As the intrepid plastic heroes of Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” approach their new home—a much dreaded daycare center to which they are being donated, as their owner Andy departs for college—one of them cries out in surprised delight, “Look, it’s nice! See, the door has a rainbow on it!” Of course, only in a children’s film would colorful decorations on a door act as a plausible predictor for what lies behind it. Disney movies always make sure to helpfully dress up characters and locales in accordance with their essential nature. When the toys are welcomed with open arms by the local population and meet Strawberry-scented leader Lotso (short for “Lots-o-Huggin’ Bear”, voiced brilliantly by Ned Beatty), the initial perception of the cheerfully named Sunnyside Day Care Center seems to be confirmed. But the genius of “Toy Story 3” is that it straddles the line between childlike simplicity and mature reality such that audiences—like the toys—are constantly being misled by its jovial, happy veneer. As the day care center is unmasked as a fascist police state ruled by the ostensibly wholesome Lotso, “Toy Story 3” is unmasked as a film that uses the conventions of children’s cinema to ponder adult questions, where the answers and characters do not fall into easily distinguishable boxes.
The toys find themselves at the day care center because their owner has outgrown them. The fiercely loyal Woody (Tom Hanks) argues that the toys ought to stick by 17-year-old Andy and go into storage until he might have need of them. The rest of the toys are less than enthused by this proposition, and, feeling abandoned by Andy, pack themselves into a box that is being donated to day care, hoping to be played with once more. Beneath the cartoon exterior of this debate is a profound question: what is the nature of a committed relationship, and just how far do its obligations extend? At its heart, this is the question that the movie sets out to answer.
Along the way, “Toy Story 3” offers witty dialogue, creative plotting, an evocative score, and the sparkling animation viewers have come to expect from Pixar, and especially from writers John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich (the team behind the prior “Toy Story” films, as well as “Finding Nemo” and “Monsters Inc.”). There are deft nods to pop culture and, less congruously, to John Locke (whose mantra, “authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force,” is channeled by none other than Barbie, voiced by Jodi Benson). Beyond the specifics, “Toy Story 3” also showcases all the cinematic qualities which have made Pixar such a successful critical and commercial juggernaut for over a decade.
Most notably, though, it boasts an all star vocal cast: leads Woody and Buzz Lightyear are voiced by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, supported by Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn and Michael Keaton, among others. Yet not a single billboard or trailer for “Toy Story 3” mentioned even one celebrity vocal actor. Animated features allow filmmakers to escape their actors’ previous work and avoid the persona and viewer expectations that a known actor normally brings to the table. Here, Tim Allen can play a hero, rather than a slapstick comedian, and Wallace M. Shawn ’65 can play a bashful dinosaur without anyone thinking about Vizzini and land wars in Asia. But overemphasize the actors—splashing their names on billboards or making their CGI counterparts match their facial expressions, as was done by Will Smith and Angelina Jolie in the Dreamworks misfire “Shark Tale”—and one risks bringing all that baggage back into play and hampering the freedom of the film to present truly original characters. Dispensing with physical presence—from star power to sex appeal—allows “Toy Story 3” to focus more on themes, and less on theatrics.
In this way, “Toy Story 3” is a grown-up’s film for kids. It doesn’t resort to winking at adults with double entendres or on-the-nose pop culture references like so many animated flicks, but instead engages them deeply in the subtext of the film, which, at its core, is about the bittersweet truth of growing up. Though kids will walk out of the theater excitedly repeating the movie’s jokes and plot points, their parents will have appreciated its deeper resonance.
—Staff writer Yair Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.