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.

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