The biggest joke about the "Toy Story" films is that they might be intended for children. Yes, they're animated. Yes, their plucky heroes are plastic. But the humor and the stories have always been about neuroses and egos and existential crises. As Woody the Cowboy might have said (but never actually did), "I play, therefore I am": Without Andy around to hear it, a dinosaur might well fall over in the playroom, but it wouldn't make a sound.
The valedictory air surrounding "Toy Story 3" - which opens Friday and is the first 3-D feature in the series - will likely be jerking more tears from parents than kids. Parents, after all, have more of an emotional investment in the films: "Toy Story" came out in 1995, the year the DVD was developed, and the movie became a fixture in electronic family libraries almost as quickly as the technology allowed. No one has been subjected to more viewings of "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" than the mothers and fathers of the first generation to grow up umbilically attached to a DVD console.
So it's ironic, maybe, that the central crisis of "TS3" is about Andy leaving for college. He was 6 in the original film, which makes him a bit of a late starter in real time. But as he's leaving home, the fate of his playroom hangs in the balance: Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris). Where will they go? To college? Only Woody gets chosen to accompany Andy to Stony Brook University, or wherever the lad is off to, and Woody's always been the self-appointed patriarch of the pink and the plastic: He can't let go without making sure everyone's OK, and everyone's not. Hence the drama - and for what's supposed to be a kids' movie, many intimations of mortality.
Where the toys are
What do the toys mean without Andy? That's been a constant question in the "Toy Story" canon, the quest for meaning among a group whose only purpose has been a little boy's amusement. With him gone, where will they go? What will they find? After some mix-ups, the gang goes to a day-care center, and everything seems fine - at first. Then, we start to see among certain playthings the effects of a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. What happens to toys that are abandoned, or replaced? It isn't pretty.
But there's always been a dark side to the series. In the original "Toy Story," Andy, his mom and his little sister are moving from their home - downsizing, it's strongly suggested. There's no father in sight, and if you read between the lines there's the strong suggestion that something unhappy has taken place. Of course, it's got to be better than what's going on next door at Sid's, where toys are crippled and misshapen and bad juju is at work. (In one throwaway shot, a scene that lasts just a moment, Woody tiptoes through the living room in Sid's house, where an unseen figure is slumped in an armchair, glued to the TV - Sid's father, we presume, sire of the evil little toy molester.)
In the second film - the real masterpiece of the three - Woody is faced with a different kind of quandary: Does he live out his days amid the rough-and-tumble of Andy's playroom, where he can do what toys are meant to do? Or does he choose hermetically sealed immortality, in a Japanese toy museum? It's pretty deep for 6-year-olds. Or even their parents.
There's certainly an upside to "Toy Story 3" - Barbie, for instance, whose routine as a tour guide through Al's Toy Barn was a hilarious part of "TS2." She's portrayed again by voice actress Jodi Benson, and this time she gets to meet Ken - voiced by "TS" newcomer Michael Keaton, who despite having a voice with no particular trademark gives a very funny performance. The jokes are plentiful and laugh-out-loud. And, again, they seem geared mostly for adults. As do some of the visuals: It's not giving anything away to say that, like the first two "Toy Stories," No. 3 climaxes with a hair-raising chase / rescue / battle / crescendo that contains a hellish vision and some of the series' better action animation.
But what "Toy Story 3" succumbs to and its predecessors didn't is the capacity for gooey sentiment inherent in the material: The all-but-abandoned toys, the potential joy they could still bring to children, the sadness in being literally kicked to the curb, or sent to the work farm (aka the day-care center). All exploited for maximum mawkishness. And there are too many pseudo-humans in this thing - as lovable as the toys have always been, their owners were always creepy. (Since "Avatar," the bar has been raised regarding the simulation of people, even 11-foot blue ones.)
But the too-much-of-everything we get in "Toy Story 3" just highlights the sense of Pixar pulling out the stops and giving the whole "TS" phenomenon a final, glitzy shove into the toy box. It'll be sad for kids. And worse for their parents.
Haven't heard their voices in a while
Jodi Benson's hilarious performance as Barbie in "Toy Story 3" confirms the wisdom of casting bona fide voice actors in animated films. But Hollywood prefers to cast the big roles with big names. And how big are the names in "TS3"? They've been bigger. Yes, Tom Hanks is still fairly well known, and Tim Allen has some lingering renown, but the voices - indelible at this point - are attached to actors whose fortunes have changed in the 15 years since the series began:
John Ratzenberger (Hamm, aka "the evil Dr. Pork Chop") - In the mid-'90s, Ratzenberger was a recognizable celebrity thanks to the just-canceled "Cheers"; since then he's worked mostly with his voice, appearing in most of the films made by "Toy Story's" studio, Pixar ("Ratatouille," "Finding Nemo," "Cars," "The Incredibles," "Monsters Inc.").
Jim Varney (Slinky Dog) - The character actor who had made a career out of the rustic imbecile Ernest ("Ernest Saves Christmas") died not long after "Toy Story 2" came out in 1999. His signature style is simulated in "TS3" by Blake Clark, but at this point it's a voice more recognizable as Slinky's than Varney's.
Estelle Harris (Mrs. Potato Head) - Thanks to TV reruns, Harris' shrieking yenta persona is still as recognizable as that of George Costanza's mother on "Seinfeld." But "Seinfeld" went off the air in 1998.
Don Rickles (Mr. Potato Head) - Ya hockey puck! Who doesn't know this guy? Well, unless you're a kid who watches "Letterman" or goes to Vegas on a regular basis, you might not be acquainted with comedy's Mr. Warmth, except as a plastic spud with removable parts.