Toy Story 3

Green lightThe whiz kids at Pixar Studios continue a stellar strike record (13 good titles, no bad) with Toy Story 3, the third and final instalment in a trilogy of films that take the concept of personification to delightfully literal extremes, capturing the life, personalities and even politics of toys that come alive when humans aren’t watching.

By now general audiences are familiar with Sheriff “reach for the sky” Woody and Buzz “to infinity and beyond” Lightyear, the two favourite toys of a young boy named Andy, but what they aren’t likely to see coming is a third cinematic outing that not only expands the stories of the two personable playthings and their pals but does so – strange though this may sound – in the context of a prison escape drama.

Woody, Buzz and their motley gang of tender-hearted thingamajigs find themselves relocated to the Sundale Daycare Centre, a place that seems at first like a toy utopia of smiles, rainbows and cuddles but turns out to be a hellish haven for rambunctious little shits. Instead of being tenderly lulled into playtime retirement the toys discover Sundale is their Guantanamo Bay equivalent – a place of unspeakable horrors; a goo ga gulag.

And so the breakout begins. Having separated himself from the group in an act of pigheaded loyalty for Andy, Woody is cast as the lead character in The Great Escape meets, well, Toy Story, aka the Sundale Daycare Redemption.

In a narrative sense Toy Story 3 is the most innovative of the trilogy: there are flashbacks, flash forwards, psychic Mrs. Potatohead visions, parallels to other films genres and a high octane, dazzlingly anachronistic opening scene featuring a steam engine train, a spaceship, cowboys, force fields, trolls, barrels of monkeys and more. The Toy Story movies are sprayed with pop culture detritus, and director Lee Unkich delights in the task of repackaging old things with new life, in turn creating a sense that this film – like its two predecessors – is tapping into a collective childhood.

Time and change are reoccurring themes in the Toy Story movies; arguably no more so than in the third instalment. The story begins in Andy’s childhood but fast forwards: he is now preparing to leave home for college. The toys have long been relegated to a trunk in Andy’s bedroom and are desperate to be held. Buster the dog is old, fat and tired. In the first instalment Woody was an old toy scared that Andy’s new whiz bang acquisiton (Buzz Lightyear) might replace him but now everybody is a relic, a has-been, a tired old play thing, their hopes now pinned on the poignant dream that one day Andy will have his own child who will want to play with them.

While childhood may in some mystical sense be considered never-ending, viewers understand that material objects break down (‘specially crappy goods made in China) and that all toys have a use by date. Puff the Magic Dragon will inevitably slink back into his cave, fire breath extinguished, magic exhausted, tail between his legs, to grudgingly embrace a lonely death, his vacant mind warmed only by memories of the good old days. Toy Story 3 is about toys sensing that dark horizon and fighting to delay the inevitable, in a similar way people aspire to avoid the twin inevitabilities of human existence: death and taxes.

It’s no coincidence that Toy Story 3 inspires such readings. See the film and it is hard, if not impossible, to write it off as another ordinary trip to the movies or – worse – simply another well-funded cash cow for multiplex audiences to seek the teat of. It has reportedly reduced grown men to blubbery messes, and it isn’t difficult to believe the veracity of such stories.

These days audiences have come to expect eye boggling animation, our aesthetic standards raised to the point at which it has become almost redundant for a film reviewer to point out that Toy Story 3 looks, well, great. But we’ve never come to expect such a rich emotional core from mainstream animation or mainstream movies in general, and this is where Unkich and his crew spectacularly deliver. The fact that the faces at the fore of Toy Story 3, the salespeople, if you like, flogging such profound storytelling gravity are toys, makes the experience that much more memorable. Make no mistake: this is personification, and then some.

Toy Story 3’s Australian theatrical release date: June 24, 2010.