of. Unlike the studio's three most recent, transcendent films, Toy Story 3 is content to stay a little closer to the ground.
Still, a movie this good is well worth the experience, and as Toy Story 3 is the first truly must-see film of the summer, I'll leave as much plot detail as possible for you to discover on your own. After a rousing opening action scene that takes place, like the opening of the second, entirely inside Andy's imagination, we're left in the final days before Andy, all grown up, takes off for college. The toys have been long since ignored, waiting in vain for the day they'll be played with again, and everyone save Woody-- who Andy has picked to go with him to college-- is bracing themselves for lonely lives in the attic. Through a series of classic Toy Story mix-ups, though, the gang all winds up at Sunnyside Day Care, a place that initially seems like paradise but eventually reveals itself as something else entirely.
Some of the original characters from Andy's toy box sit out this adventure, but they're replaced by a multitude of new faces-- far too many for a movie this brisk and well-paced to handle. The plush pink Lotso Huggin Bear (voiced by Ned Beatty) is important to the plot but not that interesting as a character, and he's accompanied by many interchangeable henchmen toys who never develop all that well, save the truly terrifying Big Baby. The best new character by far is Barbie's prissy soulmate Ken, voiced brilliantly by Michael Keaton and stealing nearly every scene, though he would have had competition from Timothy Dalton's hedgehog Mr. Pricklepants and Kristen Schaal's Trixie had either character been given their deserved screentime. Toy Story 3 miraculously pulls off its multitude of plots, but suffers sequel bloat by introducing all these new characters and giving short shrift to nearly all of them.
The core cast of characters, though, is beautifully unchanged, and the screenwriting team works well with what we already know about these toys to heighten the action and emotion and pull off some terrific visual gags. Even when the story starts to feel a little too busy, there's time for each original character to have their moment, and watching the gang pull yet another plan together carries the kind of magic The A-Team only wishes it could accomplish. With Andy no longer their anchor the group must rely on each other more than ever, and the emotional shorthand they've all developed is doubly touching to see because we've watched it all happen in the first two films.
Pixar's animation skills have improved massively since Toy Story 2, and the 3D only enhances the rich texture of Lotso's fur or Ken's flashy clothes; the Toy Story movies have always thrilled us by giving us a new perspective on our own world, and the 3D adds to that immersion in all the little details only Woody or Rex would see. The movie is heavy on action sequences and executes each flawlessly, providing the sense of space and high stakes that few live-action films ever accomplish. Director Lee Unkrich, inheriting duties from John Lasseter, has a crack sense of timing, and even when the story strays a little Unkrich moves the story forward persistently without ever seeming rushed.
After taking a little too much time to set up the situation at Sunnydale, Toy Story 3 moves briskly through its jailbreak plot and genuinely terrifying third-act action sequence, all to land us gently in the final 10 minutes, where tissues are a requirement. Andy is absent for much of the film as the toys struggle to move on without him, but in the final scene he returns for the kind of farewell every franchise dreams of. It's a true mark of Pixar's animation skill that Andy, a deliberately caricatured human character, can move his head barely or sharply draw in his breath and convey exactly what he's feeling. The adventures of Buzz and Woody and company are what make Toy Story 3 ridiculously entertaining, but Andy's rite of passage, conveyed so briefly and elegantly, gives the movie that trademark Pixar heart. Unfortunately it comes a little too late to bolster what comes before it, a film that is exceptionally well made but slightly more shallow than we might like.