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‘Toy Story 3’ a Worthy Addition to the Pixar Oeuvre

Has Pixar set the bar too high? There’s nothing really wrong with Toy Story 3 – on the contrary, there’s so much right that it would be tempting to overlook its shortcomings altogether. But we get paid for full-service reviews, so it is with slight hesitation that I applaud the conclusion of a memorable trilogy.

Why the misgiving? Everything would appear to be in place. Pixar once again has created a spectacle unlike any other, unsurpassed in its visual brilliance and in the richness of detail evident in its characters and the world they inhabit. It is a movie that demands repeat viewings, as the intricacies of its artwork can’t be appreciated fully in a single sitting.

The movie does not want for humor – the sight gags are mostly sharp, and the wordplay, which rarely condescends to the younger members of its audience, is sophisticated and uncompromising. Toy Story 3 doesn’t aim over our heads, but manages to slip in enough fastballs to keep us on our toes.

The problem, though, is the pacing. Things start promisingly enough, as young Andy, now grown and heading to college, prepares to part with his once-precious toys. That doesn’t sit well with Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), but their loyalty is unwavering. They are Andy’s BFFs, and no amount of distance, emotional or physical, will change that.

Once he leaves, the stage is set for a different calamity. Shipped to a daycare center where playtime proves a full-contact sport, the core cast of toys, along with new addition Barbie (Jodi Benson, who voiced Ariel in The Little Mermaid), finds the adjustment bumpy at best. Woody, meanwhile, fights long odds to find Andy before he leaves for college.

What follows is where the movie, for all its winsome invention, gets sidetracked into a series of great escapes and daredevil heroics. Nobody’s rooting against the ever-purposeful Woody, who embarks on a frenzied quest after once again losing the confidence of his inner circle. But the climaxes never seem to stop.

The result is a roller-coaster ride of high-wire stunts (which look great) and jokes that range from the inspired (a thespian hedgehog over-earnestly reciting Shakespeare, brilliantly voiced by Toy Story newcomer Timothy Dalton) to the distressingly obvious (an effeminate Ken doll, voiced by Michael Keaton, showing off his fancy duds). The most successful of its inventions is Ned Beatty’s mercurial bear, Lotso, whose sad story is rooted in abandonment and the pain of rejection.

The problem isn’t that the jokes fall flat, though some seem self-indulgent. It’s that the movie loses its emotional center. The best Pixar movies – WALL*E (2008) and Toy Story 2 (1999), for instance – appeal to our eyes and minds, but make an even more compelling bid for our hearts. Toy Story 3 loses that appeal just a bit too long, as it threatens to transform into nothing more than an exceedingly clever caper.

When director Lee Unkrich reestablishes that emotional connection, with a desperate, achingly beautiful finale that speaks not only to Buzz and Woody’s fear of change, but also, possibly, to our own voyage into an uncertain future, it hits hard. The movie’s coda recalls everything that made Toy Story one of America’s most beloved movie franchises, and articulates it with moving clarity. In many theaters, tears will be shed.

And why not? It’s been an exhilarating ride – a trite sentiment, perhaps, but applicable to the trilogy that introduced us to Buzz, Woody and Wallace Shawn’s irrepressible Rex, as well as to the cerebral juggernaut that Pixar has become. To Toy Story 3, I raise my glass. You’ll pardon me, though, if it’s only three-quarters full.