“He’s all grown-up,” pronounces Buzz Lightyear. “Our mission is complete.” In Toy Story 3, Buzz, Woody, Slinky Dog, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head and all the other toys have to stand aside as their beloved owner, Andy, heads off to college. But the toys – especially the cowboy – just can’t quit Andy.
When we first met CGI Andy, the Everyboy from Toy Story 1, it was 1995 and Andy was six. Both the kid and the technology were in their latency period; now they have both come of age – Andy’s all grown up, Toy Story has gone 3-D, and Pixar is Big Man on Campus.
Toy Story 2 introduced the Velveteen Rabbit theme: What happens when a child outgrows you? Toy Story 3 arrives at the poignant inevitable – a child knowing its time to set aside childish things, a parent knowing the mission is complete. Toy Story 3 is probably the best in the series – and not just because I still have my mangled Snoopy from 1975 or because there are only 3285 days left until my daughter leaves for college.
The movie is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, full of sharp wit and broad slapstick and an uncanny evocation of the nature of child’s play. Yes, the franchise is marketing genius – ToysRUS of course has the new characters packaged and purchase-ready. But the film is also an ode to pretend-play itself and to the way a kid can incorporate disparate playthings and improvise – a piggy bank becomes Evil Dr. Pork-Chop, tiny trolls become a runaway train full of orphans. And the way kids can riff on each others’ ideas – if someone has an attack dog with built in force field, then someone else has a dinosaur who eats force field dogs.
At the movie’s start, the toys are inadvertently put in the wrong bag – they wind up as curb side trash instead of heading for attic storage. Even the toys know that this is all too reminiscent of “the yard sale dilemma of ’05.” But the film takes an original turn as Woody’s gang winds up in a donation box for a local day care. Thinking Andy had cast them aside, the toys seem to be in plaything heaven – a nursery school where a fresh lot of young children will be there every year to enjoy them. But soon playschool heaven becomes a playschool prison where a stuffed bear gone bad and a creepy demented monster of a baby doll use enhanced interrogation techniques to keep Andy’s toys in line.
It gets pretty dark – but in a hilarious, genre-spoofing way. While Shrek and that ilk are nearly manic in their mission to throw site gags and pop-culture references at adults, the adult-oriented humor in Toy Story is not all about jokes. The actual concept is funny. The giant lumbering baby doll – a dirty cast off toy with one eye broken and half-closed – is the thug for kingpin Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear, who is a strawberry-scented stuffie turned sadist warden. It’s terrifically macabre.
Like the Austin Powers series, you don’t need to be familiar with the genres being spoofed to enjoy it, but parents will be ultra-amused at the spy movie, horror movie and disaster movie tropes.
Also a tad over the kids’ head is the running joke of Ken’s swishiness. Voiced by Michael Keaton, Ken doll is a new addition to the Toy Story gang. Unlike the fictitiously vintage Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear who has no pop-culture history (but is now available for $59.50 at the Disney store – but who wants an evil pink stuffie?), Ken’s Nancy-boy nature has long been a part of our collective rumor-mill. And with Michael Arndt’s (he wrote Little Miss Sunshine) and John Lasseter’s (TS 1 and 2) screenplay, the subtext is toyed with perfectly.
But while kids are not going to get certain awesome jokes (Barbie to Ken: “nice ascot”), they will delight in Ken’s gleeful retro fashion show and the Mission Impossible escape artistry as the toys break out of daycare-jail. As in the earlier films (and even films like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, etc), the depiction of tiny people in a big world has much kid-appeal. While the macabre comedy probably won’t perturb the young (though Baby doll has a creepy “Chucky” vibe), one scene where the toys seem destined for the landfill’s scrap metal ovens is a bit scary.
As in all the Toy Story movies, a major theme is jealousy and favoritism. Which toy is getting all the attention? Which toy is getting kicked to the curb? Is it okay to outgrow and move on? How does it feel to be left? As kids navigate growing pains, playground politics, sibling rivalries, fickle friends and feuds with their BFFs, Toy Story allows them to witness it from a different perspective.
Before college, Andy has one last blast with his old friends as he hands them off to a new youngster. A parent can’t help be touched by the power of pretend, sensing that our mission will also be complete – all too soon.