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Sneak peek: Pixar's 'Toy Story 3' a very big winner

The third installment of its original franchise doesn't come out until June 18. But an advance screening at Pixar's headquarters shows that the studio is still very much on top of its game.

Pixar Animation Studio's 'Toy Story 3' comes out June 18. But CNET News attended an advance screening Thursday and the film is a big winner. Pixar

EMERYVILLE, Calif.--Oh, Pixar, Pixar, Pixar. You've done it again.

Let me just say it now: "Toy Story 3" is fantastic. I saw an advanced screening Thursday night, and going back over the notes I took in the dark theater at Pixar's headquarters here, I find this that I wrote about a third of the way into the film: "I already know it's a BIG hit."

At Pixar's request, those of us in the room for the screening are constrained about what we can say. Director Lee Unkrich, who spoke prior to the film along with producer Darla Anderson, pleaded with the audience not to reveal anything about the plot and to "preserve the specialness" for the rest of the world to discover for themselves when "Toy Story 3" opens on June 18. "Toy Story 3" will be among the rising tide of 3D movies now coming to the screen, though this preview version was in old-fashioned 2D.

Of course, through three trailers for the film that Pixar has already released, the world at large already knows the following: Andy, the child to whom the toys from the first two installments of the series belong, is going off to college, and he and his family face the oh-so-important question of what they're going to do with the now-famous playthings ensemble.

It's also known that the toys are subsequently donated and end up arriving at a day care center called Sunnyside, where they are enthusiastically welcomed by a giant, cheering roomful of other toys shouting, "new toys!" There's a Ken and a Barbie, Mr. Potato Head re-imagined as a cucumber, and Flamenco Buzz Lightyear.

In one scene, a horde of small children at the day care center burst through a door and within seconds absolutely overtake our toy heroes. In my notes, I wrote, simply, "One of the best chaos scenes ever!"

'New toys!' Pixar

It's hard to know how to review a movie when you can't give anything away. The only way to do so, it seems, is to offer some impressions. So for example, for a bunch of toys that have lived years without being adequately played with by their now college-bound kid, the day care center seems like toy heaven. The chance to be played with all the time!

There's escape scenes, homages to "Cool Hand Luke," the clever use of a tortilla, and tons of little details that show that the Pixar team cares deeply that every shot be pitch perfect. After all, an age-old plush toy's nose is going to be kind of worn down, isn't it?

This is Pixar's 11th feature and the first time it has returned to its "Toy Story" roots since 1999. Along the way, it has won five Oscars for best animated feature, including the last three for, respectively, "Ratatouille," "Wall-E," and "Up." Along the way, the studio is batting 1.000 on producing box office hits, and has broken new technical ground in the way it has produced computer animated fur (in "Monsters, Inc.") and the incredibly complex physics involved in animating hundreds of helium balloons (in "Up.")

Yet despite its unbroken record for winners, I have somehow gone into the last few Pixar movies with lower expectations than it probably deserves. I suppose it's a sense that, after all these hits, doesn't the studio have to stumble eventually?

'Toy Story 3' features one of the best chaos scenes in a movie ever. Pixar

"Toy Story 3" seemed like it would be a natural stumbling moment. After all, as someone wrote me on Twitter this evening, "When was the last time (was there a last time) when any movie [with] a '3' at the end was great?"

If you know your "Toy Story" history, you might even remember that back in 2004, before it bought Pixar, Disney--which owned the rights to the characters from and to make sequels of Pixar films--announced it was going to make a third installment. The film was to be made without Pixar's involvement, and the buzz about it was that it would be a straight-to-DVD disaster.

But after the 2006 acquisition of Pixar--which made Steve Jobs Disney's largest single stockholder--the film returned home, and before long, the main original actors--Tom Hanks and Tim Allen--signed on to reprise their roles as Woody and Buzz Lightyear, respectively.

Still, I wasn't sure what to expect. It just seemed hard to imagine how a third "Toy Story" could be all that good. The trailers look fun, but don't tell a full story. How could Pixar yet again make us care about these toys, whom we've known for as much as 15 years. Pixar, by the way, figured out a way to bridge the gap of the many children who wouldn't otherwise have known the characters by re-releasing both "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" and putting them together recently in theaters in a double-feature. I had wanted to go, but never made it, alas.

A convert
Now, after having sat through "Toy Story 3," albeit a version that's not 100 percent complete--Unkrich, Anderson, and their team still have about five weeks to work on it, after all--I can say without reservation that I am a full-on convert. They hit it out of the park, and as a viewer, you know that's true within minutes.

How? Well, through great storytelling, through finding the exact right way to send Andy off to college, and yet still leave room for a "Toy Story 4." By keeping us on the edge of our seats with great drama and by really making us care what happens to these, well, toys. Again.

I can be emotional sometimes, and I'm not ashamed to say that the end of the movie made me cry. I know I'm not the only one because I heard someone in the row behind me say to their friend when it was over, "stop crying." But how could I not? Pixar, yet again, has managed to turn animated silliness into top-tier filmmaking that tugs our heartstrings, that makes us laugh time and time again, that gives us white knuckles, that will appeal to kids and their parents--and even those without children--and yet, unlike most of its competitors, manages to do so without stooping to scene after scene with little more than tired scatological jokes.

In journalism, they tell us to "show, not tell." It's hard when you can't talk plot points. So I hope my enthusiasm for "Toy Story 3" can carry the day here. The film won't hit theaters for two-and-a-half months, so you'll have to wait that long to see if you agree with my assessment. But I'm willing to bet that you'll leave the theater when you do go see it with a big smile on your face. And next March, I'm fairly certain Pixar will walk away with yet another Oscar.