06/14/2010 04:07 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

ReThink Review: Toy Story 3

This past Saturday, I had one of those moviegoing experiences that reminds you of what makes going to the movies such a special experience, and why we continue to sit in the dark and watch movies with strangers despite rising ticket prices and better and better home theaters.

I am a big fan of animated movies, and Pixar's record in this department is unparalleled to the point where adults are often more excited about a new Pixar release than kids are. But while all of Pixar's movies have done well at the box office, some of their efforts have revealed cracks in their seemingly impregnable armor. While 1995's Toy Story was groundbreaking, endlessly creative and a sheer delight, 1998's A Bug's Life failed to generate the excitement and affection that would spawn an expected franchise. I was decidedly underwhelmed by 1999's Toy Story 2, which departed from TS1's introspection and exploration of identity in favor of the kind of constant action and chases usually relegated to lesser studios.

Pixar bounced back with a string of classics like Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, and the Incredibles, but others like Cars failed to reach the stratospherically high bar Pixar had set for itself. While I loved the environmental message and social commentary in WALL-E (see my review here) and think that the film's nearly wordless first 40 minutes are among the most inventive, daring and charming in film, the film's second half doesn't match it and again relies on the kind of action and chases that were so refreshingly absent from the film's beginning. And while practically everyone I know cried during the opening montage of Up that wordlessly summarized the love, growth and lingering regrets of a long marriage, no one talked much about the rest of the film save for the spot-on dopiness of the talking golden retriever character, Dug.

So it was with some trepidation (and a slight hangover) that I went to the El Capitan theater in Hollywood last Saturday to catch a 10am advanced screening of Toy Story 3. And that's where I had one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life.

Watch the trailer for Toy Story 3 below.

The crowd in the packed theater was mostly adults. But for virtually the entirety of Toy Story 3's 103 minutes, the crowd was laughing, giddy with delight as the continuing saga of Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the rest of Andy's toys (with several new additions) unfolded in loving, winking detail. In a return to form, Toy Story 3 once again examines the themes of obsolescence, nostalgia and identity as Andy prepares to leave for college and his toys face being stored in the attic, donated to a daycare school, or simply thrown out with the trash. While the toys address their new circumstances with the kind of seriousness usually found in a wartime melodrama, they're still toys, and the audience roared with laughter as they attempted to navigate this new world, filtering their experiences through their distinct personalities that are often linked (or hilariously juxtaposed) with their make and brand of toy.

That is, everyone in the audience was laughing until the final scene, where everyone -- everyone -- was crying. And not just a lump in the throat or moist eyes -- we're talking sniffles that led to streaming tears and, for some, outright sobs. I'm not sure I've ever heard a crowd cry like that.

It's experiences like this that remind me of why I love movies and the special and powerful place they hold in our lives. There are so few instances where we can collectively take an emotional journey like that in the company of total strangers of all ages, and that it could be done with a story about toys makes it all the more striking and unique. To peek inside the secret world of our beloved toys and not only see how they see themselves and each other, but how they see us, and how they face a world where we've become too old to play with them. Then to step out of that secret world, out of the theater, and back into our own, to look at ourselves, our childhood, our children, in a new way that accepts the march of time, but remembers the toys that are our most trusted and beloved companions along the way -- like my raccoon puppet, Timmy, who still watches over me from a shelf in my living room.

That kind of experience, like Toy Story 3, is a very rare gift.

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