SDCC: What's new, what's familiar in Toy Story 3

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Grown men watching Toy Story 2 still burst into tears when Sarah McLachlan's "When She Loved Me" plays during Jessie's memory. That hit sequel ended on a bittersweet note, with the toys deciding to stay with Andy even though they knew he would eventually outgrow them. Now the upcoming 3-D Toy Story 3 will fulfill that theme, with Andy at 18 going off to college.

"Well, in that song, we took a character who we didn't really know yet in Toy Story 2, and we put her through that, and we saw what she'd been through emotionally," said Lee Unkrich, the director of Toy Story 3, in a group interview at Comic-Con in San Diego over the weekend. "Now we're going to see how it affects our main characters to be in a similar situation. It's really fun to take them and put them in a situation where we don't necessarily know how they're going to react. Each character is going to react in a different way to the situation. So that's exactly what happens. Everybody deals with it differently, and that's what drives a lot of the conflict."

Toy Story was Pixar's first feature-length animated film, and since then many Pixar artists who had been with the company before then have grown up, had children, won Oscars and more. It's been 11 years since Toy Story 2.

"A lot of that is informing, just emotionally, what we're doing in Toy Story 3," Unkrich continued. "The last thing we wanted to do was make a movie about these characters going off and having a wacky adventure somewhere. When we arrived at the notion of having Andy grown up and about to head off to college, that seemed like the perfect life event to place our story at, to provide that rich, deep emotion."

Pixar may have been picky about what would justify making Toy Story 3, but the voice actors were just waiting for the call. "Every time we would bump into Tom Hanks or Tim Allen or anyone, they would always ask, 'When? When is Toy Story 3?'" Unkrich recalls. "They all wanted to do it, and they were all instantly on board and excited to be a part of it."

Hanks, Allen, Joan Cusack et al. will welcome even more new toys into Andy's room. Unkrich announced that a Ken doll, to be voiced by Michael Keaton, will join the Barbie who joined the gang when they infiltrated Al's Toy Barn in Toy Story 2.

"I mean, we actually have more characters in Toy Story 3 than any film that we've made at Pixar," Unkrich said. "When we decided to have Ken in the film, I had a very specific vision of which Ken I wanted to have in the film, because there've been a lot of Kens over the years. Sometimes he has real hair, sometimes he has molded hair, but there was a Ken kind of from the late '80s that's my personal version of Ken, that kind of really smarmy, molded plastic feathered hair. I knew from the get-go that that's the one that we had to go with. Michael Keaton came to us very early on, when we started to think about who would be the perfect voice of Ken."

Pixar continues to push visual boundaries with their films. The fur in Monsters, Inc. was a breakthrough, as was the water in Finding Nemo and the post-apocalyptic Earth and deep space in WALL-E. Even though Toy Story 3 returns to familiar territory, animators are still pushing it further.

"If you've been watching our movies over the years, you know that each one has gotten more and more beautiful-looking, I think, than the last," Unkrich said. "They've gotten more sophisticated. It's not just the technology, it's also the artistry at the studio. So when we sat down to start working on Toy Story 3, we knew that we were capable of making a really, really rich, beautiful world, because we'd done it on Ratatouille and WALL-E. The decision we had to make was 'How much different do we want this film to look?' Just because we have the technology now to do so much more, do we really want to? Because we wanted Toy Story 3 to fit in the canon of Toy Story 1 and Toy Story 2 and feel of a piece. That being said, we wanted it to look really beautiful. It feels of the universe, of the world that we created, yet it's exponentially more rich and beautiful and detailed."

One obvious evolution will be Andy's room. The bedroom of a teenager will have to be updated from the blue wallpapered design we saw in the first two films. "You can use your imaginatiom," Unkrich said. "It would be kind of weird if an 18-year-old was still living in the room of Toy Story 2. We can use a lot of design, because a lot of that great design work had been done on the other movies. But we now had to fill in those ensuing six, seven years in Andy's life, from where we were in 2 to 3."

Toy Story 3 opens June 18, 2010.