Toy Story 3

In theaters.

In the finale to the first season of Mad Men, in an already classic scene (seriously, Google “mad men carousel” and you get more than 70,000 pages), Don Draper describes the allure of nostalgia in a pitch for an ad campaign for Kodak’s new carousel slide projector:

Nostalgia—it’s delicate but potent. … In Greek, nostalgia literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. … It takes us to a place where we ache to go again … around and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.

It’s a gorgeous scene, in part because it reclaims the idea of nostalgia as something beautiful. In contemporary culture, the word has been sullied by its association with dumb reality programming about washed-up sitcom stars and uninspired remakes of 1980s kids’ shows. Too often, nostalgia is something cheap to sneer at, but in that scene on Mad Men, it’s precious again—an idealization, yes, but something comforting and good, something childlike in the best sense, something that can bring out the best in us. And yet it’s a painful beauty. As Don delivers the pitch, he uses the slide projector to show slides of his own family in happy times—times that are slipping away from him. The sense of impermanence and fragility gives the scene another layer of poignancy, as does the needling thought that part of the reason Don’s wife and children are slipping away is the fact that he wants to see them only as a frozen, crystalline ideal; he’s not equipped to meet them where they are, to relate to them as changing and imperfect people, as a changing and imperfect person himself.

In an odd way, that conception of nostalgia—as something but beautiful but sharp-edged—informs the dramatic arc of Toy Story 3, the culmination of a series that has a long history of dealing with heavy themes in a light, delicate way. In the first movie, Buzz Lightyear’s existential crisis is central to the story; the theme of the second is not just that it’s better to have loved and lost but also that loss is inevitable. The movies easily work as cute, clever children’s flicks, but the underlying emotional resonance is what makes them special.

Toy Story 3 follows in that tradition with typical humor and insight. It sprawls more than its predecessors—more characters, more action—but when it collects itself for the final punch, it’s as good as anything the incomparable Pixar has ever done. I was skeptical of the idea of a third Toy Story movie (and I’m still nervous about the upcoming sequels to Cars and Monsters Inc.), but the studio handles it beautifully. Toy Story 3 is a delightful movie in its own right and a tender farewell to its much-loved characters.

At the conclusion of Toy Story 2, Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and his fellow toys return to their home in Andy’s room in the knowledge that the boy will eventually grow up, leaving them behind, and at the outset of Toy Story 3, that day has come. The toys have long been consigned to a toy chest, and now that Andy (John Morris) is preparing to leave for college, clearing out his old bedroom for his younger sister, even that toy chest won’t keep them much longer. Andy is sentimental about his old playthings, reluctant to give them up entirely, but in the confusion of his upcoming move, his mom ends up dropping them all off at the Sunnyside Daycare Center. Woody is desperate to get back to Andy, but Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), and the others—eager to be played with again after years of neglect—think they could be happy at Sunnyside. After all, the folksy old Lots-o’-Huggin’ teddy bear (Ned Beatty) has welcomed them warmly and assured them that the endless procession of kids at the daycare means endless playtime without the inevitable heartbreak of being outgrown. But neither Lotso (as he is known) nor the daycare is quite what it seems, and soon, Andy’s old toys are looking to escape.

The character sketches of the various toys have always one of the greatest pleasures of the Toy Story series, and 3 provides excellent material for familiar favorites—Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Hamm the piggy bank (John Ratzenberger), the awesome little three-eyed aliens—as well as fun new additions such as cheerfully fashion-oriented Ken (Michael Keaton), the thespian Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), Chuckles the hilariously grim-faced clown (Bud Luckey), and the creepy Big Baby, a preverbal babydoll who acts as Lotso’s implacable sidekick. Occasionally, the jokes are a few shades too easy, especially for Pixar (“Take My Breath Away” when Ken and Barbie first meet?—how tired is that gag?), but those are the exceptions in a screenplay (a collaboration between three Pixar veterans and Michael Arndt, who wrote Little Miss Sunshine) packed with brilliant little flourishes and telling details.

The set pieces are wondrous, too. The opening sequence—a window into Andy’s imagination as a child—features a runaway train, improbable aircrafts, dozens of troll dolls, and a hilariously madcap pace. The escape from the daycare is the best cinematic prison break since, well, Chicken Run in 2000 (yay, Aardman Animations!), but that was the best prison break since The Great Escape in 1963, so it’s still pretty damn good. And the climactic scene at the landfill—the unforgettable scene that everyone leaves the theater talking about—is tremendously powerful because the filmmakers, directed by Lee Unkrich, have the courage to hold the pivotal moment for an agonizing amount of time: no stupid jokes, no safety valve, just emotion stretched taut as piano wire.

In fact, that scene is so effective, capped by a sly but lovely call-back to the first movie, that the extended denouement that follows initially feels like too much icing. But then the structure clicks into place—this is an epilogue, not part of the arc proper—and the point reveals itself: We’re saying good-bye. Nostalgia has its place, but we’re growing up, we’re changing, and we’re letting those we love change as well. That final scene (aside from the goofing off during the closing credits) proves to be the perfect conclusion to the Toy Story trilogy. It’s funny, delicately embroidered, and exquisitely heartfelt—what we owe Woody and the gang and what we owe ourselves.