‘Toy Story 3' director Lee Unkrich can breathe easy

Lee Unkrich was excited four years ago when John Lasseter, director and chief creative officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, tapped him to direct “Toy Story 3.”

Then, in the next breath, Unkrich realized the massive responsibility he had been given.

“I was very worried at the beginning of the film when John asked me to direct it,” says the soft-spoken Unkrich over lunch at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. “We wanted to make another ‘Toy Story’ for a long time, but it was a huge amount of pressure for a lot of reasons. It was the first time I was going to be directing solo.”

Then there’s Pixar’s amazing track record: Every film since 1995’s “Toy Story” has been a critical and commercial success. Unkrich didn’t want to be the one to make “the first dud. Then on top of that, to make a sequel to the most beloved films of all times, films that are such an important part of children’s lives or the adult who experienced it with their kids….”

But Unkrich, 42, is breathing a sigh of relief. With strong word-of-mouth and early glowing reviews, “Toy Story 3" looks to keep the streak going. In this outing, Andy is heading to college. Although he plans to take Woody with him, Buzz and the gang end up being donated to a daycare center that isn’t as idyllic as it looks. Woody comes to the gang’s rescue as they attempt to escape to return home. Among the new characters are a vapid, egocentric Ken doll ( Michael Keaton) and the cuddly stuffed bear Lotso ( Ned Beatty), who isn’t quite what he seems.

Unkrich says that he has seen grown men weep during the last 20 minutes of the film, which involve Woody, Buzz and the gang, a college-bound Andy and a shy little girl with a great imagination named Bonnie.

“I’ve had some journalists ask me if I think the movie is too intense at times for kids,” says Unkrich, who is the father of three. “I think what they are speaking about is the last scene. It catches people off guard. I knew it would have a very different effect on adults than kids because we are at a point in our lives we look at things differently. I think the adults are very moved.”

One reason they added the epilogue over the credits was to ease the emotional outpouring of the scenes. “We had a lot of screenings early on. We experienced firsthand a lot of audiences having the lights come up hadn’t composed themselves yet. They were still kind of reeling from what they had just watched.”

Producer Darla K. Anderson describes Unkrich as an “auteur. He is so smart at so many things. He is a student of film, a brilliant editor. He was a force to be reckoned with in story, and he’s self-disciplined.”

The USC film graduate had no intention of going into animation. Unkrich had worked as an assistant editor on the syndicated series “Renegade,” eventually working his way up to editor on the USA series “Silk Stalkings.” He was hoping to edit a feature film when he got a call in 1994 that an animation company needed help editing its first animated feature.

“I remember tactfully trying to get them off the phone,” Unkrich recalls. “But then thankfully whoever I was talking to happened to mention the name Pixar and I instantly lit up because I was a big fan of John Lasseter’s short films. I leapt at the opportunity, and I was on the next plane.”

And he has never left.

He was listed as an editor on “Toy Story” but with his live-action background also supervised the camerawork. Unkrich continued to work as an editor but also co-directed “Toy Story 2,” “Finding Nemo” and “Monsters, Inc.”

After he got the “Toy Story 3" assignment, Unkrich, Lasseter and Andrew Stanton — who co-wrote the first two “Toy Story” films and directed “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E” — went to a cabin retreat to come up with a story for the film. The three already had an idea for “Toy Story 3" they had been kicking around for years but shot it down within 20 minutes because they didn’t think it was strong enough. “We couldn’t find the emotional core,” Unkrich says.

So they came up with the idea to make Andy grown up in the third film. “Andrew Stanton took the work that we did and he wrote a treatment to flesh things out.” Then Unkrich started to work with Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Ardnt (“Little Miss Sunshine”), who had already been working on a project with Unkrich at Pixar. “We spent 2 1/2 years writing the screenplay and storyboarding,” Unkrich says.

Tim Allen, who is the voice of the “infinity to beyond” Buzz Lightyear, says Unkrich was clear on his vision for the film.

“He was very prepared,” Allen says. “He was hard on me in many ways, which was great because you have to keep the momentum on days when momentum is difficult when there’s not a lot of dialogue and mostly aggravated noises. He never was not on his game.”