Why Toy Story 3 makes grown men sob

by on July 7, 2010

in Film analysis

Toy Story 3 Poster

Toy Story 3 reduces grown men to blubbering wrecks. Here’s why I think it’s so powerful – and it’s not about toy separation anxiety.

I sobbed during Up so when I read in the Sydney Morning Herald that Toy Story 3 was reducing grown men to tears I suspected I was going to be in for an emotional workover. I wasn’t disappointed.

I bang on about films needing to pack an emotional punch in the final reel and Toy Story 3 delivers in spades. I was audibly sobbing for about the final ten minutes of the film. The question for avid students of screenwriting is why?

The Herald article focuses on the separation of Andy and his beloved toys:

“For many men, the empathetic reaction felt by watching a boy let go of prized possessions is compounded by the nostalgia that 21st-century toys are far more state-of-the-art and less imaginative – than Hamm the piggy bank, Mr Potato Head and Bullseye the horse. The New York Times declared that Toy Story 3 reminds viewers of ‘the romance and pathos of the consumer economy, the sorrows and pleasures that dwell at the heart of our materialist way of life’”.

I’m not sure I agree. I don’t think we’re sobbing because we recall that moment when we headed off to uni and had to say farewell to our battered Matchbox cars and crocheted farmyard animals. And I’m damn sure we’re not shedding a tear over the rise of consumerism. I think this latest Pixar film is incredibly powerful because it uses toys to mythologise the now generally unobserved rite of passage between childhood and manhood.

In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell says that many of the problems with modern society stem from the loss of ritual – particularly around initiation. He observes that in other cultures – and he uses the Australian aborigines as an example – there was a specific, memorable and generally very confronting ritual that accompanied the arrival of puberty for men. Circumcision focuses the mind wonderfully.

Campbell wasn’t arguing that violence and discontent would diminish in modern society if it became obligatory for boys at 13 to sacrifice their foreskins but he did note that even the more modest rituals around puberty rites have eroded:

“When I was a kid, we wore short trousers, you know, knee pants. And then there was this great moment when you put on long pants. Boys now don’t get that … (so) when are they going to know that they’re now men and must put aside childish things?”

In secular society, there is no longer a storied occasion that demarcates the arrival of adulthood, no clear line where on one side you are a boy and on the other a man. Into this ritual vacuum, steps Pixar.

Toy Story 3, without giving too much away, is about the day when Andy is heading off to college and must decide what do with the toys we have all come to love. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t recall this moment in my life. And, while I can remember the scruffy teddy bear, the cross-eyed zebra and the James Bond Aston Martin DB5 with the ejector seat and the pop-up shield in the boot that were my own personal childhood favourites, their recollection doesn’t bring a tear to my eye. And, as any of you who’ve been to my screenwriting classes will know, I’m as wet as they come.

Yet, Toy Story 3 makes me sob. Why? Because it takes this occasion and invests it with the emotional power and the universal resonance of the moment that all males desire and dread: the arrival of manhood.

As boys, we all wanted to be able to drive cars, we all wanted to have the speed and strength of the men who played in our club’s A grade side, and we all wanted to marry our curvaceous Grade 2 Teacher, Miss Callaghan. But as the moment approaches, we begin to appreciate that driving – in Sydney traffic at least – is no privilege, that the arrival of height and strength is quickly followed by girth and lethargy, and, worst of all, while remarkably Miss Callaghan is still unattached, she hasn’t kept herself nice.

It is, in the latest cliché to grace our elite footballers’s lips, a bitter-sweet moment that heralds the arrival of fresh pleasures and unwanted responsibilities; the chance to fulfil our childhood dreams and to have them revealed as sad delusions.

Such a moment deserves to be observed and honoured, celebrated and lamented. Now Pixar has. No wonder I sobbed.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Karel Segers July 7, 2010 at 9:40 am

Great points, Allen.

“I think this latest Pixar film is incredibly powerful because it uses toys to mythologise the now generally unobserved rite of passage between childhood and manhood.”

Totally agree. That nostalgia point in the Herald quote misses the mark completely.

Mark Harmon July 8, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Yes it was great to see the ‘coming of age’ theme used so effectively in Toy Story 3. Problem is, its Andy who undergoes the main ‘rite of passage/transformation’, and he has only a small part in the film.

For me it is even more powerful to see Andy’s Toys as aspects of himself (they are from his imagination), so everything that happens to the toys symbolically happens to him. So when he finds the Toys a new home with another loving and playful child, it completes his transformation to becoming a responsible and caring adult and allows him to move on from the ties to his Toys and childhood.

Gary Caganoff July 13, 2010 at 1:37 pm

I fully agree Alan, however, I found I didn’t cry at this end scene but further back where the toys were having ‘separation anxiety’ and Andy was in denial about the truth of what he needed to do. My feeling was for the toys, not Andy (because I was more attached to the characters of the toys and didn’t really know Andy). There are two contradictory stories going on here (sub-text) and they both point to the transition:

1/ Andy’s denial is covering the fear that he won’t be accepted as a man by society? 2/ The toys are acting out Andy’s fears that he will no longer be a child. The toys, like childhood, will become redundant in adulthood.

Andy’s journey to transformation is to get through the denial and decide what it is to be – childhood or manhood?

