Rated: G. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. 4 stars.
There may be a number in the title, but "Toy Story 3" is anything but "just" a sequel.
Sure, it picks up with Woody and Buzz 11 years since we last saw them, but the deservedly popular Disney/Pixar franchise has an impeccable record of appealing to both critics and fans, one they triumphantly uphold with this fun, fresh third installment that respects its audience — both young and old.
Part of the genius behind the "Toy Story" concept is its never-ending supply of potential characters. The original rivalry between the old-school cowboy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and the flashy, battery-powered Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) was delicious enough, but stroll down any toy aisle or yard sale and there's a plethora of gags and giggles to be had. Director/co-writer Lee Unkrich goes on a shopping spree, imbuing a whole new cast of dolls and gizmos with enough character and life to make the whole concept feel new again.
Woody and the rest of his toy chest family encounter these new characters when their owner Andy (still voiced by the now 25-year-old John Morris) heads off to college. Abandoned and dejected, the gang, which now includes Barbie (Jodi Benson), a castoff of Andy's sister, suddenly finds itself donated to a day care center.
When they meet the new crew of playthings and their seemingly easygoing leader Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear (nicknamed "Lotso" and voiced by the brilliant Ned Beatty), they think they've found paradise. But when the first horde of snotty, heavy-handed toddlers storm the playroom, paradise quickly turns to a den of darkness, with the despotic Lotso at the helm. Lotso's gang of flunkies, including well-groomed playboy Ken (Michael Keaton), quickly lay down the law, leaving Woody and his friends with no choice but to attempt a risky escape, hopefully to the safe confines of Andy's attic.
What follows is a series of adventures (some running just a few minutes too long) where our plastic and wooden friends frequently face potential doom. Many of these scenes are genuinely nerve-racking, even for a jaded grown-up, so those with more sensitive children should keep this in mind. But the story maintains an energetic, attention-grabbing pace and takes us to unexpected places at almost every turn.
Probably most unexpected is the film's darkly funny tone, which often veers into David Lynch-like territory. When the children go home, the day care center transforms into a house of hysterical horrors: a lurking, droopy-eyed giant baby as Lotso's goon and a shrieking cymbal-clashing guard monkey are so disturbingly funny that just one close-up elicits yet another stream of laughter from the audience. And an epic flashback sequence revealing Lotso's back story is simply superb.
The most surprising thing about "Toy Story 3" is its authentic — and effective — sentiment aimed at the adults in the audience. From the opening sequence of home videos showing a young Andy blissfully playing with his toys, to the teenager driving himself off to college, this film is tribute to the bittersweet farewell we all must give to our childhoods as we move on to new adventures. My advice? Bring a tissue.