Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3 is as good as any movie Pixar Studios has made, and better than a few of them. But when you consistently achieve excellence, there's this problem: people start expecting more. A merely excellent movie is not enough. Each one must be more suspenseful, surprising, original, hilarious, and emotionally satisfying than the last. Each success becomes a rack on which the next attempt is measured.
Since some of the characters in Toy Story 3 are returning from earlier films, the challenge to make each film more original than the last was more difficult. So, as I watched, I tried to imagine how I'd feel about this movie if I'd encountered it first among the Toy Story series. I'd be tempted to say it's Pixar's best film, I think—though when I recall The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Monsters, Inc., it's a close call. Toy Story 3 is excellent, as usual, but we've seen some of this excellence before.
The film opens with a funny, exciting action sequence which introduces most of the toy friends. Cowboy hero Woody is trying to stop One-Eyed Bart (a.k.a. Mr. Potato Head) and Evil Dr. Porkchop (a piggy bank, but it's "Mr. Evil Dr. Porkchop to you") from sending a trainload of orphans (troll dolls) plummeting from a dynamited bridge. As terrific as this is, I was a little worried that Pixar had abandoned their human-scale storytelling for something more flashy. Never fear: this scene turns out to be in the imagination of their owner, Andy, about seven years old. (We're watching him play on a videotape his mom is making, recalling the delightful movie-within-movie openings of Monsters, Inc and Up.)
But as Randy Newman gravel-trucks his way through the beloved Toy Story theme song, at the words, "As the years go by, our friendship will never die," the music stops. It's ten years later and Andy is going off to college. His mom tells him that his room has to be cleared out, and everything sorted into containers for college, the attic, or trash. When the toys hear this, they are distraught; cowgirl Jessie says bitterly, "I shoulda seen this coming. It's Emily all over again."
In Toy Story 2 Jessie told her story of being loved by a little girl, and then shoved under the bed and forgotten as that girl grew up. That forms the premise for one of the most extraordinary themes I've ever seen in a (supposedly) children's movie, that toys are supposed to keep on loving their owners even though their owners will tire of them. That's a profound thought, even for adults, and one that arises, with variations, in many Pixar films.
The band of toys ends up neither in the trash nor the attic but at a day care center, where the toys are ruled by a deceptively cuddly bear named Lotso (short for Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear; "He smells like strawberries!"). The newbies are thrilled to see toys being actively played with, and Lotso tells them that when the kids get older and move on, new kids come in and take their place. They will always be played with, but they don't have any particular owners. "No owners means no heartbreak," he says.