I'd like to thank the folks at Pixar for ending "Toy Story 3" with a nice long gag reel alongside the final credits. It gave me time to blot away my tears before entering the lobby.

Yes, I cried, and laughed, and bit my nails and felt my heart expand a little bit in my chest. Once again, the wizards of Pixar have turned a gaggle of old playthings into some of the most captivating, fully realized and touching characters onscreen today. The third (and likely final) episode is a funny, sentimental and unexpectedly thrill-packed payoff for the series that began 15 years ago.

The human characters have aged in approximately real time. Andy, the toys' owner, is now 17 and heading off to college. His neglected toys kidnap his cell phone in a ploy to recapture his attention and lure him back to their storage chest. But Andy is putting aside childish things.

The toys hope for a life of plentiful playtime when they're donated to Sunnyside Daycare Center. Woody, Buzz Lightyear, dinosaur Rex, piggy bank Hamm and the gang get a guided tour from Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear, the folksy foreman of the preschool playthings. The change of venue introduces a raft of new characters to the mix, including Barbie and her clotheshorse pal Ken, and creepy, cockeyed Big Baby. When their new humans prove to be abusive, age-inappropriate droolers, Andy's toys learn that Lots-o is not as warm and fuzzy as he seems, and the story becomes a sly, suspenseful homage to prison-break pictures.

Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt ("Little Miss Sunshine") honors the standard Pixar template and extends the themes of the earlier "Toy Stories." Like all Pixar films, this generates a playful friction between high-spirited humor and serious themes. Every Pixar story revolves around childhood issues of separation anxiety and the grownup need to find a meaningful identity.

What makes Pixar the world's best film studio is its dedication to meticulously crafted stories. Those dramatic dilemmas back there in the shadows ensnare our emotions, making us fret for the characters when they're in peril and cheer when they do something clever.

Gag-a-minute DreamWorks films have a higher humor quotient, theoretically, but Pixar movies delight on a deeper level.

In keeping with the idea of outliving one's usefulness, "Toy Story 3" adds a thread of tension with the threat that the toys could end up as landfill. The movie finds moments of honest pathos in the prospect. In "The Wrestler," Mickey Rourke's over-the-hill grappler calls himself a piece of meat no one needs anymore, a sentiment anyone past age 50 can understand. Substitute "plastic" for "meat" and you've got the toys' predicament. The white-knuckle finale, bringing the toys face to face with a monstrous recycling shredder, may be overwhelming for the youngest viewers. It certainly agitated me.

But if that sounds like heavy stuff, it isn't. This is a dazzlingly inventive film, overflowing with flash and fun. There are superb sight gags -- Mr. Potato Head's plastic features transposed onto a floppy tortilla, for instance, or Buzz capering like a caballero when he's switched to Spanish-language mode -- and showers of verbal wit. Barbie has a standout moment when she says something surprisingly philosophical and well-reasoned. Director Lee Unkrich (co-director of "Toy Story 2," "Finding Nemo" and "Monsters, Inc.") doesn't even need words to tickle us. I shouted with laughter over one joke that paid off with a sigh and another that concluded with an infant blowing raspberries.

As always, the production details are flawless. "Toy Story 3" is presented in 3-D, and the effects are subtle and appropriate. Tom Hanks continues to give sincerity a good name as the steadfast Woody, and Ned Beatty makes Lots-o superficially welcoming but secretly cynical. That's a lot of layers for a stuffed bear.

The fade-out is an affecting farewell to the classic characters, and adults who find themselves identifying with the dear old castoffs may want to wipe their eyes before the lights come up. Those darned 3-D glasses have a way of misting up sometimes, don't they?

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186