With a smart script, "Toy Story 3," while lacking the freshness of the 1995 original and the sassiness of the 1999 sequel, more than holds its own with its brilliant predecessors.

Hollywood produces quality sequels about as often as Washington produces scrupulous politicians. Quality "threequels" are even rarer. "The Godfather Part III," anyone? Already this year, we've seen diminishing returns in "Shrek 3."

So one might be excused for approaching "Toy Story 3" with some trepidation. Fear not, however, because this film, while lacking the freshness of the 1995 original and the sassiness of the 1999 sequel, more than holds its own with its brilliant predecessors. The reason is simple: Pixar remains at the helm. For this studio, the story's the thing, whether the subject is toys or robots. Add to this an emphasis on smart scripts, exceptional vocal talent and solid direction, and you have the hallmarks of Pixar's films.

Start with director Lee Unkrich, whose resume includes "Finding Nemo," "Monsters Inc." and "Toy Story 2." Here, he adeptly combines action scenes, humorous scenes and even romantic scenes without losing track of the film's heart -- even if it is made of plastic.

The script by Michael Arndt (an Oscar winner for "Little Miss Sunshine") adds depth -- and comic flashes -- to both the familiar characters and the new ones without dumbing down the proceedings.

Unlike such bottom-feeding crud as "Furry Vengeance" and "Marmaduke," where nearly all the humor is derived from lame potty jokes, "Toy Story 3" takes the high road, prizing cleverness above comic laziness. As a result, the film can be appreciated by people of all ages, not just the targeted Disney crowd.

That said, parents of young children should know that "Toy Story 3" adds some darker colors to its palette. There are some scary scenes and some scary characters who might freak out the preschool set. Heck, some of them freaked me out. For example, the doll, Big Baby, could star in its own horror movie. One scene even apes the climactic encounter between Darth Vader and the Emperor in "Return of the Jedi."

Also, not all the new characters are as warm and fuzzy as you'd think. Some even seem to have escaped from "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Ned Beatty, as Lotso the teddy bear, gets to channel Burl Ives' Big Daddy albeit with a strawberry scent.

The film opens with a rousing adventure scene set in a Monument Valley landscape made famous by John Ford westerns. It turns out to be a dream sequence highlighting the power of a child's imagination and the role toys play in igniting that imagination. One may wonder what the fate of simple toys will be in this age of video games and computers. Why use your imagination when technology can provide the adventure with a single mouse click?

Anyway, the opening scene serves as a videotape flashback showing Andy (John Morris) playing with his toys as a child. He's now older and going off to college. As Andy packs for school, the toys ponder their fate. Will they be put away in the attic? Will they be thrown out? After years of loyalty to Andy, they are no longer being played with and they don't relish the idea of ending up in a landfill.

Instead, the toys get relocated to a day-care center. This seems to be the ideal situation. Children get to play with them all the time and when they grow up, other children take their place. And the toys get to meet others toys.

Barbie (Jodi Benson) is particularly pleased when she hooks up with Ken (Michael Keaton), a hunky doll who shares her passion for clothes. The filmmakers have a field day tweaking Ken's masculinity, or lack thereof. One hopes the younger viewers don't ask Mom and Dad for an explanation.

Woody (Tom Hanks) doesn't like the move, however. He points out that they belong to Andy and should remain loyal to him even if he is going off to college. The others disagree and remain as Woody heads for home.

The toys soon discover that there's trouble in paradise. Not only do they get abused by the toddlers -- older children play nice with the other established toys -- they soon find themselves prisoners, destined for a lifetime of vicious, humiliating manhandling by unruly tykes.

In the meantime, Woody ends up in the home of a young girl, Bonnie (Emily Hahn), who adopts him as her new toy. Her other toys later tell Woody about the evil that lurks at the day-care center and he returns to help his friends.

The film now becomes a wild and wacky prison break -- imagine if "The Great Escape" starred Bugs Bunny. The visual gags include Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) moving stealthily through a heavily patrolled yard as a tortilla and a security system run by a cymbal-clanging monkey. Later, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) woos Jessie (Joan Cusack) in an unexpected way.

 

The jokes come fast and furious. ... And it's all in 3-D. Whoopee. I saw this film on an IMAX screen and the images do look great. But do they add to the movie experience? If "Toy Story 3" were a special effects extravaganza like "Avatar," fine. But this is more of a character-driven tale, and as such, 3-D seems unnecessary. Count me among the folks who have yet to be impressed by the 3-D craze. Bring back Smell-O-Vision.

Continuing in the more-is-too-much category, "Toy Story 3" adds so many wonderful characters that you want to see more of them. Instead, we only get glimpses of such jovial eccentrics as the thespian hedgehog Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton) and Trixie the triceratops (Kristen Schaal).

One new character who doesn't get shortchanged is Ken, with Keaton acting as the scene stealer. Even as a cartoon character, he shows his comic chops.

At movie's end, sentiment takes over and as someone whose eyes got a little moist during the singing of "When She Loved Me" in "Toy Story 2," this critic got choked up again. At least I wasn't alone as I heard other people sniffling behind me.

"Toy Story 3," as with the other Pixar movies, draws an emotional response because, while its characters are toys, their traits are decidedly human. As a result, we become attached to them and care about what happens to them. While Andy may have stopped playing with them, these toys continue to move us and entertain us. Batteries not included.

"Toy Story 3" is preceded by a short, whimsical film "Day and Night."

"Toy Story 3"
Featuring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack and Michael Keaton
Rated G, 103 minutes
Directed by Lee Unkrich

Grade: A-

Bob Tremblay writes for the MetroWest Daily News