The first Toy Stories - released in 1996 and 2000 respectively - weren't merely landmarks in the technological development of the cinema; they were rare features to get a handle on the holy grail of popular culture previously attained only by The Simpsons (and not yet by, say, the Harry Potter or Twilight movies): the near-total satisfaction of every conceivable demographic quadrant, whether young, old, male or female. (Frankly, if you don't like the Toy Stories, you're a joyless dolt who deserves to be rained upon every day for the rest of your life.)
These originals have been reissued in 3D over the past year, and the extra dimension - retained for this third instalment - has allowed for a heightened appreciation of the changing nature of the toys' owner Andy's bedroom, the series' (play)ground zero: where once there was nothing but board games and picture books, now there are posters for something called Urban Tour, electric guitars and too-cool-for-school flystickers; the toys, we soon gather, don't stand a chance. "C'mon," concedes Mr. Potato Head, throwing a consoling arm around his missus, "Let's see how much we're going for on eBay."
The jokes in Toy Story 3 are marked by a renewed awareness of age and the effects of the passing of time; like Pixar's previous Up, it's an animation shot through with intimations of mortality, which makes it an unusual summer-holiday release, to say the least. As we watch the overweight Puss in Boots in Shrek Forever After, we're reassured this is a temporary blip - the product of an alternative universe, and not to be taken too seriously. In TS3, though, we see how Andy's dog Buster, a tiny, yappy thing in previous instalments, has grown old and slow and tired, an especially funny, poignant development.
The toys, too, are facing up to retirement of a sort, dispatched into care when Andy's mum unwittingly diverts a bag meant for the attic to the Sunnyside children's home. There are signs of renewal here - principally in the romance between Barbie and Ken ("When I look at you, I feel like we were made for one another!") - for the most part, Woody and chums are left wondering what the point might be of going on, an apt question for the third entry in any franchise to have on its mind.
For the Pixar animators, part three is clearly an opportunity for further fine palette-tuning, and they've busied themselves magicking up textures that might have been unthinkable ten years ago, when the company was perfecting the basics of grass, fur and water; the opening credit sequence alone strives to reproduce the grainy fuzz of VHS camcorder footage, and the faded sheen of pre-digital home photographs - yet more pixels going towards a memorialisation of how we once saw the world.
Elsewhere, the film is the now brand-standard mix of physical action, judicious storytelling and (this time nice, rather than great) gags. The crazed, toy-pummelling behaviour of the daycare kids is made to seem even crueller by the respite momentarily granted to Buzz in the form of a box-window view of an adjacent classroom in which the youngsters treat their playthings with the utmost respect. And there are details to cherish, too: the mushroom cloud of monkeys-in-a-barrel detonated in the course of the opening pursuit, and the sudden appearance, among the Weebles and Fisher-Price telephones, of one of Hayao Miyazaki's Totoro figures.
If TS3 feels less fresh than its predecessors, that can partly be attributed to familiarity: Buzz Lightyear's fluid identity has become a series standby, although here it results in a joke that's going to get very complicated when the film plays in Barcelona and Madrid. Partly, though, it's a generic issue. The first two Stories were flat-out, rubber-burning action-adventures, of a sort that opening pursuit recalls. Maybe it's the sudden downshift to Buster pace, but Toy Story 3 is conceived as a slow-burn prison break, replete with a Southern gang boss (Ned Beatty's strawberry-scented teddybear Lotso Huggins) running a Deer Hunter-style gambling den with the aid of a The Farmer Says game from the inside of a rec-room vending machine.
As digital animation goes, the whole seems a mite, well... penned in, and ironically, it may be that the 2D Toy Stories were possessed of a greater sense of space: consider the excitement generated from the toys' attempts to cross a road - or to navigate a supermarket's aisles - in Toy Story 2, and then contrast it with the one comparable sequence here, Woody's exquisitely timed (but necessarily constrained) slapstick jaunt around a toilet cubicle. Sunnyside, perhaps deliberately, isn't as fun an environment for these characters to inhabit: the final-reel stand-off between Woody and Lotso takes place at the exit of a rubbish chute, which is very Shawshank, and thematically thought-through (these are, after all, toys on the brink of obsolescence), but seems a less than salubrious stage for a U-rated entertainment.
Still, that may all just be another side-effect of growing up: you have to get your hands dirty sooner or later. If it's not quite the obvious masterpiece the first two were, Toy Story 3 made me smile - fondly, sometimes wistfully - more than almost any other animation this year, and the final transition from one playmate, and one generation, to the next, is as perfect in its emotional calibration as anything achieved by Up, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. Get there early for the accompanying short, the Teddy Newton-directed Day & Night, in which two blimpy Magoo-like figures representing the states of the title - or, for the spiritually inclined among us, yin and yang - learn to work together: it's one of the formally boldest things Pixar have ever done.
Toy Story 3 opens nationwide from Monday.