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Third time a charming 'Toy Story' too

Well, kids of all ages, there's still plenty of entertainment giddyup left in Woody's pull-string.

"Toy Story 3" defies the usual second-sequel doldrums with a rousing story and spirited, lovable characters, as well as a sweet-talking villain in the form of a cuddly teddy bear that smells like strawberries.

The 11-year gap between the second "Toy Story" and this one evaporates the instant a frolicsome blend of computer animated characters both familiar and new launch an emotional adventure that, believe it or not, pushes Woody, Buzz Lightyear and pals to the brink of fiery toy hell, a.k.a. the furnace at the city dump.

The first "Toy Story" arrived in 1995 with the impact of last year's "Avatar."  John Lasseter and his creative geniuses over at Pixar altered the animation universe with mind-boggling technology.  Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) and the rest of a boy named Andy's pals rolled out of the cinematic toy box as the first full-length animated feature created entirely in a computer (CG) by artists.

The challenge this time for Lasseter and his Pixar staff, who now create under the Disney banner, was to tone done today's advanced computer technology.  The goal, achieved grandly, I might add, was for the 21st century versions of Andy's toy box pals to maintain the original tone of movement.

That accomplished, Lasseter (executive producer this time after directing the first two) and director Lee Unkrich (co-director of "Toy Story 2") sought to continue the exhilarating combination of action-adventure, comedy and heartfelt feelings.

The story, conceived by Lasseter, Unkrich and "WALL-E" writer-director Andrew Stanton, dips high and low on the emotional roller coaster.   Andy, once again voiced by John Morris, is 17 and packing for college.  What to do with his childhood pals?  Trash 'em or box them up for the attack his mom (Laurie Metcalf) dictates.

There's a mix-up and all the toys except Woody are set out with the trash.  This is the point where the latest "Toy Story" moves beyond quirky to something a little darker than you will expect from a PG rating.  Michael Arndt, an Academy Award winner for his edgy "Little Miss Sunshine" screenplay, sends Woody and the gang off to Sunnyside Daycare.

It appears perfect  at first.  Rex (Wallace Shawn), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) and the rest haven't been given playtime attention in years.  But Lotso (Ned Beatty), the deceivingly sweet-sounding teddy bear in charge, wants to throw the new arrivals in the path of what a battered Buzz Lightyear later refers to as "inappropriate age behavior."

Levity balances the weight of the adventure at times.  And never better than when Barbie (Jodi Benson) meets Ken (Michael Keaton) and falls head-over-high, high heels for a guy who appears to be nothing more than a Barbie fashion accessory. (And a light-in-the-loafers one at that.)

Know this, though, parents:  Arndt pushes this tale into dangerous plot turns.  In fact, he presses it into dark areas where probably almost any other scribe writing for kids would back off.

Thankfully, Lasseter and his computer gurus embrace the dangerous story curves and pepper them with delightful and frightful new toys.  My personal favorite is the ominous cymbal-clanging monkey in charge of Sunnyside security.

"Toy Story 3" may be a little too scary for very little kids.  Otherwise, the magic is back for an unprecedented third time.


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