Are the Toy Story films the finest trilogy in cinema history?
The Lord of the Rings and Back to the Future have their advocates, but now that Toy Story 3 is here, I doubt that Pixar's three signature cartoons can be matched for their consistent quality, or for the way each episode functions as both a piece of a larger whole, and as an accessible and satisfying work in its own right. They're even more impressive when you bear in mind that it's 15 years since the first Toy Story and 11 since Toy Story 2. The third in the series won't be hailed as the best – it doesn't have the novelty value for that – but it could well be the most moving, as evinced by all the media discussion last week of its power to make grown men cry into their popcorn.
The premise is certainly a lip-trembler. Andy, the owner of Woody the cowboy (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the toys, is now 17. About to leave for college, and cede his bedroom to his little sister, he has to put away childish things, which means that our plastic pals are destined to gather dust in the attic. Woody tries to put a brave face on the situation: "Those guys from the Christmas decorations box are fun, right?" But his fellow toys are miffed. "Come on," huffs one of them. "Let's see how much we're worth on eBay." Soon, however, some elegant plotting has the toys being donated to a nursery which isn't the paradise it initially appears. Depending on which character you identify with, the film is a fable about being old enough to leave home, or being so old that you're put into one. Either way, no one will blame you for shedding a manly tear.
The ensuing prison-break scenario is studded with the now-customary witticisms and visual gags, and Woody scales such heights of tireless nobility that he becomes one of the great big-screen heroes. The pace doesn't slacken until we come to an ending which is joltingly unexpected, but which, after the event, seems so inevitable and fitting that you can't imagine it any other way. I managed to remain snuffle-free, but it was a close thing.
Toy Story 3 isn't just a superb cartoon, but a superb comedy, and a superb prison thriller. It could also be, in vertiginous 3-D, the action movie of the summer so far. Beware, though: at times it's also an extremely spooky horror film. The series has always had its scary aspects, but this is the instalment that's most likely to give its youngest viewers nightmares. For starters, a lot of the action takes place at night, and for much of the time the characters are either trapped or facing imminent destruction. The arch-villain's machinations are rendered all the more chilling because he justifies them with such avuncular plausibility, while his enforcers – a mute, monstrous doll and a manic, bug-eyed monkey – could have children crying for different reasons than their dads.
I don't mean to suggest that Toy Story 3 is anything other than a delight, but given that you won't want to be distracted by frightened dependents, and given that the zinging short film that's shown beforehand may be too abstract for young viewers, you might want to leave the little ones at home. Besides, you wouldn't want to let them see you blubbing over a cartoon, would you?
The Concert does some pretty skilful tear-jerking, too. Its hero is a once-revered conductor (Aleksei Guskov) who was blacklisted when he got on the wrong side of Brezhnev 30 years ago. Now working as a cleaner in a Moscow theatre, he intercepts an invitation to the Bolshoi Orchestra to perform in Paris, and decides to pass off his own gaggle of washed-up musicians as the real thing. A rollicking farce gets under way, but The Concert grows deeper and richer when it brings on a French violinist (Mélanie Laurent, inset right, the vengeful heroine of Inglourious Basterds), and reveals more and more of the characters' hidden agendas and secret histories. It misjudges some of its multi-octave leaps between sentiment and silliness, but it's warm-hearted enough to leave you glowing.
The week's other French film, Rapt, should leave you with the opposite sensation. It begins with the kidnapping of a leading Parisian industrialist (Yvan Attal). A gang of men in balaclavas lock him in a basement and lop off one of his fingers, but, unbeknown to him, that's the least of his problems. In the outside world, his affairs and gambling debts come to light, and his relatives, colleagues and government cronies distance themselves. Lucas Belvaux's drama is unusually serious for a film about a kidnapping, with almost no action sequences and little dialogue between the captive and his gaolers.
Indeed, for a long section in the middle, it feels as if we're reading a dry official document on police and legal procedure, without much human interest to go with it. But the cold cruelty of the first and last half hours is powerful enough to vindicate the title.
Also Showing: 18/07/2010
Bluebeard (80 mins, 15)
A poor young woman marries a wealthy lord (above), despite the rumours that his previous wives have come to sticky ends. Catherine Breillat's inert staging of the classic folk tale is, to be generous, a minor work. The framing device of having two sisters reading the story is little more than an irritant, and the shoestring historical scenes are like a hey-nonny-no-ing stately home pageant. Worse still, Bluebeard's beard isn't even blue.
Rough Aunties (103 mins)
Voyeuristic documentary about Bobbi Bear, a small, female-led Durban charity dedicated to rescuing children from their abusers. The casework is horrendous, and there are some troubling insights into the South African mindset, but the ethics of the film itself are open to question. Rough Aunties shows us girls describing their ordeals to counsellors, and men being arrested – but not convicted – of child abuse. Could these people really have consented to this sort of exposure?
Mega Piranha (90 mins, 15)
Tiffany, she of "I Think We're Alone Now" infamy, co-stars with a shoal of cheaply computer-generated giant fish in a B-movie which swims up the narrow stream between "uproarious, Simpsons-worthy spoof" and "egregious load of cobblers". To be watched, if at all, with lots of friends and lots of alcohol.
Nicholas Barber sees The Rebound, a romcom in which Catherine Zeta-Jones falls for a much younger man