Toy Story 3 (U) and Inception (12A)

The summer blockbuster season is tinged with sadness.

Toy Story 3 (U)
dir: Lee Unkrich

Inception (12A)
dir: Christopher Nolan

When someone lets you down, it becomes that much easier to say goodbye. This is how admirers of the Toy Story series may wish to rationalise any ambivalence towards Toy Story 3. The film has the unusual distinction of being an appropriate final chapter in the escapades of Woody the cloth cowboy and the bulbous-jawed astronaut Buzz Lightyear, while falling short of the level of invention for which the Pixar animation studio is renowned. You can intellectualise and even defend the reasons why the film is disappointing, but that doesn't stop it being disappointing.

Toy Story 3 has the blues - not just in the area of tone (a Toy Story film devoid of melancholy wouldn't be worthy of the name), but in the resignation expressed through the recycling of themes, plot devices and character types. It's as though the film-makers were trying to convince us that the ride is over, the play box is empty. That interpretation would be in keeping with the picture's message about learning when to move on. What time it spends in the company of Andy - one of the few characters who are neither battery-operated nor made in Japan - addresses the now teenage boy's struggle to put away childish things.

Andy is about to decamp to college, where he will presumably lose his virginity and get into satanism or steroids. His old playmates - Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack) and the rest - are packed off to a nursery, where they receive the overexcitable attentions of the most junior intake. One casualty of the toy's-eye view is that any child not adhering to the manufacturer's instructions is likely to be depicted as a barbarian, rather than a free spirit thinking outside the toy box. In the rough-housing and dismemberments to which the playthings are subjected here, you sense the same prissy disapproval that the first film directed at a child who performed ingenious grafts and transplants on his toys.

There's a long-standing frisson in the series between a toy's duty to serve its master and the caprices of these infant gods, who might abandon their loyal servants on a whim. The credo is reiterated here by Woody, who reminds his compadres that their role is "being there for Andy" even when Andy neglects them. "He can't hurt you any more," one of the nursery toys tells Andy's former favourites, as though addressing a battered wife in a women's shelter. Unable to exert control over their fate, the toys establish a below-stairs hierarchy among themselves. The roost is ruled by Lotso (Ned Beatty), a mangy scarlet teddy who hides his tyranny behind Southern homilies.

We've been here before: Lotso is really Toy Story 2's domineering patriarch Stinky Pete in magenta fur. While it's provocative that a series of films which makes no reference to human paternity - Andy has been raised by his mother - should see fatherhood in such negative terms, a second sequel can look super­fluous when it's pounding the same notes rather than adding variations on a theme. Once again, there's a break-out scenario. Once again, Woody must choose between competing sets of family. As an argument for the end of the series, Toy Story 3 is rather persuasive. In the words of Jessie: "Woody, wake up - it's over."

Deviations from the formula are therefore gratefully received. There's breezy comedy in a fashion-happy Ken doll, voiced by Michael Keaton with a funkiness that makes him a fauxmosexual joy rather than a homophobic caricature. More troubling is the physically and emotionally damaged Big Baby, a doll that mews like a mangled cat, strong-arms recalcitrant toys and scrutinises the nursery through his one functioning and extravagantly lashed eye. The film's most indisputably magnificent shot shows him sitting on a swing at dusk, ostensibly acting as lookout, but more likely pondering why he feels so old inside.

In Christopher Nolan's Inception, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is living the dream - someone else's dream. He's an extractor, which has nothing to do with dentistry, but rather involves entering another person's mind during sleep in order to steal secrets from their subconscious. A Mickey Finn sedates the target, enabling Cobb and his team, wired up to a contraption in a briefcase, to stroll around inside the sleeper's head. If things get nasty, you just shoot yourself and you're back in the waking world. (But it is later revealed that death in a dream can in some cases leave you stranded in eternal limbo. That's what you call moving the bedposts.)

As the film opens, Cobb is hired to plant rather than purloin. A businessman needs the son and heir of a dying competitor to break up the old man's empire. The idea isn't going to simply pop into his head, so Cobb must insinuate it into his dreams. This is both harder than it sounds and, regrettably, less exciting.

For a film set in the rampant subconscious, Inception is a dismayingly tidy work. With his assumption that every shot should resemble the backdrop to a GQ shoot, Nolan (who made Memento and revived the Batman franchise) is the wrong sort of director to meddle in dreams; his film trespasses on territory covered more emphatically in eXistenZ, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Dreamscape and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, none of which shared Inception's squeamishness about the imagination.

You can forgive the dreams being situated largely within the Gothic-futurist cityscapes beloved by Nolan, who directed two Batman films (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight). After all, their location is predetermined by the team's architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page), who has mapped out the topography like a software designer. But if it's the dreamer whose subconscious fills in the details, as the film claims, why the absence of silliness, sex, horror and general abandon? We get spectacular explosions in which debris hangs in the air and refuses to fall, but no one finds themselves conducting the London Philharmonic wearing nothing but a kiss-me-quick hat. There are car chases and shoot-outs, but no one is pursued by a blancmange with rabies.

Ryan Gilbey blogs on film every Tuesday at Cultural Capital.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain