Threequels: traditionally the point when a movie franchise sells out and quality goes out of the window.

The Matrix, Spider-man, Shrek, even The Godfather: all series that were creatively bankrupt and utterly out of steam by the time their respective third film lurched into cinemas.

So all hail Pixar then, who have confounded the ‘threequels are rubbish’ rule with this stunning (and hopefully final) third installment in the Toy Story saga.

Why “hopefully final”? Don’t get us wrong, we’ve certainly not fallen out of love with Woody, Buzz, Mr Potato Head or the rest of the gang. Far from it. No,  it’s because Toy Story 3 deals with themes like death, mortality and growing up in such a subtle but gut-wrenching way that dragging the characters back again in five years time – after what they go through this time round – would feel just plain sadistic.

There’s an ‘end of an era’ vibe in Toy Story 3 that is simply and beautifully set-up ten minutes in. After a stunning opening action scene showing Andy, back when he was a 10-year-old, playing an elaborate and hugely imagination scenario with all his favourite toys (the highlight is a nuclear-mushroom cloud of monkeys) we cut to 8 years later. Andy is packing for college, and the toys are relegated to the toybox. In their desperation to simply “be played with”, Woody and friends hatch an ill-fated plan involving Andy’s phone to try and get his attention. It fails however: Andy’s just not interested in playing anymore. Rex the dinosaur is so grateful for any human contact that when his owner picks him up, only to toss him away he shouts “Andy touched me!” excitedly over-and-over again.

It’s a funny scene, but also one that’s also desperately sad and one that tells the audience that the toy’s ultimate destiny – the loft (heaven) or the trash can (hell) – is looming ever closer.

However – via an inventive series of narrative contrivances – the toys soon arrive at a kind of purgatory instead in the form of the sinisterly-monikered ‘Sunnyside Day-Centre’. Upon their arrival they meet a whole crew of new toys lead by the initially charming Lots O’ Huggin’ bear (Lotso for short). His cronies however (apart from the metrosexual Ken) – including the creepy Big Baby and the psychotic Cymbal Monkey – are not quite so welcoming.

Indeed it soon becomes clear that Lotso is rotten to the core and that Sunnyside isn’t the toy haven Andy’s playthings imagined. They are dumped in the room with the youngest (“age-inappropriate”) kids to be chewed, thrown and smothered in glue by day, and locked up in boxes by night.  Sunnyside is a prison, and (of course) the setting for a perfectly realised ‘great escape’ set piece two thirds through the movie.

If all this all this talk of prison camps and mortality makes Toy Story 3 sound rather depressing then you couldn’t be more wrong. This is still utterly adorable and incredibly funny flick. As you’d expect, Pixar has packed in some comedy gold, the highlights including a Spanish-speaking Buzz Lightyear, Ken’s dressing up room and (our favourite) Mr Potato head swapping his usual torso for a taco. Trust us, it’s hilarious. As you’d expect from the studio, the dialogue is also as snappy and (mercilessly) just as un-reliant on contemporary pop-culture references as ever.

Nonetheless, whilst Toy Story 3 is often as breezy and effortlessly snappy as Pixar’s other concoctions, it also has perhaps the darkest moment in any of the animation house’s films. We won’t spoil the scene, but suffice to say for a while you believe that some of the most beloved characters in cinema history are going to meet a shockingly brutal demise.

It all works out alright of course, but the conclusion is still a bitter-sweet and – we admit it – tear-drenched affair that is a monument to the animation studio’s singular ability to mix cutting-edge animation, razor-sharp dialogue and utterly charming characters that you can’t help but care deeply about. Pixar, rather boringly, have pulled it out of the bag once more with their last ever Toy Story. Spider-Man 3 it ain’t.

Review by Orlando Parfitt.