Despite the fact that it’s another joyous, action-packed, endlessly entertaining and laugh-out-loud Pixar spectacle, there’s something immediately melancholy about Toy Story 3. Perhaps it’s the fact that this is the third and likely last in a trilogy that we’ve all grown so fond of. Perhaps its because Pixar just knows how to do sadness (see Up, Wall E, etc). But mostly I think it’s because Toy Story reminds all of us of our own childhoods–of those whimsical, carefree worlds of make believe that occupied the free time we now fill with work and stress. Oh for the days of youth! The Toy Story trilogy captures it so well, and the third installment beautifully, affectingly evokes one of its most bittersweet aspects: Growing up.
From the outset of Toy Story 3–where we discover that Andy is going off to college and must either give away, throw away, or relegate his toys to the attic–there is a profound and universal sense of loss. Things change. Nothing is permanent. Everyone grows up and must leave their childhood behind, once and for all. I teared up during the opening sequence of the film, anticipating how it would end. And sure enough, I was a weeping mess by the end. I don’t think I’ve cried more in a movie since maybe A.I.
Which is interesting, because A.I. is also a film about toys with feelings. What it is about this that is so heartbreaking? Maybe it’s because in our consumer culture our toys and collected possessions really do take on personal, relational–even spiritual–significance for us. Maybe it has something to do with the recognition that, while the world changes and we grow up, change, and eventually die, the objects and artifacts that lend meaning to our lives at various stages do not change or age or die. They are just discarded. So, when we anthropomorphize something like a cowboy doll or robot, and imagine that there truly is a two-way reciprocal love going on between it and the human, of course we are going to feel devastated when someone like Andy doesn’t find it too difficult to move on and leave Woody behind. Woody is just a toy. But from Woody’s anthropomorphic point of view, it’s like the worst sort of rejection: The one person who you’ve always loved and who it has been your life’s purpose to love unconditionally does not entirely reciprocate those feelings. It’s the same tragic scenario Hayley Joel Osment’s robot character faces in A.I. And in both movies, it’s utterly devastating.
Another film I thought of as I watched Toy Story 3 was Summer Hours–the critically acclaimed French film from 2009 starring Juliette Binoche. Like Toy Story 3, Summer Hours is about what impermanence means both for humans and for the objects humans acquire. It’s about people dying and their possessions being disbursed to the next generation, where new meaning and significance will undoubtedly be ascribed to them. In both films, the reality of “what happens to my stuff”–when I leave, or move, or die–is of central concern.
But it’s not really about the stuff. Toy Story is not really about toys. It’s about the reality of the passing of time–a painful, relentless, unnatural phenomenon that–for creatures like us who were made to be eternal–always feels a bit like an ill-fitting coat.