In Toy Story 3, the wizards at Pixar Animation Studios dust off their most iconic characters for a spirited, playful rumpus. The movie has a noticeably irreverent energy, as if the filmmakers had decided to indulge themselves after cranking out so many masterpieces (Ratatouille, Wall*E, Up) and make something purely for sheer fun.
And what great fun it is! Eleven years after Toy Story 2, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and the rest of Andy's beloved toys are fretting about the boy's having grown up. Andy, preparing to leave for college, is cleaning out his room. Will his childhood playthings get stored in the attic to collect dust? Will they be put out on the curb with the rest of the trash?
The story hook of Toy Story 3, co-written by Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine), is that Woody, Buzz and the rest wind up being donated to a day-care center, where manic toddlers smash them against walls and find out how far they'll stretch and bend. The concept is ingenious - a playground as torture chamber - and the movie essentially becomes a prison-break picture complete with an evil warden, a pink teddy bear (Ned Beatty) who isn't as kind as he seems.
Toy Story 3, which was directed by Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo), introduces several other new characters, including an amusingly vain Ken (Michael Keaton) who seduces Barbie (Jodi Benson) with his extensive wardrobe, and a beat-up baby doll with a droopy eye that the movie occasionally uses to strike a note of fun, cartoonish horror (new territory for Pixar). A surprising darkness lurks beneath the bright colors and vivid 3D animation - this is really a story about aging and death - although the subtexts are subtle, and young viewers won't be disturbed.
This is also the most hyperactive of all of Pixar's films: The entire second half is essentially one long action setpiece that keeps raising the cliffhanger stakes, like an Indiana Jones picture. And the movie also has a taste for absurdist humor, such as a long, funny scene in which Buzz's inner machinery is reset to Spanish. That sequence, like so much of Toy Story 3, is self-indulgent but irresistible - a loving tribute to characters who have become engrained in the popular culture as deeply as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny once did.
And the movie saves its biggest wallop for the last scene, a surprisingly moving depiction of the transition from childhood to young adulthood that will put a lump in the throat of many grown-up viewers. Even at their most playful, the folks at Pixar know how to give any story emotional gravity and weight. Toy Story 3 is a worthy and delirious final chapter to this hallowed animation franchise.
Toy Story 3 (***1/2 out of ****) opens in South Florida on Friday June 18.