It's been 15 years since Pixar released the original Toy Story and by this point the studio doesn't need much more of an introduction. So we'll skip the plaudits and get right to what Lee Unkrich's Toy Story 3 represents for the studio—after a decade and a half of proving itself in every conceivable way, Pixar is finally ready to put its feet up and settle in.
Using Toy Story 3 to take that step seems both risky and natural. Disney never messed around with sequels to its animated films until 1990's thoroughly minor The Rescuers Down Under—notable only as the theatrical stopgap between The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast—but the concurrent rise of home video led to a deluge of cheapie follow-ups, diluting the brand shamelessly. (Since Pixar began their 11-for-11 run, Disney has put out 16 original films and no fewer than 45 franchise features, including such titles as Cinderella 3: A Twist in Time.) The one real exception? Toy Story 2, rescued by Pixar from Disney's intended straight-to-video release and turned into an even richer film than the original. Still, it's been a decade since then, and with sequels to Cars and Monsters, Inc. in the pipeline it makes sense that they'd use Toy Story's victory lap as a warm-up.
That's certainly all it feels like at first. Toy Story 3 gets off to a shakier start than any other Pixar movies, from a wistful home-video montage unfavorably indebted to Up's opening sucker punch to a repetitive first act in which Andy, now 17 and college-bound, is faced with deciding the fate of his toys. He settles on the attic, a destination Cowboy Woody approves ("We'll get to see those guys from the Christmas decorations! They're fun, right?"). But there's a series of mix-ups: The toys end up in the trash, then escape, then end up in a donations box, bound for Sunnyside Daycare Center. Following each ordeal all the toys, except loyal Woody, grouse about being abandoned, awkwardly overselling a point already covered thoroughly by Cowgirl Jessie in Toy Story 2. Andy's adulthood is a great premise, and the toys' curbside detour ends up serving the overall arc of the movie, but there are uncommon hints of mediocrity throughout the first half hour.
Then our jilted heroes arrive at Sunnyside, and we finally get a toy story. At first it seems like paradise, a plastic metropolis resolving the Andy dilemma with an unaging stream of youngsters; Sunnyside honcho and strawberry-scented plush bear Lotso Huggin (Ned Beatty) gives them the grand tour and the hard sell. Then all of Andy's toys—minus Woody and Andy's sister's Barbie doll, who shacks up with Lotso crony Ken (Michael Keaton) in his dream house—are escorted to the "Caterpillar Room," into which a group of very young, very fierce toddlers are soon released. The ensuing 90 seconds is 2010's best scene of horror so far.
As the reality of Sunnyside plays out, Toy Story 3 reveals itself: It's a fabulously kiddie-fied prison-break movie. From set-up to payoff the escape from Sunnyside is probably the finest hour of the Toy Story series, taking cues from Cool Hand Luke (to which it features an extended homage, setting up one of the film's best gags) and even Robert Bresson.
The cast has been extended to include a menagerie of extras that raided my own memories with only seconds of screen time. Even explicit brands like Barbie and the show-stealing Mr. Potato Head are chosen for their universality. To make a true classic, as they've done now at least six times (argue that one with your friends; they will all have different answers) you have to skim off the pop and leave only the culture. Toy Story 3 is a good jailbreak movie because it cares how jailbreak movies work, not just that we all know they exist.
Most importantly Toy Story 3 succeeds because Pixar has created a world deep enough that they can play around in it as long as they like, and because their continued enthusiasm for that world is precisely what's missing from most sequels; here, Pixar seems every bit as intent on pleasing themselves as the audience. And even if it is mostly a filmmaking exercise, front-loaded with more noticeable flaws than usual, it's still a pure pleasure to watch. In ceasing to try so hard, Pixar have proven themselves again.