Toy Story 3

 [Christianity Today Movies; June 18, 2010]

4 Stars

Cast: Tom Hanks (Woody), Tim Allen (Buzz), Joan Cusack (Jessie), Ned Beatty (Lotso), Don Rickles (Mr. Potato Head)

Toy Story 3 is as good as any movie Pixar Studios has made, and better than a few of them. But when you consistently achieve excellence, there’s this problem: people start expecting more. A merely excellent movie is not enough. Each one must be more suspenseful, surprising, original, hilarious, and emotionally satisfying than the last. Each success becomes a rack on which the next attempt is measured.

Since some of the characters in Toy Story 3 are returning from earlier films, the challenge to make each film more original than the last was more difficult. So, as I watched, I tried to imagine how I’d feel about this movie if I’d encountered it first among the Toy Story series. I’d be tempted to say it’s Pixar’s best film, I think—though when I recall The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Monsters, Inc., it’s a close call. Toy Story 3 is excellent, as usual, but we’ve seen some of this excellence before.

The film opens with a funny, exciting action sequence which introduces most of the toy friends. Cowboy hero Woody is trying to stop One-Eyed Bart (a.k.a. Mr. Potato Head) and Evil Dr. Porkchop (a piggy bank, but it’s “Mr. Evil Dr. Porkchop to you”) from sending a trainload of orphans (troll dolls) plummeting from a dynamited bridge. As terrific as this is, I was a little worried that Pixar had abandoned their human-scale storytelling for something more flashy. Never fear: this scene turns out to be in the imagination of their owner, Andy, about seven years old. (We’re watching him play on a videotape his mom is making, recalling the delightful movie-within-movie openings of Monsters, Inc and Up.)

But as Randy Newman gravel-trucks his way through the beloved Toy Story theme song, at the words, “As the years go by, our friendship will never die,” the music stops. It’s ten years later and Andy is going off to college. His mom tells him that his room has to be cleared out, and everything sorted into containers for college, the attic, or trash. When the toys hear this, they are distraught; cowgirl Jessie says bitterly, “I shoulda seen this coming. It’s Emily all over again.”

In Toy Story 2 Jessie told her story of being loved by a little girl, and then shoved under the bed and forgotten as that girl grew up. That forms the premise for one of the most extraordinary themes I’ve ever seen in a so-called children’s movie, that toys are supposed to keep on loving their owners even though their owners will tire of them. That’s a profound thought, even for adults, and one that arises, with variations, in many Pixar films.

The band of toys ends up neither in the trash nor the attic but at a day care center, where the toys are ruled by a deceptively cuddly bear named Lotso (short for Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear; “He smells like strawberries!”). The newbies are thrilled to see toys being actively played with, and Lotso tells them that when the kids get older and move on, new kids come in and take their place. They will always be played with, but they don’t have any particular owners. “No owners means no heartbreak,” he says.

However, Andy’s toys don’t end up in the room with the more-civilized older kids. They’re put in the Caterpillar Room, where toddlers leave the toys abused, defaced, and broken (recalling the first Toy Story), while the toys that are in the know shiver in hiding (recalling the early Pixar short, Tin Toy).

It’s no spoiler to say that the rest of the film is about how the toys try to escape. We’ve seen great escape or obstacle-course sequences in every Pixar film. There’s nothing stale in this one; even when you can guess what needs to happen next, you won’t be able guess how it happens. The dialogue is consistently ingenious, and the new characters (both toys and humans) are delightful and fully-formed. There’s a side story of Barbie and Ken meeting and falling in love (“It’s like we were made for each other!”), which is as hilarious as you’d expect, but it’s also organically part of the story and not extraneous fluff.

At one potentially perilous point, the tone turns suitably sober as well as genuinely suspenseful. There even comes a moment when the toys, believing there’s no hope, turn to each other with brave smiles, grasp each others’ hands, and accept what seems to be inevitable. It’s a long, quiet moment, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it in a so-called “children’s movie.” Usually the exciting moment-of-doom climax means only increasingly agitated music and choruses of “Oh no!” But leave it to Pixar to handle such a scene with surprising gravitas.

To say that some elements of Toy Story 3 are a bit familiar is not a complaint. There’s always room for variations on an excellent theme. It’s not like you’re going to see this movie only one time, after all. This is one more Pixar movie you’ll be glad to watch over and over again.

Rated G

Genre:  Family, Animation

Theater Release: June 18, 2010

Pixar Animation Studios

Directed by: Lee Unkrich

Runtime: 103 min.

Talk About It

1. When the toys hear that they’re going to be put away, they express different opinions. One says that their job is always to “be there for Andy,” no matter what he wants. Others emphasize their responsibility to each other, even if they are no longer with Andy: “The important thing is to stick together.” The toy soldiers declare that “We done our duty” and set off on their own. Is one of these opinions the “right” one? Why or why not?

2. Lotso sees his little-girl owner cuddling an identical Lotso. Does that mean she didn’t really love the “original” Lotso? If something exists as millions of copies, what does it mean to love a particular one?

3. One toy declares that living at the day care center means “We’re masters of our own fate.” Is this true? Why would he feel that way?

The Family Corner

Toy Story 3 is rated G, which according to the MPAA means it “contains nothing that would offend parents for viewing by their children.” There is one potty joke in the short, Day & Night, that comes before the feature. Nothing to object to in the movie itself, except that younger children may be frightened by some images. A windup monkey toy with bulging eyes and clapping cymbals, in particular, could be scary to little ones.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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