When Pixar released its first computer-animated feature 15 years ago - the modestly titled Toy Story - it shook the world of movie cartooning to its core. Here was this vivid, color-saturated, dimensional piece of animation. The contrast between its brilliant, textured digital images and the tried-and-true 'toons audiences were accustomed to was profound. (That year's traditionally drawn entries: A Goofy Movie and Pocahontas.)
Toy Story went on to earn kabillions, and made Pixar a household brand.
And now, after 10 hugely successful and innovative films (including Toy Story 2 in 1999), the studio has brought astro hero Buzz Lightyear, pull-string cowboy Woody, and their gabby gang of toy pals back for another round.
And Pixar wants us to pay premium prices to watch 'em with 3-D glasses on.
It kind of defeats the purpose. CG-animation technology has gone into hyper-drive over the last 15 years - the images are more dimensional, more detailed, more alive. Donning those black plastic stereoscopic glasses may enhance the visual experience here and there, but more often it detracts: The tinted lenses rob the film of its brightness, and even the illusion of depth becomes less satisfying. Disney-Pixar rereleased Toy Stories 1 and 2 in 3-D last year to prep audiences for Toy Story 3 - and the added gimmick felt like just that, a gimmick.
As for the second sequel - 3-D or 2-D - it may not have the emotional resonance of its precursors, but it certainly dazzles: When Woody clambers onto a rooftop, framed by leaves and sky, it's an exhilarating cinematic experience, and the new character Lotso (voiced by Ned Beatty), a strawberry-scented plush toy bear, has "fur" that's slightly grimed from years of use, and abuse, in a day-care center. The mix of photorealism and playful design elements is beyond deft.
And speaking of that day-care center, it's called Sunnyside; one of its longtime toy residents describes it as "a place of ruin and despair." With Andy, Buzz and Woody's no-longer-a-kid owner, packing up and heading for college, his toys (Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Hamm, Jessie, Rex, Slinky Dog, et al.) find themselves in this new, unfamiliar home. It looks pretty good at first, until a swarm of terrorizing tots descends, hurling, banging, and madly maiming Andy's collection of trusty playthings.
And Lotso, it turns out, isn't as welcoming a figure as he first appears. There's something sinister going on at Sunnyside. And Buzz, Woody, and company need to figure out how to get back home.
Although Toy Story 3 plays with themes of aging and obsolescence, it's really a straight-ahead action pic, with the toys planning, and attempting, their escape and rescue missions. (Hey, it's The A-Team!) There's a pretty scary sequence on a recycling-plant conveyor belt that's like some nightmare Disneyland ride. A battered doll, dubbed Big Baby, wobbles around with a wonky eye and pen tattoos on its arms - definitely creepy.
And even Mattel's Barbie boyfriend, Ken (Michael Keaton), here to provide comic relief and an eye-popping array of '80s-era men's fashions, turns out to have a dark side. Toy Story 3 may, in fact, frighten more than a few younger ones in the audience. Despite its G rating, there are intense moments.
With the reliably amusing voice work of Tom Hanks (Woody), Tim Allen (Buzz), Wallace Shawn (Rex), and Joan Cusack (Jessie) and some clever comic conceits (Buzz accidentally switched to Spanish-language mode, for one), Toy Story 3 is solid, smile-inducing stuff. But by the inherent nature of a sequel, and our familiarity with the main characters, the glow of originality has dissipated. There's something generic about this Pixar property, and that third-act recycling plant looks an awful lot like a metaphor, with or without 3-D glasses.