With any luck, Toy Story 3 will be the last of the Toy Story movies. Yes, there will be pressure to squeeze out more sequels: This is, as industry folks say, a "franchise," a studio "tent-pole." But if the people who run Pixar are as savvy as I think, they'll know the series should end like this, on a lovely, wistful high.
The Toy Story pictures are rooted in a child's fantasy of what happens when he or she turns out the lights and the toys come alive -- but I've never thought of them as "kids' movies." At heart they're about aging, impermanence, loss and death. Pixar likely borrowed the premise from Thomas Disch's The Brave Little Toaster: Objects once prized lose their newness and become disposable. But they have spiritual properties, and to discard them carelessly is to dishonor the past that shaped us. The idea is almost Buddhist in how invests all matter with a life force worthy of reverence.
Toy Story 3 has another dimension, probably the upshot of creators John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and the director, Lee Unkrich, getting older and having kids. The toys -- especially the cowboy Woody, with the voice of Tom Hanks -- see the boy who owns them, Andy, in the way of parents whose kids are growing up and moving on.
In a wild prologue, Woody -- with Tim Allen's Buzz Lightyear and Joan Cusack's cowgirl Jessie -- scrambles to save a trainload of orphans from the evil pig Dr. Porkchop. The adventure comes to a sudden halt when young Andy is called to dinner, and then we jump a decade ahead. Andy doesn't play with toys anymore; he's going off to college. His room is being cleared for his sister, who has her MP3 player and computer. Should the toys be stuck in the attic? Donated to Sunnyside, a daycare center? Or left on the curb for the garbage truck? The gang, now including the sister's cast-off Barbie, is scared by every one of those possibilities.
After mix-ups and chases, they end up at Sunnyside, where the toy who calls the shots is the formidable huggy bear Lotso, with the great Southern stentorian voice of Ned Beatty. Although Woody is stubbornly loyal to Andy, the prospect of being played with again is undeniably stirring.
Lotso is a character with stature -- a toy shattered by abandonment who has purged himself of sentiment and runs Sunnyside with cold efficiency. And soon our gang discovers that the place operates like a prison. The big bald baby doll functions as a spooky enforcer, like Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson in Ed Wood movies. A cymbal-clashing monkey is the prison guard of nightmares. Soon, horror of horrors, Buzz is reprogrammed to be his old officious out-of-the-box self, the better to help Lotso keep everyone in cages. Suddenly, thrillingly, Toy Story 3 becomes a prison-break movie.
As usual with Pixar, the little things win your heart: Woody escaping out the bathroom window, but pausing to put down a sheet of toilet paper before stepping on the seat. At Sunnyside, Barbie is instantly smitten by Ken (who has the voice of Michael Keaton), and all those Ken-is-gay jokes get a new spin: He's a metrosexual elated at finding someone for whom he can show off his disco wardrobe. In the script by Michael Arndt, who wrote Little Miss Sunshine, the gags are all of a piece, right up to the forlorn yet enchanting finale.
Kids will love Toy Story 3 for its cliffhangers and slapstick spills. But for grown-ups, the film will touch something deeper: the heartfelt wish that childhood memories never fade. The paradox of Pixar is that, using advanced technology, it elevates the old-fashioned, the links to a more innocent form of play. This beautiful movie weaves together our joyful fantasies of the past, the ones that helped form us, and our darker fears of being forgotten -- and in that weave it offers hope that we can somehow reconcile those poles of life for ourselves.