Toy Story 3 may be the best movie of the trilogy because the stakes are so high.
This is the endgame for the toys - the pay off, the culmination of all the arcs and themes of the first two chapters.
And they don't drop the ball.
Star Wars. The Matrix. Spider-man. Three great movie trilogies - three substandard final installments.
Return of the Jedi is probably the first "epic fail". Planet of the teddy bears ending with a teddy bear picnic.
Matrix Revolutions - takes all the clunky dialogue from the first two movies and doubles it, then finishes with a tepid action set piece and kills off Trinity.
Spider-man 3 - yeesh.
But it's hard to write a good ending - probably the hardest part of any story.
Toy Story 3 somehow pulls it off, respecting and honoring the first two films, but it also striving to be great on it's own.
Some spoilers follow, so if you haven't seen the movie yet, bookmark this for later.
I love that this movie comes out 10 years after the previous one, and it is also that way IN the movie itself. Instinctively, the movie feels right.
The opening is spectacular and hilarious - Andy's imagination come to life before our eyes. Then it is revealed, after a heart-tugging montage of nostalgia infused home videos, that time has passed and Andy has grown up. But he has not forgotten his playthings, nor how important they have been to him.
We feel this and we know this because we have been with the toys on their journey through the first two movies and we recognize, both consciously and unconsciously the heavy matters these movies deal with.
Toy Story presents to us that a child's play is faith - and the faith is real. The toys are faith, come to life.
Our imagination is powerful and limitless, and Toy Story gives us a fantastical glimpse of this in action.
TS3 is loaded with clever peril and slapstick gags that propel the story - through a series of expertly staged mishaps and misunderstandings the toys find themselves narrowly missing the garbage pile and ending up in a day care center.
One of the biggest themes in TS3 is loyalty, more specifically - fidelity.
It's easy for the toys to think they're in heaven when presented with the idea of an endless buffet of kids, who when they grow old are replaced right away. No fear of loss, no attachment and so - no heartache. Easy and painless. But also empty. Woody knows right away that he has to go home to Andy, to be there in case he is needed. Woody is faithful.
The day care center turns out not to be heaven, but a hellish prison - which makes for an engaging send up of "The Great Escape" and many other highly entertaining prison movies. Loaded with gags and puzzles, the middle stretch of TS3 is great at doing what Pixar does best. It's all about the story, painstakingly researched and executed with every piece fitting perfectly into place.
The movie's villain, Lotso (a strawberry scented teddy bear) is, like Stinky Pete from TS2, a toy that is broken on the inside after being abandoned. But Lotso is a much more flushed out character. He makes for a perfectly nasty foil who is beyond redemption - a strong choice that I applaud. All too often in this touchy-feely day and age there is a false effort to "humanize" the bad guys at the expense of realism. Lotso is perfect, because we see his story and we do feel bad for him, but he's still very much twisted and evil beyond repair.
The great escape goes awry, and our heroes, thanks to a final betrayal from Lotso, end up sliding down a mountain of landfill, facing the open mouth of a furnace and their doom. As the end approaches, they look to each other and reach out to hold hands. They are out of tricks and clever schemes, this is the end, and they face it together. They are afraid, but their love for each other sustains them even in their darkest hour.
This sequence, in all it's naked terror, for me was the highlight of the film. Very powerful. We all will ultimately face our maker, our end, and the small plastic objects in this story show how we need to do it. With love in our hearts and a submission to the great unknown.
When the toys are rescued at the last possible instant, it is a great Hollywood moment - and it works because it is driven by emotional resonance and hope. Yes, the toys will be gone someday, but not today.
But for Andy, it IS time to let go. He eventually gets his toys back and thanks to Woody's quick thinking, finds himself donating his precious possessions to a little girl named Bonnie.
It is yet another spectacular tear-inducing moment; 17 year old Andy introducing the toys to a wide eyed 4 year old who happily embraces them.
Andy was planning on taking Woody with him to college, but the little girl sees the cowboy in the box and reaches for him. Andy hesitates, but then he knows - it's time to move on and grow up. Andy and Bonnie play together with the toys, laughing and screaming with fun and delight.
Andy will hold on to his toys in his heart, but he has passed on to grown up land. His passing on of the toys, and his spirited play with the little girl, reaffirms his faith while at the same time acknowledges that he must step into a larger world of responsibility where his actions and choices, not the albeit necessary self indulgence of child's play, will bring the love in his heart to bear on the people around him and the world at large.