After years of being stowed in Andy’s toy chest, the time has finally come for Woody (Hanks), Buzz (Allen) and friends to move on. But after they’re welcomed to Sunnyside Daycare Centre by the kindly Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear (Beatty) they realise this seeming toy’s paradise is actually something closer to hell...
How ‘adult’ can a commercial family movie be pushed before it starts alienating its core audience? Lay on too many mature pop culture references (see Shark Tale’s emphasis on Mafia movie clichés), and you leave the smaller ones fidgeting. Go too ‘dark’, and that theatre will be awash with trauma-induced tears. Works the other way too: play it too young, and adult eyes glaze. It’s a fine balance. And Pixar remains the master of that particular tightrope walk.
The studio certainly set the delicate course with Toy Story, a movie which not only contrasted the glee of imaginative play with the terrors of plaything-torture, but which, crucially, imagined its anthropomorphised, secret-life-living protagonists as adults just doing a job — the child Andy being their boss. While audience children could simply enjoy the toys coming to life and having adventures, the wage-slave grown-ups could, among other things, relate to the workplace anxiety generated by an impressive new ‘employee’ (in the first film), or the idea of being ‘promoted’ to somewhere where you think you’ll be more valued, but where the reality is you’ll no longer be doing the very thing you love most about your job (in the second). Continuing the theme, the third Toy Story is very much a movie about retirement. In Disney Digital 3D.
The set-up has a 17 year-old Andy preparing to leave for college, his few remaining favourite toys (oddly after all these years still including a Mrs. Potato Head, but hey, we ain’t judging…) making desperate Woody-corralled gambits for his attention. The sight, in the first few minutes, of the ever-determined cowboy doll clinging on to an old mobile phone as he listens to Andy’s confused “Hellos” is just one of several near-heartbreaking moments. (Just to give you an idea, we learn only a few minutes later that Woody’s long-time girlfriend Bo Peep is one of the many toys Andy’s long-since chucked out.) Naturally, Woody refuses to accept his destiny, which as the other survivors (The Potato Heads, Rex, Hamm, Jessie, Slinky, Bullseye, the ‘Ooooh’ alien triplets and Buzz) point out, will lead them either to the attic, a daycare centre or the dreaded trash.
And, via the wonderful quick-beat action-plot contortions that characterised both previous Toy Stories — miss a single second at your peril — it’s to daycare they go, to a place with the blandly sinister name of ‘Sunnyside’, appropriately making it sound as much like an old people’s home as a nursery.
The resulting caper is, like its predecessor, a paragon of good sequel-making. It moves the story on (take note, Iron Man 2 writers), while keeping its characters and plotting comfortingly familiar, and it brings in new characters without neglecting the originals. You could criticise it for merely offering a new variation on the previous films’ ‘displaced toys require rescue’ structure, but the reality is that the riffs on Toy Stories 1 and 2 prove joyous. Woody’s to-the-rescue whistle for faithful dog Buster this time yields a greying, sagging hound who merely flops exhaustedly to the floor. A third encounter with a deluded Buzz Lightyear is spiced with a hilarious dash of Latin flavour. The bitter, twisted-toy bad guy who initially appears friendly… a flashback to another plaything’s cruel abandonment… a desperate climactic chase in a setting that would dwarf even a full-grown human (in the last movie an airport, in this movie, with equal aptness, a trash-processing facility)... Maybe it is ticking boxes, but each tick comes with its own fresh twist. The latter, in particular, offers up a scene of such intense, exquisite end-of-the-line poignancy — also the scariest moment of the whole series — that it deserves comparison with Snow White’s terrified forest flight, or the shooting of Bambi’s mother. Without giving too much away, you could call it this trilogy’s Mount Doom sequence.
But hey, don’t worry, there’s still plenty of laughs. A prison-break movie structure is deftly constructed around the toys’ trapped-in-daycare predicament (“Sunnyside is a place of ruin and despair...” gravely intones Timothy Dalton’s thespianic lederhosen-wearing hedgehog, Mr. Pricklepants), leading to one supremely funny escape-plan montage — narrated by a Fisher-Price phone and starring a screeching, cymbal-crashing, mad-eye-popping monkey. Elsewhere we have new star Ken (Michael Keaton), shuffling stiffly around in fey poses and complaining that “no-one appreciates clothes here!”, while repeatedly insisting he’s not a girl’s toy.
Just as the action comes thick and fast, the wisecracks and visual gags are high-volume and high hit-rate. Combined with the kind of state-of-the-artistry we now take for granted with Pixar (interestingly restrained when it comes to the main characters, thus keeping consistency with the previous films), they ensure that every last frame counts, each a firework-burst of fine detail. In all likelihood, though, it won’t be the rendering of Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear’s plush puce fur or Hamm’s dry asides that will earn this Pixar its sure plaudits; it’ll be its powerful tenderness as a fond farewell to some of cinema’s best-drawn characters.
A kids’ movie for grown-ups. A grown-up movie for kids. Exactly what you’d expect — and hope for — from the latest, and we’re guessing final, Woody and Buzz adventure.