Deep into Toy Story 3, there’s a moment where some of the toy protagonists realize that in spite of all their cleverness and determination, there’s no way out of the fatal trap into which they’ve fallen. In any other children’s film, this would be a time for comedic panic, long-withheld personal confessions, or dramatic statements that would immediately turn out to be ironic. In any other children’s film, the moment would quickly peak and pass. But Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc.) holds for long, excruciating moments on the silent characters, as they pass from disbelief into sorrowful resolve, then take each others’ hands and wait. And wait. And wait.
It’s a shockingly grim sequence, but this is what Pixar films do best: find a place of deep emotion and explore it without blunting it, overexplaining it, or passing it off with a laugh. Toy Story 3 never gets darker than this moment, but time and again, it similarly finds real, resonant emotion in the antics of a bunch of children’s toys having adventures when nobody’s looking.
That emotion starts with the toys’ pathetic desperation as their owner, now 17 and headed to college, fails to play with them, no matter what ruse they try. While loyalist cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) insists they should stand by the boy even if he wants them all in a trash bag in the attic, his blinkered devotion is more creepy than sweet. But the film never plays this for humor, either; his dedication is as real and important to him as his friends’ burning desire to move on, find new kids, and get played with again. Which sets up a lot of conflict and frantic hijinks involving a day-care center, separations and reunions, and action that playfully evokes films from The Great Escape to Cool Hand Luke.
TS3 doesn’t entirely dodge some of the current kid-movie standards; Unkrich brings in an astonishing crowd of celebrities to voice even the most minor characters, and lets a pop song express the comedy of one moment. But the film never lets banter, visual gags, or the usual manic kid-flick running about interfere with its more delicately handled thoughts on loyalty, longing, broken relationships, and generational continuity. It honestly earns its emotion, moment by painstakingly executed moment.