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Movie review: “Toy Story 3” gets 3 stars in 3D

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Consider the oft-amusing, terribly clever G-rated sequel “Toy Story 3” as the brightest student in the class delivering a very fine B paper.

Any other year, the fact that animation powerhouse Pixar’s grand summer offering is a sequel — and a 3D one at that — wouldn’t rankle quite so much. But summer 2010 is turning out to be Hollywood’s season of shame, in which no studio saw it worth its while to dream afresh.

“Expect the Expected,” might be the tagline. “In 3D!”

So Pixar, the outfit that so often does story with brio, has gone for the pleasantly familiar over its customary astonishing. That Pixar’s geniuses are as good as they are means that “Toy Story 3,” featuring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and Joan Cusack, among others, is still likely to work its magic on young ‘uns — and those adults nostalgic for the amiable company of Woody, Buzz, Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head, Hamm and Rex.

For the rest of us already tuckered out by the march of the familiar, it serves — as enjoyable as it is — as a cautionary reminder that even the most gifted filmmakers won’t always make incandescent films. The second sequel proves that clever is not the same thing as inventive. That something can entertain without being even a smidge original. Last summer’s “Up” — a bright, true, melancholy affair — is a masterwork in comparison.

The loyal toy companions of a kid named Andy first made their sweet presence known in 1995’s “Toy Story.” (Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl, voiced with crackling spunk by Joan Cusack, arrived in the 1999 sequel.)

In this outing, Andy is headed off to college. He’s got choices to make about what stays in the attic, what goes with him to college, what gets trashed and what gets donated to a day-care center.

Andy’s quandaries are his loyal playthings’ existential crisis. If he’s willing to kick them to the curb for morning trash pickup, why should they be dedicated to him? Favorite Woody argues for fealty even as they all wind up at a day-care center.

Sunnyside, the center in question, is either haven or hell. Leader of the day-care toys, Lots-o’-Huggin’-Bear (Ned Beatty) ambles into a room, leaning on a cane and offering cane-sugar welcomes. This sad-news bear recalls Burl Ives’ snowman in “Rudolph the Red- nosed Reindeer,” only with a whiff of the suspect. And Sunnyside has the feel of that TV special’s Island of Misfit Toys. Escape is a must.

The delights in “Toy Story 3” — and there are still a number of them — are primarily situational.

For instance, how does one say “hoot” in Spanish? Because es un grito when Buzz’s factory settings are rebooted.

Barbie (Jodi Benson) makes a love connection with Ken, natch. As the ascot-wearing, rigid-moving metrosexual (voiced by the comedically agile Michael Keaton), he’s master of his pastel dream house and owner of a walk-in closet full of retro duds. Some things are just meant to be.

This sequel introduces other new toy personalities, some charming, others a bit disquieting. A new fave: the unnerving Big Baby, a shirtless doll with a lazy eye and a clumsy infant way about her. And little kid Bonnie, whose mother works at the day-care center, not only has a terrific imagination, but introduces us to her own crew of sweetly game toys.

There are also pleasures in the snappy repartee of the still-winning toys. Wallace Shawns’ Rex remains jittery and amusing. The Potato Heads (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris) have some spud-acular scenes.

Still, the story itself is a bit, well, plastic.

With all the hankering for the old stuff — by studios, not by audiences — perhaps it makes a kind of poetic sense that “Toy Story 3” is very much about nostalgia: The toys ache for the now-grown youngster who enjoyed them; college-bound Andy looks on at them with fond but conflicted feelings about letting go. It’s real emotion; it’s just not new to the franchise.

How much value children find in nostalgia is debatable. Their memory lane doesn’t even run a mile yet.

And if filmmakers don’t provide them with new journeys, won’t it run shorter still?

-Denver Post film critic Lisa Kennedy

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