The delight of the Toy Story movies has always been that they take very seriously the childhood belief in the realness, the genuine being of toys. Toys have adventures, and complicated lives, and do fantastic things, and can go anywhere that the fertile mind of a child can imagine (and to infinity... and beyond). But a toy also has a precarious existence. One day, you're shiny and new, and the next day, you're broken, or relegated to the depths of the toy box. You might be the favorite one day, only to be replaced by the latest, greatest thing again and again. And eventually, your child outgrows you, and you're kicked to the curb, sold at a yardsale, stowed in the attic. Or worse.
And so, the Toy Story saga is poignant because of the impermanence of a toy's life, and the sorrow and heartache that comes with attachment. That theme was explored with richness and emotional complexity in Toy Story 2, and it is more or less reiterated in Toy Story 3, although this time everything is a little darker, and grimmer.
The peril for Andy's toys in Toy Story 3 is that Andy (voiced by John Morris, who has been Andy for 15 years) is going away to college. Mom (Laurie Metcalf) has delivered an edict: everything must go. It's either the box bound for college, the box for the attic, the donations for the daycare center, or the trashcan. Andy's perennial favorite Woody (Tom Hanks) is ready for college, but through a mishap, the other toys -- Buzz Lightyear, Jessie the Cowgirl, Hamm the piggybank, Rex the dinosaur, Slinky Dog, and Mr and Mrs Potato Head -- end up at the Sunnyside Daycare Center. There, they are greeted warmly by the resident toys, including their leader, a purple bear named Lotso-Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty), and the creepy, sad, droopy-eyed doll Baby. Lotso promises an idyllic life of play and leisure. Just what every toy wants.
Life isn't as sunny as it seems at Sunnyside, however, especially after the newcomers are assigned to the toddler room where horrible things are done to toys. And then it gets worse, as they discover that Lotso runs a sort of fascist prison camp for toys. Lotso is a good toy turned bad, a broken bear embittered when he was, long ago, replaced with a newer model.
Lotso changes the mood and the stakes in the Toy Story 'verse in a way that is not especially welcome. He's a genuinely mean, depraved toy, not just a play nemesis, and he threatens the very existence of Andy's beloved (if neglected) playthings. While the movie remains playful, having fun with classic prison escape movie tropes and bringing a punny and literal *deus ex machina* in to save the day, the tone of the story is darker and the peril has been amped up. I guess I can't stand to see a toy in mortal danger, because I found Toy Story 3 less enjoyable than the previous two movies, and occasionally even unpleasant.
All of that is, I suppose, part and parcel with taking toys seriously. But just what are we taking seriously here? Toys are real because they are animated by a child's love and freed from mere thinghood by the life breathed into them by their little creators. They come to life, as do we all, at their peril, for life is treacherous and full of sorrow, full of leavings and returnings, but also full of joy and laughter and fun. Toys get old, as do we all, and must face their own kind of mortality. In Toy Story 2, Woody was forced to choose between sterile immortality in a museum, and his loyalty to Andy, and the messy, temporal love of a fickle child. My objection to Toy Story 3, I suppose, comes down to this -- the existential crisis of toy being, as eloquently and poignantly depicted in the previous movies, is not literal annihilation, but the loss of meaning, the loss of significance, the indignity of being forgotten and unloved. (Arguably, this is also the existential crisis of human beings -- not death itself, but the loss of everything else that is valuable to us.) Toy Story 3 threatens the toys with literal extermination at the same time that they wrestle with all the other losses that come with being the playthings of a grown up child. Which is to say that Toy Story 3 rehashes the major theme of Toy Story 2, and then adds an element of additional (trumped up) danger that is, frankly, kind of cliched. It stops being uniquely about the toy experience (and the unusual perils of toyhood, and the toy's eye view of the world), and more about the kinds of experiences that characters in action-adventure movies have. Toy Story 3 is less emotionally resonant and satisfying because it is less about how toys are us, and more about how toys are just a filmmaker's playthings.