Toy Story 3 may fill you with nostalgia — nostalgia for a time when kids’ movies were about youth and whimsy rather than aging and being forgotten.
Although the third episode in the Disney-Pixar trilogy will please kids (it also has some fairly scary sequences and a really mean teddy bear) and is frequently a lot of fun, it is also suffused with a melancholy air that at times seems excessively dark. Like Shrek Forever After, which is about Shrek’s wish to be free of domestic boredom, its point of view seems more aligned with Prozac-popping adults than with mischievous children.
Now that it’s been 11 years since Toy Story 2, the toys’ owner Andy is heading off to college, leaving Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and their pals wondering what their next move should be. They decide that living in the attic is not a bad option (though Woody believes he will be the one toy heading off to college with Andy) and spend much of the film trying to get there.
Aching for a chance to be left alone to rot seems an odd goal to power the plot, but the toys’ other options are to be thrown into the trash or to accept adoption by a new set of kids — at a day care center called Sunnyside where everyone is at first made to feel welcome by the aged, wise pink teddy bear (Ned Beatty) who is in charge of the toys.
There is an uncomfortable parallel between what the toys are going through and what senior citizens experience — no one really wants them anymore and they find themselves nudged into a bright, clean new facility seemingly designed especially for them. Except their loved ones gradually turn into strangers. When Woody says, “I’m callin’ it, guys — we’re closing up shop,” it effectively means he’s accepting retirement — or worse. For a toy, not to be played with by a child anymore seems tantamount to death.
Yet the toys are resolved to make the best of the situation until it turns out that the teddy bear is a ruthless tyrant and that he has welcomed the newbies to daycare because he needs victims. The center has a special room for toddlers who scamper around madly dunking the toys in paint and treating them roughly. The toys resolve to escape this situation and make their way back to Andy’s place — because, yes, they believe they’ll be better off in Andy’s attic than being played with by small children. I repeat: this movie is odd.
The teddy bear makes the gang his prisoners, locking them up in cages patrolled by menacing security forces including a cymbals-clashing monkey and an authoritarian Ken doll (Michael Keaton) who keeps getting distracted by Barbie (Jodi Benson), mainly because he wants to show her his dream house and its roomful of glitter-tuxedos and disco hot pants. Meanwhile, the teddy bear figures out how to reprogram Buzz to make him his prison warden.
Seeing Buzz turn on his old friends is more disturbing than funny, as is the hint that those who cross the teddy bear get tortured (“they broke me,” says one terrified toy), and even the teddy bear’s villainy turns out to have a sad backstory that is very much in tune with the minor key that so much of the script is written in.
Still, there is a thrilling climax in which the toys try to avoid getting made into landfill, and the playfulness of the first two films occasionally sparkles as brightly as before. The introduction of the Ken-and-Barbie scenes is probably the sharpest idea the writers have come up with, although even this storyline is a little problematic: the many jokes that hint that Ken is gay (he even writes like a girl) may raise questions from your kids that you aren’t necessarily ready to answer.
It might have been wiser (and funnier) for the movie to flip over the Ken-and-Barbie stereotypes: the single funniest joke is that Barbie, out of nowhere, shares with us her political philosophy: “Authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force.” It’s too bad that this line is a one-off. Because Brainiac Barbie could have been a hilarious character.