The geniuses at Pixar haven't necessarily improved upon the pinnacle of Toy Story 2 (1999), but more than ten years later they have effectively repeated its themes and provided a terrific and funny summer adventure, Toy Story 3. Andy (voiced by John Morris, who has provided Andy's voice in all three films) has continued to grow over the years, as boys will do, and is now ready for college. His mother has ordered him to clean out his room. Everything in it either goes with him to college, into the attic, or into the trash.
Through a series of misunderstandings, our favorite group of toys winds up donated to a daycare, where they believe Andy has cruelly dumped them. They receive a cheerful greeting from the avuncular huggy bear Lotso (voice by Ned Beatty). Unfortunately, it turns out that Lotso runs the place like a prison and our heroes are going to have to do some hard time in the horrible toddler ward, where they are colored on, drooled on, and shoved up tiny noses. Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), who has been been singled out to accompany Andy to college, is not among them. And so he attempts to rescue his old pals from this terrible place. What follows is a massively complicated, and ever-escalating escape attempt (with nods to classics like The Great Escape). Nothing is made easy for our friends, and they rarely get a break. Their ordeal culminates in an extraordinary sequence inside a giant trash disposal device. Of course, there's also a race against time; the toys must return home before Andy leaves for school in just a few days.
The great bonus of the Pixar chase movies is that the action is always extraordinarily clean and well conceived. (No lurching, shaky stuff.) Every twist and turn is clear and exciting and always makes logical and emotional sense; there's a reason the title contains the word "story." The journey through the trash machine is like a soap opera, with the toys checking on each other after each new wrinkle in the machine's horrible, grinding guts, and going back for those who happen to be stuck. As the ride ends just above an hellish inferno, with all the ground-up trash and our toys sliding helplessly, irrevocably toward it, they take a last look at each other, and merely clasp hands. No one says a word. It may be the most heartbreakingly powerful single image of the summer.
By now, all the toys have their own well-established personalities and relationships, and the movie wastes no time setting them up. Of course, there's Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen), Jessie (voiced by Joan Cusack), Mr. Potato Head (voiced by Don Rickles), Red (voiced by Wallace Shawn), Mrs. Potato Head (voiced by Estelle Harris), Hamm the piggy bank (voiced by John Ratzenberger), and the little Martians. They're as comfortable a gang as the one on Ratzenberger's old TV show "Cheers." We know their history and their bonds. Woody and Buzz especially have become such good buddies that they can even convey information to one another with just a glance.
As for the new characters, Woody briefly finds himself in the bedroom of little Bonnie (voiced by Emily Hahn), and in the small space of just a few beats, we meet a handful of delightful new faces. Timothy Dalton gets a solid laugh as Mr. Pricklepants, who takes great pride in performing a role in Bonnie's tea party game. (He's almost too good for his small role; does this mean another sequel? Or a spinoff?) Also look for a cameo by Hayao Miyazaki's Totoro, though only a stuffed animal and not a "real" toy.
Michael Keaton provides the hilarious voice of Ken, who works for the evil Lotso. He falls for Barbie (voiced by Jodi Benson), who has come along with our toys, as a refugee from Andy's sister's room. "It's as if we're made for each other!" Ken says. Keaton probably gets most of the laughs here, but it's a very balanced screenplay, written by a Pixar newbie, the Oscar winner Michael Arndt, of Little Miss Sunshine (2006). Director Lee Unkrich, Andrew Stanton and John Lasseter are credited in a story capacity. The last two Toy Story films had an army of writers, so it's amazing that the accomplished the same thing here with fewer cooks.
Overall, the production feels like a step back from such groundbreaking achievements as WALL-E (2008) and Up (2009), and it feels a bit desperate to dig back 11 years for sequel ideas, but the Pixar crew has never scrimped in quality. Even if they haven't created a masterpiece, they have created one heck of an enjoyable entertainment. (By the way, the new film is being shown in 3D, which really doesn't make one bit of difference.) Fortunately, the new feature does come with a masterful new short, their best in years, entitled Day & Night, which is so inventive that it's better left seen than described.