It's more than 10 years since we last saw Woody, Buzz and the gang, and their owner Andy is now ready to go to college. Needing to make a decision about what to do with his toys, he opts to take Woody with him and put the rest of his faithful friends in the attic. However, several twists of fate means that they all end up at Sunnyside, a local day care centre where kids will play with them every day. But can Woody get home in time to go to college with Andy and is Sunnyside really the paradise it seems to be?
One of the problems with making two brilliant films like Toy Story and Toy Story 2 is how to follow them. Luckily the magicians at Pixar have managed to maintain their incredibly high standards with this third instalment despite the usual problems which dog sequels such as simply reprising the earlier films. To an extent, even Pixar don't manage to avoid repeating the themes of loss, love and growing up. But since this is all about kids and their toys, why would you? It's a rich vein of drama and emotion and one which director Lee Unkrich mines expertly to create an utterly believable world, full of rich, rounded but also flawed characters. It's perhaps the ultimate compliment to Pixar that halfway through it struck me that I was so emotionally involved I'd genuinely forgotten they weren't people at all but animated toys. No mean feat for a live action feature, never mind a bunch of pixels.
Speaking of which, the animation has again improved. Not perhaps to the game-changing extent of the original but it is noticeably better, especially in the realm of the physical world. Where before the people and surroundings had a computer game feel to them, now there is a photorealism to things like the grass, the trees and Buster the dog which makes the whole thing that much more believable. It would be remiss not to mention the 3D, which is apparently such a huge selling point. As you'd expect, this element is done to perfection but the very best I can say about it is that it is unobtrusive. It looks nice but I honestly don't believe it enhanced the experience. When a film is this good, it simply doesn't need it - if you're making a film properly, you can create perspective and depth without it.
So what of the movie itself? Well, the plot follows the same sort of capture and escape with added emotional turmoil formula as the previous films. But while it's a largely predictable and well-trodden path, as ever it's the details which elevate this far above any competitor animation and indeed most live action features. There are a few subtle film references for the cognoscenti and the in-jokes about Rex's arms and the aliens being indebted to Mr Potato Head are welcome inclusions. The characters are so familiar now that it would be easy to simply repeat their roles but these are developed, changing in line with the new circumstances. And even those who have settled into their characters get the odd twist thrown in. Buzz Lightyear's relationship with Jesse takes a very funny and unexpected turn, while Mr Potato Head has to utilise an alternative foodstuff to get him out of a tricky situation with hilarious results.
As ever the script is terrific, not a word is wasted and is full of pathos and perhaps most importantly, humour. John Ratzenberger's Hamm gets all the best lines, as usual, but the introduction of Ken and Barbie is an absolute masterstroke. Their relationship is the perfect comedy sub-plot and one dress-up scene is laugh out loud funny. This is crucial because there's a darkness to Toy Story 3 which we've not seen before, not only in Ned Beatty's bitter Lotso and the more-than-a-little creepy Big Baby but also in one scene towards the end which is genuinely scary.
Although it's no longer an original concept, the third Toy Story is still a masterpiece, not just in terms of animation but in characterisation and storytelling. It may have taken them a decade to come up with the brilliance that is Toy Story 3 but boy, is it worth the wait.