Tim Allen, Tom Hanks and Joan Cusack return for the third <em>Toy Story</em> installment.

For anyone who stifles a yawn at the prospect of installment number three in the Toy Story franchise, or expects to go to the theater mainly as a half-bored escort for children, be duly alerted: Toy Story 3 is much more, and possibly the best installment yet, even surpassing the original. Looking at the so-far underwhelming sweep of American films released this year, Toy Story 3 clearly belongs in the upper ranks of 2010’s best.

How is that possible? It has something to do with the convergence of elements. Number three sports a whip-smart script that combines wild humor, pathos, and a clever storyline about the dark side of the toy kingdom, suddenly reminding us of Eastern European animation rather than Hollywood. (There is something uniquely creepy about evil in toys, objects on which we project only goodness and fun.) But the sinister aspect is counterbalanced by a sensitive narrative, touching on issues of giving up childish things and embracing life’s unfolding chapters. Of course, there is also the inherent benefit of advancing computer-animation technology. Pixar’s state of the animating art is vastly better and more seamless in 2010 than it was for 1995’s original.

Time has moved on, too, in the world of toys that come alive out of view and also in the imaginative brain of their suburban owner, Andy. In this model, he’s 17 and on the brink of heading off to college, contemplating the fate of his cast of toy characters. Existential brooding enters the picture early on, as the toy clan ponders its fate and impending obsolescence.

Familiar faces—well, voices—lend continuity to the ongoing tale, including Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, and Wallace Shawn, with newcomer Ned Beatty voicing the warm and fuzzy—turned villainous—Lotso. In this scenario, Lotso is the sadistic ringleader of a cabal of toys at the Sunnyside Daycare Center, a veritable toy prison. Another familiar “voice” in the film is Randy Newman’s emotionally synched musical score, complete with a new song. And it’s a ditty both catchy and wise, like the film itself.

Toy Story 3 pulls us deeply into its self-constructed world, which ranges from poignant observations about the flow of time and family, and also creepier dark business which may momentarily unsettle sensitive young viewers (they can be reassured that things work out for the best). You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll feel that admission was more than well spent.


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