SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Hollywood's favorite toys have been shelved for more than a decade, but Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, the stars of "Toy Story 3", say it feels like no time has passed since Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear last went on an adventure.
But ahead of the movie's U.S. debut on Friday, it is easy to see that Tinseltown and animation have changed a lot since "Toy Story 2" hit screens in 1999 and, certainly, since 1995's original "Toy Story" started a revolution in animated movies.
Computer animation became an industry norm, media giant Walt Disney Co bought the films' maker, Pixar Animation Studios, for more than $7 billion, and the hottest thing going in Hollywood is 3D, of which "Toy Story 3" takes advantage.
Still, when Hanks and Allen sat down with Reuters to talk about the movie at Pixar's studios in Emeryville, Calif., east of San Francisco, they said it felt like home.
"It's honestly like we've never left the place," said Hanks, the voice of the gangly Woody ever since Pixar began.
"It just seems like moments later," chimed in Allen, the voice of Buzz.
Trouble is again afoot for the toys. Their owner Andy is no longer a young boy and is heading to college when Woody, Buzz and their friends including cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), Barbie (Jodi Benson) and Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris) get mistakenly tossed away.
The group winds up in a day care center where they are turned and picked over by a group of toddlers when all they really want is to go home. The gang also meets a host of new toys -- including Barbie's main man Ken (Michael Keaton) and Lotso (Ned Beatty), a plush strawberry scented bear.
Woody gets discouraged, Buzz gets reprogrammed and hope for a reunion with Andy seems lost until they hatch an escape. Yet, to move on, they must first learn what it means to grow up.
In the 15 years since "Toy Story," Pixar and movie animation have done a lot of growing, too. In 1995, the first movie's style -- characters made by computers instead of drawn by hand -- seemed a big risk because movie fans had never seen that type of full-length feature film.
But with $360 million at worldwide box offices and another $485 million for "Toy Story 2," the pair of movies kicked into high gear a Hollywood animation revolution that was joined by DreamWorks ("Shrek"), 20th Century Fox ("Ice Age") and others.
For its part, Pixar cranked out successive box office hits, titles such as "Monsters, Inc." "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles," "Cars," "WALL-E" and "Up." Seeing a potential competitor, Disney acquired Pixar in 2006 and gave it free rein to crank out hits.
But scoring a box office smash is easier said than done, and "Toy Story 3" director Lee Unkrich knows it. He understands that with each successive movie in a franchise, audiences often find themselves fatigued looking at the same characters.
"We knew that there was a curse on having the number '3' after the title of your movie," said Unkrich, who co-directed "Toy Story 2." "I think the bar was very high on the first 'Toy Story.' We tempted fate by even making a second one."
To update the characters, "Toy Story 3," animators rebuilt Woody, Buzz and the gang from scratch using new software. They also added 3D at a time when 3D is all the rage among fans and theater owners who charge higher ticket prices for 3D films.
So far that combination -- along with the good storytelling that has become Pixar's hallmark -- has won over critics. The movie scores a 100 percent positive rating on website rottentomatoes.com.
Veteran critic Todd McCarthy of film site indieWIRE writes that "the third installment is most often where filmmakers trip up...Does 'Toy Story 3' break the jinx? Pretty much so, yes."
Editing by Peter Henderson and Bob Tourtellotte