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Friday, July 23, 2010

'Toy Story 3'

Waning charm of the same old Story

The original "Toy Story," from way back in 1995, was a fiendishly clever film. Its heartwarming story involved a good-natured but low-tech cowboy doll who was feeling all angsty about getting supplanted by a flashy, high-tech spaceman toy; quite a premise for one of the first animated films to be created entirely digitally, seeking to supplant the warm-and-fuzzy, human hand-drawn animation of decades past.

Toy Story 3 Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
For a few dollars more: Sheriff Woody rounds up his playtime posse once again for "Toy Story 3." © DISNEY / PIXAR

Director: Lee Unkrich
Running time: 108 minutes
Language: English
Now Showing (July 23, 2010)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Filmgoers rarely register these sorts of ironies between content and means of production — just witness how many people swallowed the neo-tribal back-to-nature trip of "Avatar" whole, while somehow ignoring the fact that nearly the entire film was made inside a hard drive, not a forest.

"Toy Story 3" opens with a similarly ironic conception: A rollicking chase scene on a runaway stagecoach involving all the familiar toys — Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Jessie, Rex and Slinky Dog — turns out to be all in the imagination of their owner Andy, making up the story as he plays contentedly with his plastic friends. It's the type of old-school creative play that's being supplanted by digital media and games — of which Pixar is a part — in which everything is created for you, and no imagination is required. A truer commitment to this notion would, no doubt, involve a filming style closer to the hands-on, puppet and figurine techniques employed by Henry Selick or Nick Park.

That's a typically stick-in-the-mud critic thing to say, but hey, I'm on a roll, so here's another: Review after review in the United States — where "Toy Story 3" opened last month — has described how it will "make adults weep." Didn't happen at the screening I attended, not even a little, though perhaps the refrigerator-level air-con just froze up our tear-ducts.

Which is not to say that "Toy Story 3" is a bad film; it's just that the hyperventilating over Pixar films is starting to get a bit much. "Up," despite what many reviewers said, was no masterpiece; not even close. Likewise, "Toy Story 3" is well made, charming, and has a heart — in fact, it wears it on its sleeve — yet it also shows all the symptoms of acute sequelitis: declining imagination, bloated budget and a tendency to repeat oneself.

If you've seen the first two films, you could probably guess the plot without me telling you: Once again, the toys, led by Sheriff Woody, are in danger of being discarded — to the attic, the Dumpster, or possibly donated to a day care center — and they must overcome all sorts of obstacles to be reunited with their beloved owner, Andy (voiced by John Morris).

Of course, Andy is a teenager now and about to go off to college, and hasn't played with them in years. Maybe, think some of the toys, day care isn't such a bad deal; at least there they will have a raison d'e^tre. Anyone who's ever witnessed the chaos of day care toddler playtime, though, will realize the living hell they are about to enter. And Woody is, as ever, loyal to Andy, and thinks being close to him is the best option, no matter what.

Sheriff Woody, voiced by the reliably vanilla Tom Hanks, is one of the blander characters to ever grace a Pixar film, and he's at his blandest here, without the jealousy (of Buzz) that gave him a little depth in the original "Toy Story." Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), meanwhile, reverts to his out-of-the-box personality once again, before switching into Spanish-language mode, where he starts chatting up Barbie and dancing flamenco, a rather stale racial stereotype joke that gets pushed way too far. (As if Antonio Banderas in "Shrek 2" hadn't already killed it.)

Faring better are Ned Beatty as a tyrannical pink huggy-bear, who rules the day care center toy box with a plush iron paw, and the vain Ken doll (Michael Keaton) with his closet full of 1970s fashions and ability to make Barbie go all starry-eyed. ("It's like we were made for each other!" she exclaims.) Director Lee Unkrich and his team also borrow profitably from film noir and prison break movie tropes in staging some of their scenes.

Overall, not so much for the adults this time, but younger viewers should respond enthusiastically: Be forewarned that the film's climax, in which the toys face the flaming pits of hell in a garbage incinerator, will be a bit much for the littlest ones.

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