Latest from Pixar is a real keeper

It seems that the only thing the gifted storytellers at Pixar Animation Studios can do better than craft a gorgeous and heartfelt narrative is introduce new strains of guilt to moviegoers.

Out of the box · Andy’s toys find themselves carted off to Sunnyside Day Care Center as the 17-year-old prepares for his departure to college in Toy Story 3. The film was released in theaters on June 18 nationwide. - Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

In the wake of 2003’s Finding Nemo, for instance, some still have yet to forgive themselves for tapping on glass fish tanks in their youths. Humans the world over reconsidered their relationships with insects because of 1998’s A Bug’s Life, and 10 years later, WALL-E showed scores of 21st century audiences the error of their wasteful ways.

Besides staying on the cutting edge of the latest in computer wizardry, the technologically innovative animation studio always seems to be one step ahead in the shame game as well. Toy Story 3, the most recent and presumably final installment in Pixar’s industry revolutionizing Toy Story franchise, continued the studio’s trend of beautiful films that make audiences squirm with guilt over something they never knew they needed to feel guilty about. As of Friday, moviegoers can no longer plead ignorance in the event that they commit the unspeakable atrocity of taking the disposal of old toys lightly.

Since releasing the original Toy Story in 1995, Pixar has thrice succeeded in engendering real empathy for its plaything creations. Many fans who have grown up watching the decade-spanning series have become unabashedly attached to the characters from the film, and will be relieved to learn that their emotional investment won’t be without a return. The majority of the franchise’s most beloved characters return in this, the studio’s third foray into animating the inanimate, two notable exceptions being the chronically short-of-breath Wheezy the Penguin and Woody’s sheep-tending love interest, Bo Peep.

Toy Story 3 finds the toy-loving Andy of yesteryear all grown up and, at age 17, gearing up to leave home for college. When the trash bag in which Andy put all his childhood companions — intending to stow them in the attic — is accidentally put out on the street for curbside garbage pick-up, the toys mistakenly conclude that Andy is through with them once and for all.

Thinking themselves abandoned by their owner, the toys are all too happy to hop into a cardboard box full of donations destined for the nearby Sunnyside Day Care. Buzz, Jessie, Bullseye, Rex, Hamm, Slinky Dog, Barbie and Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head are thrilled to arrive in Sunnyside’s idyllic Butterfly Room — a veritable dreamscape for neglected toys. They soon learn that their assignment is actually for the neighboring Caterpillar Room, where the kids are younger and, as they quickly realize, rougher on their toys. But even beyond the gratuitous wear-and-tear, there is something sinister about the Sunnyside chain of command, and Andy’s toys find that getting out of day care might not be nearly as easy as getting in.

Toy Story is that exceedingly rare franchise in which each successive sequel doesn’t merely match the caliber of its predecessor but surpasses it. Toy Story 3 builds on the solid foundation established by the two previous films, retaining their strengths and expanding on them.

State-of-the-art technology has enabled Pixar to consistently release feature-length and short films that reflect the latest in animated moviemaking innovation. Because the available technology has improved substantially since the first Toy Story film debuted in 1995, the studio has had to struggle and sometimes reign itself in to create films that are consistent in their look and feel. Nonetheless, Pixar permitted itself to flaunt its animation prowess on a few separate occasions within the film.

The talented animators showcased their ever-expanding arsenal of technological know-how with a particularly spectacular action sequence that opens the film and also with the introduction of more than 150 new characters like the plush Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear and a translucent purple octopus called Stretch, both of whom were created to appear to have textures that were previously impossible to render.

All of Pixar’s staggering advances come together for a remarkably beautiful film that, even if not for its engaging story, would merit a watch on the basis of its visuals alone. Cinemas like Hollwood’s El Capitan Theatre — which not only presents the film in tasteful 3-D but offers a supplemental carnival-like experience at the Toy Story 3 Fun Zone — make the film even more worth checking out.

In addition to being a tour de force of digital artistry, Toy Story 3 benefits from great vocal performances by an embarrassment of high profile voice actors. Returning headliners include Tom Hanks as Woody, Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear and Joan Cusack as Jessie, with Don Rickles (Mr. Potato Head), Wallace Shawn (Rex), Jon Ratzenberger (Hamm) and Blake Clark (Slinky Dog) also reprising their roles to ensure consistency throughout the films. Newcomers Ned Beatty and Michael Keaton — lending their voices to an emotionally burdened Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear named Lotso and a sartorially savvy Ken doll, respectively — contribute to the already strong vocal cast.

The Toy Story films have always benefited from the complexity and roundness of their characters, and the actors who breathe life into the animators’ creations are more than a little responsible for the delightful believability of the whole toy chest of vibrant personalities.

Of course, Toy Story is principally a plot-driven franchise. Even so, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the story would be central to Toy Story 3. With nearly 11 years in the interim between the last film and the current one, the perfectionists at Pixar have had ample time to make Toy Story 3 the beautifully polished product that an estimated $109 million-worth of audiences saw in the film’s opening weekend.

That includes perfectionism in the development stages as well, especially in the form of unwillingness to compromise with a subpar or forced-feeling script. The story driving the film feels consequential and high-stakes, but is ultimately engaging for fans who have followed the tribulations faced by Andy’s toys since the mid-’90s. Two emotionally charged scenes that occur near the end of the film — similarly powerful but vastly different — are almost guaranteed to elicit tears, and comparisons to the moving “Carl and Ellie” montage in the beginning of last year’s Up are certainly warranted.

Toy Story 3 is beautiful and unforgettable, and even if it should turn out to be the final chapter in the now-classic series, the brilliant Pixarians responsible already have plenty to be proud of — namely, the wonderful trilogy they will be leaving behind.