In ‘Toy Story 3′ The Third Time’s Still A Charm, Perhaps The Best Of Them All

I saw “Toy Story 3” earlier this week, and left after the credits with newly confirmed convictions about the series. For me, the move from “Toy Story” to “Toy Story 2″ has always felt like an upgrade. Yes, part of it is the delightfully overt “Star Wars” reference that occurs late in the second movie. Even putting that aside though, overall I’ve always felt that the sequel was superior to the first film’s already-exceptional experience.

“Toy Story 3″ does an unusual thing for a trilogy: it ups the ante yet again. The first two movies are, at varying times, hilarious and touching and sweet and, yes, a bit unsettling (I’m looking at you, cobbled-together mutant toy-things from the original movie). This final chapter in the trilogy is all of that, even the unsettling part. And then it ends, with a one-two gut punch that is roughly on par with the tear-jerking opening minutes of Pixar’s 2009 masterpiece, “Up.”

Truly, Pixar is a studio that can do no wrong. The creative artists behind these exceptionally powerful CG movies also really understand how to tell a story. They speak to children and adults alike, knowing when to load you up with overt exposition and when to simply let the beauty of what’s happening on screen speak for itself.

The “show, don’t tell” attitude manifests very strongly at the end of “Toy Story 3.” I’ll get to that in a minute. Minor spoilers ahead, in case that’s not already clear. The movie is very much about these living toys trying to find their place in the world now that Andy, the young boy they’ve given so much joy to, has grown past those carefree childhood days of fiddling with action figures.

While we watch Buzz, Woody and the rest of the gang contend with the harsh realities of a prison camp-like nursery school, we also feel them grasping for some sense of identity. More than once throughout the movie, Andy’s toys bemoan the fact that they haven’t been played with in ages, that they can hardly remember the last time Andy crafted an imaginary playtime world for them to all frolic in.

This is where the beauty of the film’s final minutes comes in, and what seals “Toy Story 3″ for me as the best of the three. Also, now major spoilers ahead.

The toys eventually do make it back into the care of their former owner. Andy, realizing sadly that he’s grown out of such things, decides that he’ll donate them to a little neighborhood girl whose parents are friends of the family. He pulls each toy out of the box for her, slowly and carefully, sharing some of the backstory that he’s created as he goes.

The movie then closes with a set-to-music montage in which Andy and his little new friend have an epic play session. They roll around in the grass together, laughing and enjoying this simple act of play. Then Andy leaves, in a moment that is equal parts heartbreaking and joyful.

The toys, who have so often in the past 90 minutes expressed sadness over not getting time with Andy anymore, have had this last play session with their old friend. Nothing is said and nothing needs to be. The audience, the adult audience, recognizes on an innate level the childhood closure here, the end of that carefree innocence.

It’s a beautiful moment. Heartbreaking, yes. But more human, more real, than much of the summer blockbuster fare that comes out of Hollywood. And that’s the great success of “Toy Story 3.” It’s gorgeous to look at, a stunning technical achievement like every Pixar film before it. But it’s also got a heart as big as its budget, one that is allowed very smartly to beat for itself without explanation.

That’s the big win for “Toy Story 3″: as the tale of Woody, Buzz and their friends comes to a close, we don’t need to be told how to feel. We just do, because we’ve been there ourselves.