It’s happened. It’s finally happened.

“Toy Story 3”

At Quality 16 and Rave
Disney

We were five when Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear first materialized onto the crackling celluloid screen of our childhoods, and nine when we realized how quickly, in a heartbeat, they could be taken away from us. We are now 20.

And Pixar knows it. In what could be considered the smartest marketing decision of the decade, the company spent the brunt of April on a nationwide college campus tour, screening an abridged, “cliffhanger” version of its newest jewel, “Toy Story 3.” Because, although in some small way the film might be an opportunity for society’s newly-minted children to traverse to infinity and beyond, we all know that in a larger sense, this one was made for us.

At 17, Andy is all grown up and leaving for college. As he begins the interminable task of stuffing his life into hundreds of cardboard boxes, he pauses at his toy chest, glancing into the plastic, immovable eyes of his old friends Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Bullseye, Hamm, Rex and the rest of the gang. From this moment, he faces the decision that every young adult must make. Where do they all go from here: to college, in the attic or into the trash?

And just like that, we’re back with our dusty old friends as if it were yesterday. But somehow, just as we’ve changed, they’ve changed. The first thing we notice about them, these toys that we cherished like superheroes, is that they’ve become disposable. Their voices sound wearied and desperate as they creakily move around in their own skins for the first time in eleven years. Their hair has become scribbled with paint drips, their glass shattered by grabby little toddlers. They are, in a word, vulnerable.

Following a series of misunderstandings, the toys find themselves trapped inside the Sunnyside Daycare Center, an ominous prison ruled with an iron fist by the strawberry-scented Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty, “Superman”) and the metrosexual, Michael Keaton-voiced Ken doll. In a well-constructed caper sequence with tension rivaling Steve McQueen’s “The Great Escape,” the gang embarks on an exhilarating breakout from Sunnyside.

Once again, Pixar proves itself to be the master of storytelling, maintaining its agile grip on narrative structure and raw emotion.

“Toy Story 3” is romantic, it’s hilarious and it’s suspenseful. A reprogrammed Buzz, in full-on Latin lover mode, ravishes cowgirl Jessie in a passionate tango. Mr. Potato Head, with his features shakily splayed onto a flour tortilla, partakes in a rather ugly battle with a hungry bird. Watching the security cameras with bated breath, Woody and Slinky edge closer and closer to the cymbal-wielding monkey guard.

At this point, it would be appropriate to note the film’s incredible, hyper-kinetic, jaw-dropping (etc.) animation sequences, but who are we kidding? “Toy Story 3” is so past the point of children’s territory, we forget altogether that it’s an animated film. What’s more, “Toy Story 3” is tragic: Upon a dizzyingly steep drop into the roaring incinerator, the toys frantically scramble through the garbage heap, searching for scrap pieces of metal. It’s tender: Staring straight into the inferno of death, they realize that the only thing they can do is to hold onto each other. It’s heartwrenching: In the last 15-minute sequence, Andy plays with his old friends for the very last time. Like “Finding Nemo” or “The Incredibles,” “Toy Story 3” is about family. Like “Wall-E,” it’s about mass commercialism. And most importantly, it’s about us.

Somehow, Pixar manages to take all the emotions associated with growing up and helps us come to that moment of realization that there’s a part of us that doesn’t want to be left behind. Back then, our toys were our superheroes not because they were shiny or new or equipped with cool gadgets, but because they loved us unconditionally. And as for us, if we would only reciprocate that love for a little while, circling back into childhood for that one brief second, that would be enough for them.

Damn you, Randy Newman. Damn you, Pixar. You’ve officially made the most exquisite film of the year, a stellar encapsulation of abandonment, love, loss and rebirth – all told through plastic figurines. There’s a reason why the studio’s collective trophy cabinet is studded with naked gold men: This company is capable of grabbing onto our hearts and yanking the strings in just the right way. Already there’s a whisper, just a whisper that Pixar might take the big prize home with them on Oscar night. Although it seems unlikely for that event to ever happen, there’s not a movie that would deserve it more.

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