It’s been 11 years since the last Toy Story installment and 15 years since the first movie. How could even a pop-cultural cynic blame Pixar if they were milking the franchise, churning out inferior product just to balance the books in this tough economy? (See how the mighty Shrek has fallen!) Fortunately, that’s not the way of Pixar. One of the best things about Pixar is their commitment to putting time, energy and (dare I say it?) heart into telling great stories and maintaining wonderful characters. Acknowledging the time that’s elapsed, toy-owner Andy is now grown up and getting ready to go away to college, having to decide what to do with his faithful plastic friends before he leaves. Does he dispose of them, or store them away in the attic? Any sentimentalist worth his salt knows that Pixar equates toys with childhood, innocence, and imagination, so they would never throw that away (especially if the toys were secretly alive!). Unfortunately circumstances lead the toys to be donated to a nearby daycare, where they discover what appears to be paradise for “unwanted” toys. At Sunnyside, they will have legions of young ones to play with them every day (and remember, play = love). They make new toy friends (including the long-pre-destined meeting of Barbie and Ken). Sadly, before long what looks like heaven soon turns to hell, and the only one who can save the day is our pull-string hero, Woody. Beneath the juvenile setting and day-glo sentiment, is a surprisingly exciting prison-escape movie. Ned Beatty also makes an excellent villain as Lotso-Hugs bear (think Benjamin Linus in pink fur). It’s not only very clever how the good toys eventually escape, but the filmmakers get to have a little fun as well, since toys are able to do things that normal human escapees really can’t.
While the familiar characters such as Buzz Lightyear, Mr. and Mrs. Potatohead, Hamm the piggy bank, Rex the Tyrannosaurus toy, and even the three-eyed alien guys have not changed much (except for a new and improved coat of 2010-era CGI), there are a few surprises (my favourite being Flamenco Buzz and Mr. Tortilla-Head — oops! sorry for the spoilers). The other strength of the Toy Story franchise is that you don’t have to really invest emotionally in each toy. Sure, they’re lovable and super-cute, but they’re not exactly complex (nor are their circumstances particularly relatable — I know I don’t spend days wondering what happened to my right eye, like a Potatohead). Except in this movie there is also a back story filled with some darker emotions: feelings of abandonment and deep-seated resentment that are a bit creepy for a Pixar movie. On top of that foundation, it still isn’t hard to tug at our heart strings using the brief moments of human story (like a coffee or long distance phone commerical might). Poor mom, her little boy’s going away. Poor boy, he has to give away his cherished toys, and so on. Nevertheless, the combination of characters, humour, well-planned story, top-notch visuals, and a dash of sentiment is the winning formula that keeps Pixar deserving to be the best maker of movies for kids of all ages. (4.5 out of 5)
P.S. The opening short movie was surprisingly artistic. There wasn’t even much of a plot. It involved two cartoon silhouettes (I guess that’s a way to describe them). One comes to represent Day and the other Night. They get into a humourous little rivalry. That’s all I’ll say.