I haven’t seen the previous two movies but the absence of a father for Andy tells us more than words in a script could. Fathers are the traditional mentors for boys. If no father, where were the significant men in his life? To be left to create his own right-of-passage with his toys and imagination is a cultural and social tragedy and if another story is to be written on Andy then he would need further initiation by older men, not himself, if he is to become a confident, compassionate, balanced man. This story is the first step to manhood. The last step of childhood.

Best supporting actor award to Mr Potato Head.

Allen July 13, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Yes, it’s interesting, Gary. There’s no question we feel more for both the toys and Andy’s mother than we do for Andy himself.

Young adults are blithely unaware of the momentous of the occasion because they feel immortal. It’s only once you gain a little more life experience that you are able to fully appreciate the extraordinary divide you crossed as you drove away from home with your rear view mirror obscured with your worldly possessions – both literally and figuratively.

The toys themselves are actually going through that most horrendous of emotions – fear of abandonment by a “parent”. No question the Pixar creative team had empathy by the truckload in this film.

Mark Hallen July 23, 2010 at 1:54 pm

I never cried at movies until after my daughter was born. The first time was Field of Dreams. When Kevin Costner had a catch with his father, I was bawling. I purchase the film every time it comes out on a new medium (video, DVD, Anniversary Edition, Blu-Ray)–and I still cry. In fact, I cry before that scene…in anticipation. Someday, when the holographic version is released, I will cry ON James Earl Jones when he says “…for it is money they have and peace they lack.” laughs4dads.com

Dave December 18, 2010 at 2:59 pm

I mostly disagree. I’m a grown man. I too cried like a baby at the end of Toy Story 3, but I’m confident that had nothing to do with the lost ritual of crossing the threshold into manhood.

I remember the precise moment I started losing it, and that was during the scene where Woody and the gang face their fate in the pit of garbage hellfire, and one by one, they realize it’s time to stop fighting it, hold hands, and face it together. The rawness of that moment, the naked vulnerability of the entire group, completely stripped down of all pretension, all identity – and the only instinct left is to hold on to each other.

The impact was so much heavier because of my nostalgia for the first two Toy Story movies. This motley crew has come full circle in terms of community and friendship, particularly Woody and Buzz. They started as enemies, competitors, and now they couldn’t be more different – they’re holding hands, forced to let go, in a shockingly grim way no less, and their eyes are saying, “I didn’t want it to end like this, but since it is, I’m damn glad it’s with you.”

You could argue that since these characters have grown, this whole death is just a metaphor for the ritual of moving on to the next step of adulthood. But that’s not how I experienced it. For me, it was about the odd friendships we discover that we never expected; the quirky, circumstantial friendships that we might take for granted, how they stick around so long that they seep into us like family, and then the surprise that we feel when we realize how truly devastated we would be if those relationships were to suddenly vanish. And when faced with the realization that we’re about to lose someone we love, how quickly we drop the facade and and get honest about how much we really don’t want to let go.

Sure, the tears kept flowing when Andy went through the toys one by one as he handed them over to their new owner, but that was with the memories of the life he had shared with them. And the surprise he must have felt when he realized he was saying good bye.

I think it’s the same reason I cried during Community’s Christmas special. For those unfamiliar with the show, it follows a group of completely mismatched personalities who create an oddball family through their Spanish study group at community college. Normally, the characters joke around, tease each other, and busy themselves with day-to-day life, generally hiding their real feelings behind masks of charisma and sarcasm. But in the Christmas episode, they come to peel those layers away when they slowly realize that one of their pack is quietly suffering from deep emotional trauma. At that point, they sacrifice their tough exteriors and open up to him so that he doesn’t feel the burdens of life alone.

The mismatched group that somehow forms a family. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff.

Matt February 4, 2011 at 12:47 pm

I totally agree, Dave. Scenes of Andy leaving his childhood behind might have been wistful and left that bittersweet taste of nostalgia in the back of my 33-year-old throat, but it was seeing the central characters face their seemingly inevitable deaths with love, grace and acceptance that made me well up.

Greg March 9, 2011 at 7:20 am

I totally agree with Dave as well. That scene in the incinerator was what I found most powerful. It had something to do with innocence and youth facing death. Maybe it’s the cruelness of the fact that we have no control over it and as men we tend to try to be in control. These characters eventually came to terms with it bravely, which is what I found so moving.

Anya March 30, 2011 at 12:35 am

I’m not a man, but I totally agree with Dave in that the incinerator was the emotional climax for me. It was the same raw emotion that left mascara stains on my boyfriend’s shoulder a few days ago when Matt Damon did the reading for the little boy in Hereafter. That sense of naked vulnerability where there’s no hope, no rabbits left in the hat and no ‘aha’ moments; when all you can do is whisper ‘oh god no’ and weep unashamedly for the injustice done to the weak and innocent.

And then those damn little aliens… brilliant:-)

Chris June 15, 2012 at 2:33 pm

I agree with Dave, Matt, Greg and Anya. The incinerator moment was the also the emotional climax for me. That moment of utter hopelessness, but the group is so bound together by their friendship that they choose to face it together.

Dave’s right, it was probably a mixture of nostalgia and the moment, but it just works so well.

Yes Anya… “The Claw”! So well foreshadowed, although probably not intentionally back then, from the very first moment we met the Aliens in TS1!

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