Ho-hum. Another summer, another Pixar feature, another masterpiece.

This time, though, the stakes were higher for the studio than they ever have been: for not only was there the pressure of continuing the run of magnificent CGI cartoons that have left Pixar arguably the most consistently excellent filmmaking body in history, there was also the pressure of paying due respect to what is probably the most beloved movie franchise of the last twenty years. And though the filmmakers couldn't have known it at the time, they also had to redeem what many of us have already taken to calling the worst summer movie season since it became reasonable to speak of "summer movie season".

Toy Story 3 is a success on all counts. It's no easy task to make a second sequel that works, nor to make a sequel eleven years later, and least of all a sequel to a story that had all the closure it could possibly want; and yet first-time solo director Lee Unkrich, and his co-writers - Pixar maven John Lasseter and Pixar newbie Michael Arndt - make it look as easy as breathing. Perhaps the most shocking thing about the new film is that it manages to retroactively leave the very definitive conclusion of Toy Story 2 looking for all the world like the middle of a trilogy; the new film builds upon its predecessors in such a natural way that you barely notice the artifice if you're looking for it.

The scenario: Andy Davis (John Morris) is 17 and heading to college in a week, leaving his much-diminshed collection of toys terrified of the future. Their de facto leader, the vintage cloth cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) is certain that everything is going to be fine, but a series of casual accidents leaves his cohorts on their way to Sunnyside Daycare, where they are taken under the wing of the kindly strawberry-scented plush Lots-o'-Huggin Bear, or more simply Lotso (Ned Beatty), who promises them a wonderful new life in which they'll never be away from young children again. Of course, Lotso fails to tell them that he's also the insane, autocratic dictator of Sunnyside's toys, with a '70s-era Ken doll (Michael Keaton) as his lieutenant. They manage to reprogram Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) to his factory-fresh - and thus, delusional - state, as Woody struggles to find a way to break back in to the daycare center to rescue everyone.

How simple it all looks when you just lay out the bare rudiments of its adventure narrative like that! yet the same could be said of Toy Story and Toy Story 2, so it does not surprise that Toy Story 3 is so infinitely richer than being just another film about toys being where they oughtn't, trying to get back to Andy safely. It continues hard upon the theme presented in the second film, about toy mortality; though I disagree with those who'd claim that it simply repeats that theme, at least once you stop to look at the specifics of the narrative. The one toy who was forced to make a conscious decision whether or not to "live forever" in Toy Story 2, Woody, is very conspicuously the one two who does not ever consider staying at Sunnyside; he has already undergone his crisis in that regard, and had, in a sense, prepared himself for death. In Toy Story 3, death has come: Andy is going to college, and everyone but Woody is going to be packed up in the attic, if they return to their owner's home.

The new film is not, therefore, a repetition of the story of the second, "will these toys do their duty to Andy, and face ultimate death": it's far more like a toy Divine Comedy, in which they are presented with images of Heaven - the "Butterfly Room" at Sunnyside, an eternal present in which nice children will always be there to play with them, and they will always be repaired to their best state - Purgatory - the "Caterpillar Room", a place of suffering that must be endured before the capricious god Lotso allows them to advance to a more peaceful state of being - and finally, Hell itself, the county dump, where a literal inferno awaits the toys. If Unkrich, Lasseter, and Arndt didn't consciously overlaid a particularly religious framework on their film, I'd be thunderstruck: Woody is constantly talking of what can only be called faith in his AndyGod, for he is the only one who has already faced down death and concluded that his duty to his master trumps all other concerns (this is the undercurrent of an otherwise strange moment where he briefly seems upset that Andy sold the Bo Peep lamp that Woody was in love with - but his religion matters more than his love, and so he must continue to preach the gospel of "we'll be there when Andy needs us"). Meanwhile, the other toys feel so heartbroken by Andy's seeming rejection of them (and even the reality of his "affection" for them means eternal life in an attic), that they in turn reject him, seeking out whatever fate they find, blindly. Thus, this is the story of walking towards death with the open question of what awaits there, for the faithful and the faithless alike - a toy Divine Comedy, I suggested, and I'll raise that by a toy Pilgrim's Progress. Setting aside all that it is about toys, Toy Story 3 is a surprisingly deep exploration of human concerns about the afterlife (including its potential non-existence), for a G-rated animated movie.

