The one overriding triumph and tragedy of being a parent is this: kids grow up. If you do your job as a parent right, you train these amazing bundles of potential to be good, thoughtful, self-sufficient people and you push them out into the world to live their own lives and make their own way and just maybe do the same for their own kids someday. But that beautiful, agonizing process of maturation into adulthood necessarily involves the leaving behind of childish things, a development which tends to be harder on the parents than on the kids — and, Toy Story 3 argues, even harder on the childish things being left behind.
[The mild spoiler light is on now — probably nothing you can't figure out from the trailers or any preview articles, but just in case, I'm letting you know.]
After an absolutely fantastic five-minute sequence to open the movie — seriously, I could’ve watched a full feature done just like the opening here — we’re thrown immediately into the melancholy new status quo of Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the rest of our heroes from the first two movies. As Andy prepares to go off to some unnamed college some unspecified distance away, his old toys haven’t been played with in years and finally have to accept that their time as active playthings has long gone. In the first of many instances where director Lee Unkrich shows us that even if they’re comprised solely of pixels, these toys can act, we discover that not all of the toys from previous movies are still with us anymore. Those that are left show a remarkable degree of self-knowledge: they know that they’re likely facing either the attic or the dump.
(Incidentally, whether he still plays with them or not, Andy must still care about these toys, because they’re all in absolutely perfect shape. I wish I could get my kids to take care of their toys so well.)
Through a series of coincidences and accidents and numerous callbacks to the the previous movies, the toys instead end up at Sunnyside Day Care, a facility that at first seems to be a complete paradise for toys looking for kids to play with them. Sunnyside is populated by a host of new characters (most notably a Ken (Michael Keaton) to go with Andy’s sister’s Barbie (Jodi Benson)) and is ruled by the furry, strawberry-scented fist of Lotso Huggin Bear (Ned Beatty), who somehow manages to drip sweet Southern-fried menace even when seeming to be perfectly friendly. Sunnyside isn’t all that it seems, of course — there’s a dark side both from without (the terrorizing toddlers for whom our heroes are not age-appropriate) and from within.
The toys get separated yet again when Woody hightails it out of Sunnyside in an attempt to rejoin Andy yet again. But instead of feeling like a simple retread of the driving plot of each of the previous two movies, Toy Story 3 knows that it’s not the first (or even second) time the series has been over this particular ground, and so both purposefully references what’s gone before while also dramatically upping the stakes for the characters. We get several scenes of derring-do, a surprising torture sequence(!), and one final rescue-and-escape sequence that shows us far more than we might have wanted to know about what happens to our trash after the garbage trucks pick it up.
For all its humorous situations and light-hearted character moments, Toy Story 3 is by far certainly the darkest of the three Toy Storys and among the darkest of all Pixar’s films. Pixar has never shied away from the darkness when it’s helped to tell a story; hell, there’s more death in the first five minutes of Finding Nemo than in most Disney animated movies combined. There were moments in Toy Story 3 that were truly scary — I think my children might have developed acute monkeyphobia now thanks to this movie. Near the ending of the grand action sequence at the end, I actually began to wonder for a minute if Pixar would let these characters meet a gruesome, all-too-final fate. (Mild spoiler: they didn’t.) But the genuine emotion that these toys exhibited when they thought they were facing their imminent destruction was astonishing (again with the “these toys can act” thing, or more accurately, these animators can act).
I doubt it’s all that much of a spoiler to say that Toy Story 3 had a happy ending — but I have to admit it was a happy ending that made me bawl like I’d just lost my own childhood toys. And it wasn’t just a happy ending, but the right ending, the only way to wrap things up that truly respects the growth and stories of all of the characters involved. Any other ending would have been cheating the characters or pandering to the audience and would just have felt wrong. Things had to end the way they did, even if for awhile I wasn’t sure it was actually going to happen.
This movie really pushed my buttons as a parent in a way the first two never did; while I certainly enjoyed the hell out of them, neither ever truly affected me emotionally. Man, was that not the case with Toy Story 3. I suspect that this movie touched on my own unexplored issues with losing or abandoning toys, but it also made me took at my kids’ relationships with their toys differently, especially my younger daughter’s with her stuffed lion Alex, who has always been to her what Woody was to Andy. By the time the movie’s pitch-perfect ending arrives, my buttons hadn’t been pushed, they’d been mauled.
(A final aside: Toy Story 3 raises some interesting metaphysical questions about toys and where their “life force,” that bit that makes the toys what they are, truly resides. If Mrs. Potato Head can still see through one of her eyes when it’s detached from her, do all her senses work similarly independently? Given the disturbing-but-funny circumstances that befall Mr. Potato Head, what is it exactly that constitutes his essential Potato-Head-ness? Where, exactly, does Buzz’s Buzz-ness, that self-knowledge that makes him different from the millions of other Buzz Lightyear toys, live? This topic seems like a good one to ruminate on while drinking.)