Toy Story 3 - laughs, tears, fears and technology firsts

"Mummy, I want to go home!" So piped up the under-five in front of me at yesterday's preview screening of Toy Story 3.

What had perplexed the little fellow was not the movie - which hadn't even started - but the preceding, seat-shaking demonstration of the new Dolby Surround 7.1 audio system, complete with full 3D visual effects.

Thankfully his parents - who were as keen as me to see the latest installment in the Toy Story saga - convinced junior to stay put; within minutes he was rapt, as the 3D action unfolded into possibly Pixar's best movie yet.

An extra dimension for sound, too

Dolby had invited us to a screening of Toy Story 3 at the Empire, Leicester Square. The cinema is not only showing the film using Dolby's 3D Digital Cinema technology (glasses shown below), but is showcasing the company's latest audio format.

As we reported last month, Toy Story 3 is the first film to be released in Dolby Surround 7.1, which uses eight discrete soundtrack channels - designed to create a more enveloping sound and better localisation, as well as expanding the 'sweet spot' in which the best surround experience is available.

Less than 300 cinemas are so far fitted out for the new technology - others will show the film in a standard 5.1 mix - but on yesterday's showing, it's a format more multiplexes should be adopting pronto (even if the trailer does scare a few toddlers).

But more on the technology later - first and foremost, what makes the movie so special, however and wherever you watch?

From toy to man

Unlike so much animation, which keeps its characters agelessly fixed in time, Toy Story 3 has moved on. It's been more than 10 years since the last movie, and along the way Andy - the toys' owner - has grown up and consigned his surviving former favourites to the toy chest.

In the first of many scenes that'll have you tearing-up behind your 3D glasses, Andy has to choose whether to leave childish things behind him as he embarks on college life.

Watch closely and you'll also get a snapshot of what's happened to Sid - the sadistic, toy-smashing boy next door from the first Toy Story - now he's all grown up.


A series of scrapes and escapes sees Woody, Buzz and friends consigned to Sunnyside daycare, where toys fall under the leadership of 'Lotso' the bear.

It's these scenes that are the most layered - with plenty of slapstick fun for younger viewers and film-references galore for the older audience to enjoy (with numerous parental nods of recognition at the unique havoc a room of toddlers can create).

As matters take a sinister tone at Sunnyside, both the laughs and suspense increase. If I tell you that the film's production design team visited Alcatraz for inspiration, you get the idea...

Keaton's king of Kitsch

There are a lot of great new characters in the film - i'd have liked to have seen more of Timothy Dalton's 'luvvie' hedgehog, Mr Pricklepants - with a standout appearance by Barbie's clothes-obsessed Ken (voiced by Michael Keaton).

There's even a cameo for Totoro, from Hayao 'Sprited Away' Miyazaki's My Neighbour Totoro - just one of John Lasseter's nods to the Japanese animator.

The film crams in action scene after action scene - it beats every summer blockbuster so far for beautifully executed sequences, with the loving detail that Pixar lavishes on its best animations. You may even learn some Spanish...

Cry baby

Toy Story 3 ramps up the fear-factor, too. Children in the audience may have only been slightly wary of the scary Big Baby, but for adults like me with more than a touch of doll-phobia it was a truly disturbing sight!

The characters are also put in genuine peril - leading to a highly moving climactic scene where there was hardly a dry eye behind those Dolby glasses. Yes, I admit it, I was blubbing...

Sound and vision

So, how was the 3D and Surround 7.1 experience? Personally, I found the latter added more to the experience than the former. The 3D treatment is subtle, rather than in-your-face gimmicky, giving the animation and characters more body and realism.

And maybe because of this - and the comparatively short @100 minute running time - Toy Story 3 is the first 3D movie i've seen where i've emerged fatigue- and headache-free.

The Dolby Surround 7.1 sound, meanwhile, was pleasingly enveloping, adding both weight and atmosphere to action and emotional moments alike. Disney hinted the eventual Blu-ray could benefit from the 7.1 treatment, too.,

One top tip from Dolby at this point - it recommends you ideally sit around two-thirds back, in the middle, to get the very best from the 3D and 7.1 presentations.

That's not all, folks!

There's more. Before Toy Story 3's magnificence unfolds, you're treated to the latest in Pixar's series of short animations. Day & Night is a six-minute short that gives personas to daytime and nighttime, who have to learn to get along. It's a strangly old-fashioned film in many ways - harking back to the golden era of cartoons in its tone and retro 'real-world' look - but an amusing taster all the same, getting your smiling muscles warmed up for the main feature.

To 3D BD and beyond!

With a truly blockbuster movie yet to appear on 3D Blu-ray, the manufacturers and retailers of 3D TV gear are desperate to have a mainstream hit on their hands. How else will they persuade a cash-strapped public to invest in their premium products?

Well, while the wait for Avatar 3D BD continues, I wonder if Sony, Panasonic, LG et al are knocking down Disney's door, begging them for Toy Story 3 as a pre-Christmas 3D BD present.

And here's hoping that 7.1 soundtrack definitely does find its way onto both 2D and 3D versions of the Blu-ray. Or it won't be the kids that are unhappy....