At the same time, most of the film lets that theme lie dormant, in favor of two other threads - which are, to be sure, entirely satisfying. The most obvious and fun is that Toy Story 3 is essential an animated prison break movie (including an explicit reference to Cool Hand Luke), and one of the best prison break movies since the genre's heyday in the 1960s, at that. Most of the long second act is taken up with the multi-pronged attempt to get "our" toys out of Sunnyside, with a fair degree of comic misadventure along the way, buoyed up not only by the fun that the filmmakers get to have with our established characters (Don Rickles's Mr. Potato Head gets one singularly extraordinary sequence that finds the animators at their most dementedly inspired - you'll know it when you see it), but at their delight in cranking out a huge number of new toys, voiced by a cluster of famous people including Timothy Dalton, Whoopi Goldberg, and Richard Kind, all of whom plainly took teeny-tiny roles just to say they'd been in a Toy Story picture. Meanwhile, there is some absolutely brilliant comedy surrounding Buzz and a mistakenly-triggered secondary audio program; it's probably the funniest business the character has been given in any of the three films. All of this is exactly the kind of straight-up, inventive kids' movie magic that Pixar made its bones with, before stumbling headlong into maturity with Finding Nemo in 2003.

Which brings me to the other thread: sheer, unadulterated nostalgia, and love for the Toy Story brand. Obviously, the Pixar folks understand what a hugely important part the films play in their legacy, and they do everything they can to do honor to that legacy; and yet Pixar in 2010 is not at all the same as Pixar in 1999, let alone 1995. Because they have stumbled across that maturity, while also advancing their craftsmanship leagues beyond what was possible 15 years ago.

Thus, a great deal of the film, especially in the first 30 minutes, is simply an exercise in revisiting this old world with new eyes. Make no mistake, Toy Story 3 gets off to an incredibly slow start (slow enough that for a while, I was terrified that all my worst fears were coming true): after a joyfully energetic opening scene that indulgently re-creates elements of the first two movies using the new scope and ambition that the studio has found in the last half-decade, the plot absolutely refuses to kick into high gear for a long time, instead just sort of hanging out and letting the audience re-acquaint itself with these characters, who look rather spiffy now that they've been polished up and and very subtly re-designed using artistic tools that weren't even a dream when Toy Story 2 was being rendered. To a certain degree, it's nostalgia just for nostalgia's sake; but Toy Story deserves it if anything does.

Then of course the adventure and comedy really ramp up, and though at times the film can't entirely be its own thing - the rule seems to have been, "when in doubt, ape Toy Story 2", especially in the mostly unsatisfying disposition of the villain at the end - for the most part it's a fun throwback to a more innocent age at Pixar, married to the incredibly sophisticated and beautiful animation of modern Pixar. And then the third act comes along, and all bets are off.

One of the sharpest criticisms about the studio is the complaint that too many of their films (especially Monsters, Inc., WALL·E, and Up) turn into shambling chase scenes at the end. Toy Story 3 turns this criticism right on its head: for it does, absolutely turn into a chase scene for most of the third act, and I defy anyone to tell me that it's not the most intense and amazing and wonderful part of the movie to that point - especially in a lengthy sequence that I am loathe to spoil, except that it is the moment at which all of the movie's disparate impulses coalesce: it is a tremendous chance to really take stock of what these characters mean over the course of three films, it is thrilling and terrifying entertainment, and it is the moment at which the characters finally and utterly accept the fact of their own death, in a scene that has a kind of indescribable power that is nothing like any other Pixar film, nothing like you'd ever expect to see in a children's movie of any stripe. This is followed, in due order, by rebirth - a Buddhist model rather than the Christian one of the earlier scenes, though Toy Story 3 is hardly a polemic for or against any spiritual system other than its own, which is that love and friendship will get you where you need to be, and nice people will end up someplace better than mean people. Yet it also allows the fact that there must be sacrifices made for friendship, and the final beat of the story, in which victory and loss sit next to each other comfortably and necessarily, is the perfect final note to a 15-year journey.

It goes through more than its share of rocky patches on the way, but that end redeems all in Toy Story 3: a divinely entertaining movie that ends by playing to just about every emotion a viewer could have. It is not, perhaps, as artistically ambitious as some of their films; but that would run counter to its spirit. This is, above all, about saying goodbye to wonderful characters; like Andy, we have one final chance to play with Woody and Buzz and the rest. As always with the Toy Story films, though it may speak to the depths of the human condition, the love of life, the fear of death, and the hope for the divine, it always comes back to the domestic, and the simple; once more, it's a paean to having good friends -, the friends we regain and the friends to whom we must bid farewell.

Reviews in this series
Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995)
Toy Story 2 (Lasseter with Brannon and Unkrich, 1999)
Toy Story 3 (Unkrich, 2010)
Toy Story 4 (Cooley, 2019)