At some point a few years ago, someone walking the halls at Pixar HQ must have turned to someone else and said, “Hey, what if Woody, Buzz, and the gang from Toy Story ended up in a child-care center, and all the kids there loved them, and they lived happily ever after, ’cause, you know, Andy’s not getting any younger…”

And then the ‘someone else’ must have responded, “Great idea! But… what if the child-care center was really a prison camp lorded over by a big fluffy purple teddy bear, and Buzz gets brainwashed and becomes a guard, and at one point Mr. Potato Head loses his body and becomes Mr. Tortilla Head, and then Buzz becomes, like, this flamenco dancer who’s fluent in Spanish, and then there’s also this little girl who has a stuffed unicorn and a hedgehog that wears lederhosen, and oh yeah, what if the evil bear is really super-cute and smells like strawberries?”

And that, folks, is the magic and genius of Pixar.

Toy Story 3 is instantly the most inventive and astoundingly entertaining three-quel ever made (which, granted, isn’t hard– The Godfather 3, anyone? How about Beverly Hills Cop 3? Jaws 3D?)

Seriously, though, Pixar’s golden touch is stronger than ever. It’s almost getting to the point where we need to start wondering if the studio heads have sold their souls to the devil. They just continue to amaze, delight, and entertain to the nth degree. And not only that, their movies actually seem to be getting better.

Toy Story 3 starts (after an insanely fun opening sequence) with Andy packing up to head off to college. Despite now being 17, he’s managed to hold on to all of his old toys (well, not all… we learn that Wheezy, Etch-a-Sketch, and poor Little Bo Peep are no longer in the picture). The question now, though, is which toys go with Andy to college, which ones go up into the attic, and which ones get donated to Sunnyside Daycare?

Eventually all the toys end up at Sunnyside, and after being greeted with syrupy sweet happiness and open arms by the center’s toys, the seedy underbelly of daycare life is exposed.

It turns out that Lotso (Ned Beatty), the big fluffy purple teddy bear, had a particularly nasty childhood, and now he’s hell-bent on making everyone else as miserable as possible, too. Beatty is perfect for the part, effortlessly going from rainbows-and-sunshine bear to a warden that rivals Shawshank‘s Norton.

But the new faces don’t end there. In all, more than a dozen new characters are introduced, helping make the movie more fresh than it already feels. Michael Keaton’s Ken (of “and Barbie” fame) steals the show as Lotso’s Number Two; one of the movie’s funniest moments has him trying on dozens of outfits in the walk-in closet of his Dream House. Other highlights include Chatter Telephone (Teddy Newton), Mr. Pricklepants (the lederhosen-ed hedgehog, voiced by Timothy Dalton), and Buttercup (the stuffed unicorn, voiced by Jeff Garlin).

Toy Story 3 is hugely imaginative and hilarious, with an edge-of-your-seat climax (not since Star Wars has there been such a compelling trash chute sequence), and some of the best characters to hit the screen so far this year (and that includes real-life humans). And if that weren’t enough, it also tugs mercilessly at your heartstrings. Parents, get ready to shed a tear or two… at the very least, you’ll get a little misty.

It may only be a ‘kids movie’ but it’s very hard to imagine anything coming down the pike later this year that will give you this much joy.

5/5 stars