PLOT: With Andy going away to college, Woody and the gang face an uncertain future.
BOTTOM LINE: Scarier than you might expect, but still fun enough to be the best film of a so-far lackluster year.
CAST: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty.
No one said "Toy Story 3" would be the end of the beloved Disney-Pixar franchise about a group of toys with lives of their own. But a sense of closure gives the latest movie a surprising power and poignancy. It's sadder and scarier than its predecessors, but it also may be the most important chapter in the tale.
It opens by acknowledging the inevitable: Andy, the human owner of our toy heroes for the past 15 years, is growing up.
"We all knew this day was coming," the lanky cowboy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) says as Andy packs up for college. It looks like trash time for Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) and the gang, but instead, they're donated to Sunnyside Daycare - a potential paradise for love-starved toys.
Unfortunately, Sunnyside is actually more like the Georgia prison in "Cool Hand Luke," ruled with a smothering paw by Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty). Even without the 3-D, this would be a vivid and chilling place; one villain, the dead-eyed Big Baby doll, seems almost like a symbolic nightmare.
John Lasseter, the franchise's creative force, hands the reins to director Lee Unkrich (a Pixar collaborator making his solo debut) and writer Michael Arndt ("Little Miss Sunshine"). As a result, the zippy humor (like a metrosexual Ken doll voiced by Michael Keaton) takes a backseat to moments of almost overwhelming emotion: abandonment, abuse, brushes with death.
The payoff comes with the film's bittersweet denouement; it's as beautifully written and illustrated as any children's book. As with many Pixar films, "Toy Story 3" may resonate the strongest with those who left childhood long ago.
Back Story: Toy tale told with abandon
Director Lee Unkrich and his Pixar team took four years to bring the third and final chapter in the "Toy Story" saga to the screen, 15 years after "Toy Story" made Pixar a brand name in feature animation and 11 years after "Toy Story 2." That distance, Unkrich says, let them get away with the film's boldest touches, in story and in tone.
"We made fundamental decisions - to set the film at a time when the little boy who owns the toys, Andy, is going off to college. He's outgrown the toys," says Unkrich, who codirected "Toy Story 2," "Finding Nemo" and "Monsters, Inc."
That took the story, says Unkrich, who's one of the writers credited on the script, into those abandonment issues only hinted at in "Toy Story 2." "Try to think of what the worst fear of a toy might be. That led us to creating a situation that put the toys in that ultimate peril.
"Toys often get lost, and then can be found. They get broken, but they can be fixed. But if the child that loved you has outgrown you, you're thrown away. A toy faced with that ultimate option is going to take his life into his own hands. That drove our story."