Toy Story 3

Fifteen may not seem old enough for the setting in of wisdom, but where animated franchises are concerned, just making it that far has to count for a lot.

Certainly it is so with Pixar’s Toy Story series, whose improbably long-lived success always has been characterized by a company-mandated understanding that the anthropomorphism of playthings has deep existential implications.

Arguably, nowhere is that understanding more apparent than in this third and possibly final Toy Story installment, in which technical innovations seem inconsequential and 3D seems superfluous but issues of aging, abuse, abandonment and obsolescence are of paramount importance. Of course it comes as no surprise that Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) and pals (Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Don Rickles and Estelle Harris) are up to that challenge.

With Andy (John Morris) now grown up and about to leave for college, and his mother (Laurie Metcalf) instructing him to clean out his room, the toys face a moment of truth. Separation seems inevitable, and fate offers few appealing options. If not a dusty limbo in the attic, it’s either the torturous perpetual playtime of a daycare center or the gaping inferno of a garbage incinerator.

At first, the Toy Story 3 gang likes the look of Sunnyside Daycare. “No owners means no heartbreak,” says Lots-o’-Huggin’ (Ned Beatty), the strawberry scented plush bear who runs the place. And he’s got a point, albeit one that registers as sharply as a ground axe.

But Woody can’t forget that it’s Andy’s name that’s stamped on his foot, and so, reluctantly, he’s out of here. Wisely too, in fact, as it turns out that being trampled by toddlers in the Caterpillar Room is the least of the new Sunnyside residents’ problems. Lotso runs the place, all right: like a prison.

Which means a prison-break will be in order, and it unfolds in a sequence that’s as inspired and enthralling as anything Pixar’s ever done. As scripted by Little Miss Sunshine‘s Michael Arndt, with Andrew Stanton, John Lasseter and director Lee Unkrich, who mobilizes the action with supple authority, Toy Story 3 doesn’t fail to live up to the company’s other essential mandate: the story-driven thrill ride.

Another of the many satisfactions in this movie about old toys at risk of being thrown away is that it introduces several new toys without ever treating them like throwaways. These include but are not limited to: a pretentious, lederhosen-clad hedgehog thespian known as Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton); a hilariously creepy, lazy-eyed infant doll called Big Baby; Chuckles (Bud Luckey), an emotionally wounded clown; and the swishy, clothes-obsessed Ken (Michael Keaton) of Barbie-partner fame. It’s a testament to the crafty Pixar magic that merchandising still seems like a lower priority than character development.

Those righteous priorities also make it easy to forgive the hint of patness in Toy Story 3‘s highly emotional denouement. If the film wants to tie a ribbon around its cooperative, imagination-affirming philosophy one last time before finally signing off, well, it has earned that privilege. Besides, this franchise always has been so considerate, so careful not to wear out its welcome. What an impressively cultivated fifteen-year-old it is indeed.