Quick -- name Michelangelo's fourth best work! Now pick out Michael Jordan's fifth best championship team! It's difficult, right? Because after you get past the Sistine Chapel, David, and MJ torching Clyde Drexler it gets tough to parse out greatness. This is the maelstrom Toy Story 3 wades into. Naturally, it can't be as dynamic as Up or WALL-E, and it's inherently impossible for it to capture the "fresh" feeling of Toy Story.
So what, exactly, can it add up to?
It adds up to a very good movie, and a worthy finale to the franchise ... that's also decidedly not the sparkling piece of film its Pixar peers and predecessors were. Still, it's very funny, well thought out, and about as solidly executed as a third film can possibly be.
But what, exactly, is it?
I can't imagine a person tuning into this review without some prior knowledge of the characters, but let's take our perfunctory look. Buzz (Tim Allen), Woody (Tom Hanks), and Jessie (Joan Cusack) are back, dealing with the now familiar themes of the Toy Story franchise. Andy is headed off to college, which gives the toys no small amount of consternation. Will they be banished to the attic? Sent to the (gulp) trash? Might any of them make the college cut? The gang goes over logistics, employs strategy, works through the various ins and outs of numerous plans. But the central themes remain the same: the toys against evil toys, against displacement from Andy's bedroom, against time itself.
It's telling that the gang's first bit of attempted human manipulation involves a cell phone, as the youth of today must be abandoning toys for ever present connectivity at an exponentially growing rate, Thomas the Tank Engine displaced by the Facebook "like." But this is the way it works, culture evolves, and so Pixar must give a few quiet nods to the modern world. They do so admirably.
Of course, things don't go well for Woody and the gang, and the world soon spirals out of the toys' control. Part of the group finds themselves at Sunnyside day care center, which would be ideal if they weren't quickly isolated as toddler fodder. As we all know, toddlers don't play gently. The day care is run by a cruel teddy bear overlord named Lots-o-Huggin. His villainy is made all the more entertaining by his purple fur and wholesome, folksy manner of speaking. He's the Wilford Brimley of archenemies, quietly and patiently blowing up your whole spot. Delightful flashbacks are used to build Lotso's character, and his henchmen (a baby doll and Barbie's soulmate, Ken) are used to maximum comic effect.
At this point, my two minor quibbles present themselves. The first is an extended Spanish sequence, which is definitely funny but will probably lose some of the younger audience (as it is handled in fast-moving subtitles). The second is the overall "peril factor" of this film. Pixar clearly felt the need to up the dramatic stakes, but my gut feeling is that in aiming for emotional relevance they slightly sacrificed entertainment and broad-based appeal. However, these teensy quibbles are washed away by the strength of the final 30 minutes of Toy Story 3's narrative.
About that ending: There's a scene near the culmination (don't worry, no spoilers) that does rise to the level of Up and WALL-E, a scene that pushes all those Pixar chips to the middle, daring and dangerous filmmaking that risks losing everything the Toy Story franchise has built up. It's a "Pixar" moment, full of intellect and emotion, highlighting the central theme of "we're all in this together." You'll know the scene when you see it, and it's what made the film special for this heartless critic.
There's another item that's been hinted at throughout Pixar's run, and that's the energy of inanimate objects, the energy humans infuse them with. These toys, Andy's toys, are all that's right and good about the world, as is Andy himself. I mean, what other college kid would even consider taking an action figure to college? Who still owns their toys as they hit their teens? It's a kinder world Toy Story and Pixar homage, one where you never watch the news, one where doting mothers are constantly present, one where the power of your play can take you to faraway and fascinating places.