“I know you don’t know me from G.I. Joe,” says Ken (voiced by Michael Keaton), “But come live in my Dream House.” Barbie (Jodi Benson) beams, the camera closes on their facing profiles, and then they gush simultaneously, “It’s almost as if we’re made for each other.”
Of course they are. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re ready for each other. For when they meet in Toy Story 3, Ken and Barbie are coming from very different places. She’s arriving at a daycare center, the Sunnyside, following a bit of trauma: her girl Molly (Beatrice Miller) has decided, in a seeming split second, to toss her once-favorite doll, leg warmers and all. And Ken, well, it’s not so clear how he came to Sunnyside or what he’s been up to since he arrived. He does have a nice ascot, as well as the Dream House, which features a pool and a disco room. Best of all, he exults, he’s got a whole “room to change clothes in.” Eeeeh!
Barbie can’t guess, being plastic, but Ken’s beguiling surface is actually deceptive. And… even as you begin your own guessing at what his shiny chest and colorful swim trunks really mean, you see that Ken’s secret life is more complicated than whether he’s gay or not. You sort of know he is, after all, much like his fellow toys. They tend to roll their eyes when he poses, and observe that he is, after all, “a girl’s toy.”
In this cleverly entertaining movie, Ken’s story is even more complicated. He keeps track of new toys’ assignments at Sunnyside, and he runs the nightly card game. And oh yes, he’s head of security.
It’s surprising that Sunnyside has security, at least to the new toys. These would be Andy’s toys, moral center Woody (Tom Hanks) and self-loving Buzz (Tim Allen), as well as shrewd Jessie (Joan Cusack), ever panicky Rex (Wally Shawn), and all the other toys you’ve come to know and love in the first two Toy Stories. As the third installment begins, Molly’s big brother (John Morris) is 17 and headed to college. Instructed by his mom (Laurie Metcalf) to relegate his collection to the attic, daycare center or trash, he puts off the decision, a delay that leads (inevitably) to confusion and mistakes and so the toys make their own, not so well informed, choice, joining Barbie in the Sunnyside box and so deposited before Ken and his buddies.
These include Lotso (Ned Beatty), a plush pink teddy bear who promises the newcomers that here at the daycare center they will be played with—forever. When daycare kids grow up, he points out, others replace them. The camera pans up to show photo after photo of classes of kids. “You’ll never be outgrown and neglected,” Lotso rhapsodizes. “No owners means no heartbreak.” As Andy’s toys have so recently undergone quite a bit of heartbreak—being stuffed in a black plastic bag, deposited on the curb, and nearly scooped up by the garbage collectors—they’re inclined to accept this new story, to embrace their new location and feel lucky. But even as they sigh and smile, and Barbie moves in with Ken, Woody remains skeptical, as well as abjectly loyal to his original kid. He lights out for home, determined to “always be there for Andy,” no matter how full of detours the journey.
One of these detours involves Woody being picked up by a daycare kid, Bonnie (Emily Hahn), who loves her own collection and treats them to tea parties when they’re not being descended upon by witches (as one of Bonnie’s toys explains to Woody, “We do a lot of improv here”). While Woody is wondering how to get away and get back to Andy before he leaves for school, he learns another tidbit of story, namely, that Sunnyside is not what it looks like, and that his friends, being the newbies, are assigned to the Caterpillar Room.
In this room, the children are younger than in the Butterfly Room. And in this room, you see (though Woody doesn’t), the children are monsters. During playtime, they tear into their toys with an unnerving ferocity, pounding, biting, licking, and slamming them into walls, when they’re not using them as paintbrushes or dunking them in paste. When Buzz complains that the room “is not age-appropriate for me and my friends,” Lotso puts the new toys on nighttime lockdown, with Ken their keeper.
The rest of the plot is a series of mostly antic, sometimes anxious episodes, as the toys break them out of their prison. Here Toy Story 3 ratchets up the genre-spoofing, with a Great Escapey allusions and schemes to outsmart their captors, as well as a marvelous flashback to explain Lotso’s meanness, narrated by his former compatriot, Chuckles the now very sad clown (Bud Luckey). A tale of abandonment, it’s set during a rainstorm that leaves Lotso, Chuckles, and the ever-abject Big Baby, whose broken eye, lumbering gait, and lack of language only make her role as Lotso’s enforcer more ominous.
All this makes for a set of plot turns and themes more complex than the first two films. Growing up, being responsible, feeling sad as well as afraid, even facing bullies who can’t be bargained with, the toys have to figure out their new places in a world that’s unfamiliar, even as they pursue their one mission in life, to be played with, for ever and ever.
Amid all the lesson-learning, Ken remains delightfully self-referential. In a flurry of clothes-modeling for Barbie, he twirls and vogues and dances with strange and delightful energy. Horrified to learn that she’s tricked him, Ken finds himself tied up and stripped down to his underwear, as he watches her brutally rip one vintage outfit after another in half. “Not the Nehru jacket!” he whimpers. Confused and superficial as Ken may be, he’s also pretty fabulous.