Smart, witty and emotional, ‘Toy Story 3′ continues Pixar’s amazing winning streak

When it comes to movies, three is not typically a magic number. And so a bit of trepidation was natural when approaching “Toy Story 3.” The previous two entries in the franchise are in the rarified air of masterpieces. “Toy Story 3″ has tough acts to follow.

If anyone can prove the skeptics wrong, however, it’s the intrepid bunch at Pixar. “Toy Story 3″ might not be as innovative or polished as its predecessors, but that hardly matters. The film is playful and smart, witty and heartfelt, and it’s provocative in ways you would never expect from a tale about children’s playthings.

The passage of time since the first “Toy Story” lends itself to a natural storyline. Andy (voiced by John Morris), the boy whose toys have been at the heart of the series, is grown and about to leave for college. That means his beloved menagerie ” Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), the Potato Heads (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris) and others ” have long since been relegated to a toy chest where they fret over their fate. Will they be tossed in the garbage? Stored in the attic for who-knows-how-long? Woody, Andy’s longtime favorite, is slated to accompany his owner to college, but the others face an uncertain future.

Through a series of mishaps, the gang winds up donated to a day-care center. What appears to be a toy’s paradise is actually a veritable prison lorded over by a folksy teddy bear (Ned Beatty). He dooms the new arrivals to a roomful of toddlers whose playtime makes mixed martial arts look like a tea party. In nods to “The Great Escape” and “Cool Hand Luke,” the picture charges into prison-break mode as our heroes defy villains that range from a cymbal-crashing monkey to a foppish Ken doll (Michael Keaton).

This is Pixar at its best, with classic storytelling and vivid characters punctuated by laughs, thrills and tears. Director Lee Unkrich (“Finding Nemo“) and screenwriter Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine“) move the franchise along without it seeming tiresome or forced. The previous films created a terrifically inventive universe, and the complexities of that world are further explored here. There is something tragic, even vampiric, about the plight of Woody and his fellow toys. They are things of permanence ” never getting older, impervious to all manner of injury ” whose very purpose hinges on the impermanence of youth and innocence. Subsequently, “Toy Story 3″ nuzzles such topics as mortality and abandonment.

If that sounds like a dour treatise on the human condition, don’t worry. Boasting Pixar’s customarily superb animation, this is crowd-pleasing filmmaking of the highest order. Some knockout bits include a trio of toys who fancy themselves an improvisational theater troupe and Mr. Potato Head reconstituted on a tortilla. Even the throwaway gags are brilliant; the way Ken pronounces “library” makes it apparent he’s been around tykes too long.

Pixar’s winning streak continues unabated. By the time “Toy Story 3″ concludes with a sentimental but affecting denouement, parents in the audience will want to reach over and hug their kids ” and then rush home to hug their kids’ toys. “Phil Bacharach

Phil Bacharach

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