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Disney/Pixar hit paydirt with Toy Story 3, The A-Team is tasty junk food

by Mark Burger

With Toy Story 3, Disney Studios and Pixar Studios score yet another animated triumph, the proverbial hat trick in the Toy Story franchise, begun 15 (!) years ago with the original film and continued in 1999 with Toy Story 2.

Should Toy Story 3 be the final installment, it’s a grand send-off to the series… although it’s hardly out of the realm of possibility that it could be continued in the future. Once the studio begins tallying up the box-office receipts, there’s no doubt that some people will be thinking — and perhaps soon enough, making — yet another sequel.

The passage of time between films has not been ignored by the filmmakers. Rather, it’s a pivotal part of the story. With young Andy (voiced by John Morris) now a teenager and soon to depart for college, his collection of toys are in a collective panic. They will either be relegated to the attic, to the next yard sale, or — most worrisome of all — to the neighborhood dump. After all, now they’re just taking up space.

Like countless children before him, Andy has outgrown the playthings that gave him such joy as a child. But the toys themselves still have a lot of life and love left in them, something that Andy (with his adolescent interests) doesn’t seem to recognize.

The toys eventually wind up at the nearby Sunnyside Daycare Center, where they encounter other toys who have apparently adjusted to the change of scenery.

But all is not sunny at Sunnyside, despite outward appearances. The toys there have been regimented in a quasi-fascistic hierarchy by the seemingly avuncular Lotso (voiced by Ned Beatty), a pink teddy bear who’s more of a fuzzy Mussolini than a cuddly critter. He makes the rules, and those who break them are soon dispensed with — by being disposed of. Old toys break easily, after all.

The story then becomes an animated version of the World War II classic The Great Escape (1963), as the toys mount an elaborate, and undeniably exciting, escape from Sunnyside Daycare under the cover of darkness. Even if they succeed, however, there is still no guarantee that they will wind up safe and sound in Andy’s attic.

If Toy Story 3 sounds inappropriately political, that is hardly the case, but writer Michael Arndt (working from a story by Andrew Stanton, John Lasseter and director Lee Unkrich) keeps the film as engaging for grown-ups as for the kids. It’s just plain funny for all ages, which has been a hallmark of the franchise.

The star-studded vocal talent is back: Tom Hanks as Woody, Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear, Joan Cusack as Jessie, Don Rickles and Estelle Harris as Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (respectively and respectfully), Wallace Shawn as Rex, John Ratzenberger as Hamm (the piggy bank), R. Lee Ermey as Sarge and Laurie Metcalf as Andy’s Mom, while Blake Clark fills in for the late Jim Varney as Slinky Dog. Like old friends, it’s nice to see and hear them again. Disney has a long and rich (literally!) history of creating immortal cartoon characters, and the Toy Story films have produced multiple favorites.

New additions to the roster include the aforementioned Beatty, Jodi Benson (of The Little Mermaid fame) as Barbie and Michael Keaton as Ken (appropriately preening and vain), Whoopi Goldberg, Bonnie Hunt, Laraine Newman and Jeff Garlin.

The visual effects (with or without the benefit of 3-D) are expectedly spectacular, and although there is the occasional slow patch in the film’s first half, it’s not enough to spoil the fun or the movie. Toy Story 3 is predicted to be one of the summer season’s biggest hits, and it deserves to be.

The big-screen version of The A-Team is no more (and no less) preposterous and silly than the television series it’s based on. Although it ran for four seasons and earned a cult following (hence the movie, of course), “The A-Team” was hardly a paragon of the medium. At its best, it was mindless popcorn fun. So too is the movie. It’s certainly no worse than the series.

The story, such (and much) as it is, has been updated to the Gulf War, instead of the Vietnam War springboard for the series. The title team is headed by John “Hannibal” Smith (Liam Neeson), abetted by “Faceman” (Bradley Cooper), “Mad Man” Murdock (Sharlto Copley) and Mohawk-ed BA Baracus (Quinton “Rampage” Jackson). They play dirty but they play to win — and they always do.

Until, at least until a mission gone bad, at which point they are hung out to dry by the US military and the US government. So they promptly escape from prison and set about figuring out who and why they were set up, and exacting retribution — in as noisy and destructive a fashion as possible.

The A-Team is sheer cartoon tomfoolery, yet it evinces little aspiration to be more than that. Once again, this is in keeping with the tone of the series.

The actors who comprise the title team have an odd onscreen chemistry. In some scenes they’re in sync. In others, each appears to be acting in a universe all his own. It’s neither distracting or detrimental, but somehow endearingly goofy.

It’s fun watching a fine actor like Neeson sell out in a role like this. Great British actors (Neeson is Irish yet found his initial fame on the London stage) have long been known to take the money and run: Think Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Caine. Yet they always bring a patina of class to even their fast-buck roles. Here, Neeson glowers, growls and smokes a mean cigar in decisive fashion, even while surrounded by lunacy. He’s playing it straight, but with an unmistakable mischief. He doesn’t sacrifice his dignity, he’s just renting it out for a while.

Cooper’s fine as the fast-talking, fun-loving Face, and Copley (who made an impressive feature debut with District 9 last year) plays his first Hollywood role to the hilt. (It’s amusing to note — and notice — that during the course of the film, Neeson and Copley both slip in and out of their native accents… and it doesn’t matter!) Pro wrestler Jackson does his best as BA, dropping “Fool!” into random conversations and busting heads when the need calls for it, but this is one case where Mr. T is a hard act to follow and an impossible one to better.

Jessica Biel, looking just fine in uniform, plays Charisa Sosa, an old flame of Face’s and fellow soldier now assigned to track them down, and Patrick Wilson is clearly having a high old time playing Lynch, the CIA spook who’s never what he says he is until he finally comes clean and admits that, yes, he’s the bad guy. Acting is not what The A-Team is all about, but it appears that the cast had fun.

And, by being in the proper mood and maintaining low expectations, audiences just might, too. The A-Team is cheerfully brainless, brainlessly cheerful, and vice-versa throughout.

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