Like an old friend returning home slightly worn but undeniably vibrant, Toy Story 3 reminds us why the toys of Andy’s Room captured our imaginations in the first place. It’s been over a decade since Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and the rest of the gang graced the silver screen, and director Lee Unkrich rightly constructs the entire narrative around the importance of passing time. Unkrich and his Pixar production team begin Toy Story 3 with a brilliant display of fantastical exuberance, reconstructing the opening sequence of the first film through the lens of an expanding big-budget imagination, exploring the fluid world these toys create for a young boy expressing himself with dreamlike irreverence. But this huge spectacle of force-field dogs, attacking dinosaurs, and Western iconography can’t last forever, and the mosaic of adventure cuts back to a videotaped recording of young Andy playing out the scene in his room. It’s all a distant memory, and Toy Story 3 becomes a film about transition and change within this age-specific landscape.
Andy, now 17 and on the cusp of a college departure, comes to a crossroads regarding his remaining faithful toys. Will it be the attic, donation, or the dreaded trash. This set-up spins Woody’s brood into another epic adventure outside the confines of their long-familiar ordinary world, into the depths of a potentially rotten day-care center run by a strawberry-scented pink bear named Lotso (voiced by Ned Beatty). Loyalties are divided, expectations destroyed, and family dynamics tested throughout the escape-infused journey. Unkrich picks up where previous director John Lasseter left off, seamlessly infusing slapstick comedy and daring action aesthetics into the charming interactions between the toys. If Toy Story 3 seems choppy at times it’s only because the story calls for a certain amount of narrative uncertainty, a scattered sense of place that fits beautifully with the separation anxiety pumping the film’s thematic heart.
Hoards of new toys become the thriving fabric connecting Toy Story 3, including the hilarious costume asides between Barbie (Jodi Benson) and Ken (Michael Keaton), the improvisational monologues of Shakespearean Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), and a gigantic baby doll acting as muscle for the film’s heavy. The Toy Story franchise has always been about the different worlds just beyond the window, the new perspectives necessary to evolving in a place of constant worry, so these additions lend a necessary depth to the expanding universe. Unkrich uses these new experiences/characters to muse on themes of self worth, purpose, loyalty, and acceptance within this truly bustling locale. Once again, Woody and Buzz must come to grips with their role as leaders, but also as crucial distant memories for a grownup Andy. This dynamic gives Toy Story 3 a layered perspective on each relationship, providing a deep melancholy resting alongside the joy of discovery. No matter your age or status, these toys will always be a reference point for wonder, and watching each character come to this catharsis is a thing of beauty.
In terms of genre, Toy Story 3 comes closest in spirit and soul to the Prison film, matching perfectly with the characters’ fear of entrapment and uselessness. But Unkrich’s film sets itself apart from its predecessors by easing into moments of transition, focusing on the emotional elements of change rather than actual plot points. Even during its darkest moments, there’s never a real danger of physical death, just an impending doom of isolation and alienation. The film rightfully sees this as a natural process for every toy, and heroes and villains alike diverge depending on their reaction to these defining moments. The impressive final action sequence at the local landfill represents this wonderfully, pitting honor and virtue against indifference and hatred in the midst of a massive vision of communal waste. If this trilogy has taught us anything, it’s that every object deserves the opportunity to maximize their potential and avoid becoming just another throwaway item.
Yet Toy Story 3 doesn’t gain full resonance until the final sequence of transformation, when the passage of objects from one toy-box general to another becomes a deeply moving leap of faith. All the plot points, chase sequences, and cute humor lead to this one moment of pure adolescent bliss, a fleeting connection between two devotees respecting their love for play despite a huge age gap. This ending shows a deep seeded desire to rediscover the jubilee of childhood, but also a very necessary understanding that momentum must carry every kid-at-heart into adulthood. Boys and girls inevitably grow up, but their life-long inanimate friends will always be there to mirror their unique, special glimmer of a child-at-play. And these reflections speak volumes.