There can be few feature film productions companies as consistent as Pixar. Even their weakest of offerings – by popular consensus their 2006 release Cars – is, by the standards of the wider genre, a delightfully entertaining family film. Indeed, in attempting to analyse the latest offering from the Emeryville-based studio, one risks sounding like a broken record. For if there's anything wrong with Pixar's curious chemistry, critics and audiences alike have yet to identify it.
Instead, the argument isn't whether the latest Pixar release is any good – it's fairly safe to assume it is – but rather whether the latest Pixar release is their best. And that's an argument with no answer, for every person who's seen more than one Pixar film will have a different preference.
The most pertinent thing to report about Toy Story 3, then, is that it will find itself comfortably within the confines of that conversation for years to come. When Toy Story 2 followed the much-loved original in 1999 it ratcheted up the emotion, the energy and the inventive humor of the first and did what every good sequel must: it made the return journey worthwhile. Some eleven years later, Toy Story 3 does just the same, albeit in totally different ways, and in that strange contradiction delivers a film to enhance the experience of its two predecessors.
Some years have passed since we last saw Woody, Buzz and the gang, and as the film opens their beloved human master, Andy, is readying for a move to college. There's no place for kids' toys at his dorm, though, and it's not long before a garbage bag mix-up results in the toys being left on the sidewalk rather than stored in the attic.
From there they plot to donate themselves to a local daycare center, where the promise of ever-engaged children anxious to keep playing with them seems too good to resist. When they arrive they find their paradise, and meet a whole gang of new companions including the strawberry-scented patriarch of the group, a cuddly bear named Lotso. But, when stationed in a room of rampaging rugrats, they discover the totalitarian regime of Lotso's reign, and plot an escape back to Andy's house to live our their quiet retirement in his attic.
It's the logical next step for a series that has always hinted at their owner's growing up as being the specter hanging over its characters' heads. The toys' fear of obsolescence has been their greatest threat for fifteen years, and now Andy is not a boy but a young man, his move away from home will be their final watershed.
But while the film is unashamed of being even more emotionally punishing than its two predecessors, in true Pixar fashion there is plenty of smart humor and impressive adventuring to make the journey worthwhile. The new characters are drawn with all the attention to detail that has made Pixar's fifteen-year feature film career so remarkable, and every one is given a proper introduction.
Most enjoyable is the addition of a boyfriend for Barbie in the shape of metrosexual dreamboat Ken, and despite the obvious Mattel licensing deals that must have allowed his appearance, in Pixar's hands his slightly-camp hilarity is nothing but a welcome addition to the cast. Timothy Dalton sparks too as Mr. Pricklepants, a 'classically-trained' toy whose commitment to his craft is such that he prefers to stay immobile even when there are no humans in the room.
It was through the Toy Story franchise that the world was introduced to a company that would go on to change the world of animation, family film and very possibly cinema itself. Toy Story 3 firmly closes the chapter on this first era of Pixar's existence, but it does so in such a way that we can almost rest assured the next will be no less engaging.
If in singing the film's praises one can do no more than follow a familiar hymn sheet, so be it. Like their plastic space ranger, Pixar is a company prepared to reach infinity and beyond, and there's little sense arguing with such lofty ambition.