With each successive film, Pixar Animation Studios pushes the limits of computer animation to create increasingly dazzling worlds of texture and light, but not until Toy Story 3 have those talents felt so squandered. Granted, the film isn't exactly terrible, and it does have moments of genuine suspense and terror, one of which is freighted with such dark and awful and adult emotions that the characters are left with no words for what they're experiencing. But it was in that riveting moment that I realized just how flat and uninvolving the rest of the film had been. What once felt natural now felt forced; what once seemed effortless now groaned under the weight of just a few too many characters, too many twists, too many missed opportunities. No film exists in a vacuum, and Toy Story 3 has the unfortunate task of being judged with the rest of Pixar's body of work, against which it feels too much like a half-baked spin-off.
The problem comes with the fact that the third film in the Toy Story franchise feels so obviously cobbled together from fragments of the first two films, only here they lack the gleam of inspiration and originality that brought the earlier films to life. For lack of a better word, the film often feels too pedestrian to have sprung from the creative well that's made some of the best animated films of all time. For instance, one montage, intended to be comical, shows a Ken doll (Michael Keaton) trying on a variety of outfits to the tune of Chic's "Le Freak." It's such a rote and predictable moment, especially considering how careful the earlier films were to create a real world that wasn't our own and that didn't rely on bad pop music stings to convey easy points. The same thing happens in the moment Ken and Barbie (Jodi Benson) lock eyes to the tune of Gary Wright's "Dream Weaver." On one hand, of course they do, but on the other, how could a Pixar film feel so predictable? The earlier Toy Story films relied on original compositions and used them to great effect; this film reaches for the easiest joke and runs with it. It's as if random scenes were shipped over from DreamWorks Animation and spliced into the final print. Too often the film manages to try too hard and be lazy at the same time, which results in a frantic and often unmoving experience.
The premise of the film is that Andy (John Morris), no longer a little boy, is heading off to college and will have to leave his toys behind. He initially opts to take Woody (Tom Hanks) to school as a keepsake and toss the other toys up in the attic, but the sack of toys is accidentally taken out to the curb to be thrown away. Only Woody and we the viewers know Andy was going to keep his old playthings, but that doesn't stop the other toys from ganging up on Woody and assuming that Andy meant to throw them out. This, by the way, is lifeless plotting in which misunderstandings are meant to carry the same weight as intentional acts by characters. It'd be one thing if Andy or his mom (Laurie Metcalf) tossed the toys but then reconsidered, or just donated them to charity in the first place before having a change of heart. But Andy clearly wanted to keep his toys, and the "Three's Company"-level misunderstanding that ensues just feels too broad, like it's just another excuse to let Hamm (John Ratzneberger) and Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) be their fickle, prickish selves. Pixar movies have ably demonstrated depth of character before; why start sliding back now?
After saving Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), and the rest of the toys from the trash heap, Woody and the gang are taken to a daycare and donated. Woody promptly escapes and attempts to return to Andy, only to wind up being taken in by a young girl from the daycare with a small toy collection of her own that warns Woody that the daycare group is actually run by a dictatorial leader intent on destroying newcomers. It's true: Over at the daycare, Buzz and the rest meet Lotso Huggin Bear (Ned Beatty), a superficially charming toy who turns out to have a wicked mean streak and a penchant for torturing toys that don't behave and pay their dues, which at the daycare means doing time in the preschool room and suffering at the hands of snot-filled toddlers. The main action of the film involves Woody's return to the daycare to break out his friends and their subsequent attempts to find freedom and get back to some kind of good life.
The best sequence of the film is the prolonged prison break, and it's here that director Lee Unkrich, who co-directed Toy Story 2 and edited the first two films and A Bug's Life, does his best work. The suspense and pacing are great, and the prolonged chase scene that eventually leads to some pretty dark places is relentless and often breathtaking. He also winds up getting the characters into one of the darker moments a family film has ever done, in which they believably confront not just their danger but their own mortality. It's a shocking sequence that totally earns its pathos and resolution, and it's only here that the film succeeds in achieving the nuance and resonance for which the studio is rightfully known.
The problem is that most of the rest of the film feels unconnected from this centerpiece. Staging The Great Escape with toys is a fun idea, but the script from Michael Arndt (from a story outlined by Pixar big guns John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter with Unkrich) jams in a few too many characters for any of the new faces to have even a fraction of the impact of the established cast. The new toys Woody meets at the little girl's house are wonderfully realized and given life by a fantastic group including Timothy Dalton, Bonnie Hunt, Kristen Schaal, and Jeff Garlin, but we're given so little time with them it's tragic. In a weird twist, the flipside is also true: The remaining central cast is smaller than it used to be, with the absence of characters like Bo Peep, Weezy, and Etch-a-Sketch explained expositionally as Woody laments the passage of time that brings garage sales and trips to the dump. It's a clunky way to back into a story that as a result never quite rings as true as the earlier ones.
Are there moments in Toy Story 3 that work? Yes, and when they hit, they're very good, which is what makes the film's overall mediocrity so much harder to take. Seeing glimpses of something bracing and riveting lurking beneath a sodden exterior is sadder than just watching a forgettable movie. Instead of a new chapter in an ongoing tale, the film mostly feels like a tired retread, one step too far for a story that once hit great heights. When Lotso's backstory is laid out for the viewer (narrated by a hilariously depressed clown toy named Chuckles), it's meant to highlight his abandonment issues and show the darker side of the loving bond between child and plaything. But for anyone who's seen Toy Story 2, the sequence feels like a copied and pasted version of the history of Jessie the Cowgirl, only stripped of the power and poignancy by its repetition. With their latest film, Pixar has indeed done something new: They've gone backward.