One of the unspoken laws of animation, stretching back to the days of Felix the Cat and Gertie the Dinosaur, is that cartoon characters do not age. Sure, they may change to fit the times, and incorporate new technologies as they become available (iPhones are now a regular sight on The Simpsons), but they are not meant to grow up in real time. It’s an obvious benefit over live-action stories, and one we gladly accept – do we really want to see Shaggy and Velma fighting crime as senior citizens? (Poor Scoob would’ve been in doggy heaven by 1980.)
But the rule it occasionally broken, and rarely with more noticeable effect than in Toy Story 3. Released in 2010, the film depicts its human characters a full decade older than in 1999’s Toy Story 2. Andy (still voiced by John Morris) is heading off to college; his sister Bonnie is in high school. Even the family’s trusty canine, Buster, has wrinkled and bowed to the ages. (There’s even a cameo by the first film’s antagonist, Sid, now grown into a headphone-fueled garbageman.)
The aging of these characters serves two purposes. First, it affirms that the Toy Story series has a foot in the real world, choosing not to forsake the whims of Father Time. Second, more significantly, it provides a contrast between the organic characters and the plastic ones. No, Woody, Buzz, and crew have not aged a day, each eternally bound to a singular appearance. And it’s the toys’ effective immortality in the face of an ever-changing world that provides the setup for the third film in this ever-surprising series.
Let’s review. The first Toy Story was about identity. The pull-stringed Woody (Tom Hanks) must reassess his status as “Andy’s favorite toy” when battery-run Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) blasts into the picture. Buzz believes himself to be a real space ranger, and slowly comes to terms with the fact that he’s only a toy. Both characters learn to accept their relative statuses in the toy-and-human hierarchy, in a sophisticated twist on the “just be yourself” message.
Toy Story 2 was about individuality. Woody learns that he’s a valuable collector’s item, and must choose whether he wants to be defined as a single child’s toy or an immortal museum exhibit. Buzz stumbles across an entire toy aisle of Buzz Lightyears, and his friends are easily fooled when one of them masquerades as him. The first film asked what it means to be a toy, and the sequel bridged nicely into a discussion of whether an individual toy can and should stand out in a sea of uniformity.
From this springboard, we launch into Toy Story 3, a film focused on obscurity. Humans grow; toys do not. Inevitably, children will age and abandon the playthings they once loved and cherished. To humans, growing up is a fact of life. But to toys, the concept puts their very existence in jeopardy.
The dilemma is introduced early in the film. Most of the toys from the first two movies are boxed up and shipped to Sunnyside Daycare, where they never have to worry about kids growing up. As Lots-O-Huggin Bear (Ned Beatty) explains, when one group of kids ages out, they are replaced with another, and another, granting Buzz and his pals a sort of toy immortality.
It seems too good to be true, and very quickly proves to be, as the children (particularly the preschool-agers) treat the toys with wanton and reckless disregard, twisting them, throwing them, and stuffing them into any bodily area a G-rated film will allow. Lacking any definitive owner, the toys are now beholden to kids with no emotional attachment to any of them, and the result is a steep price for their eternal playability.
And it’s not the only price. Stripped of a central home and possessor, the toys have no agency of their own, and are effectively imprisoned within the Sunnyside system. No toy suffers more in this regard than Buzz, who is reverted to “factory mode” and loses his memory, becoming the cold, emotionally vacant space ranger we met at the start of the first Toy Story. In the world of Sunnyside, no individual toy can lay claim to their own identity.
The prisoner’s guild of Sunnyside is the work of Lotso, whose cuddly exterior is as phony as the cane he uses for walking. The first villain of the Toy Story franchise with a detailed backstory (which we see in flashback, as narrated by a non-MTM Chuckles the Clown), Lotso was a once-beloved toy lost and (more traumatically) replaced by his owner. The realization that he wasn’t “special” drove him to turn Sunnyside into an authoritative prison with a strict resistance to change. No one ever gets replaced, because no one ever gets out.
Well, except Woody. He cannot let Andy go (a mutual feeling, as Andy very nearly takes the cowboy with him to college) and his determination leads him to escape the daycare shortly after arriving. Winding up at the home of Bonnie, a young girl with her own set of well-treated toys, Woody eventually comes to realize that there may, in fact, be life after Andy. Lotso’s proposed cycle can work without the oppressive authoritarianism he imposes.
For much of its second half, Toy Story 3 turns into a prison break movie, a kid-friendly Great Escape which sees the toys mount a daring breakout from Sunnyside. Character development takes a backseat for much of this stretch, but the high stakes and clever visuals (perhaps none more striking than the birth of Mr. Zucchini Head) more than compensate. The buildup may not be particularly quick, but it leads to an edge-of-the-seat payoff that builds to an even more thrilling junkyard climax.
The “unwanted toys get thrown away” message (previously best exemplified during Woody’s dream sequence in Toy Story 2) hits our heads rather soundly, as the heroes move unwillingly from garbage dumpster to trash compactor to raging incinerator inferno. But it’s a powerful climax regardless of message, as the film threatens to break Disney’s cardinal rule – have Woody and friends had their last roundup? – only for them to be saved, quite memorably, by the all-powerful Claw. On the list of film-franchise callbacks, the moment where the toys are rescued by the once-useless green space aliens ranks near the top.
And yet it’s still not the film’s most memorable scene. That honor is reserved for the finale, in which Andy, at last reunited with his once-beloved toys, finds them a new home in the caring young hands of Bonnie. Andy’s final scene with the toys may play a little cheesy in context – how many 18-year-old boys are this attached to the dolls and action figures of their youth? – but it will resonate with viewers of a certain age who fondly remember their childhood, and know the joy of passing the tools of their imagination on to a new generation of thinkers and dreamers.
Because despite its focus on the toys, and its heady themes of identity, individuality, and obscurity, what ultimately connected the Toy Story films with each other and with the audience was its depiction of childhood. The kids who cherish their toys, admire them, and (in at least one instance) torture them. Children are the lifeblood of the series, which is why it resonated and continues to resonate with those of us who are or have ever been young. It was a beautiful trilogy, and Toy Story 3 was a beautiful ending.
Or was it?
Be here next week.