Photos courtesy of Disney/Pixar
Review by Ryan Wilson

By now the Pixar Toy Story franchise is just as much about marketing toys as telling a new story about toys. It’s easy to get cynical when walking into a Toys "R" Us to find giant displays of Woody and Buzz on the wall. Parents might even feel bullied into the hype, if not by their children then by the now-classic characters. Considering their many charms, the toys are clearly in charge.

The irony, of course, is that in Pixar’s highly imaginative toy universe, the toys are never in charge. In fact, it’s difficult to find screen characters that possess such day-to-day, or rather movie-to-movie, anxiety. Being a toy in these films has always meant fearing for one’s purpose and relevance in the world. A toy, after all, is only as useful as its owner, its fate tied to that owner’s attention or lack thereof. And behind all of the adventures and hilarity always lies the specter of the forsaken.

Toy Story 3 confronts this end, where the first two films merely used it as motivation. Looking back, the first film dealt with abandonment through replacement, via jealousy over newer toy designs. In the second installment, the toys went through something of a mid-life crisis, some even considering prolonging their lives as collectables. But here in the third installment, little hope is left. As the film begins, owner Andy is packing for college, and it looks like either the attic or the landfill for the toys.

This is a strangely moving lesson for a children’s film, and one that tugs at its audience in unexpected ways. First of all, many of the toys are missing, casualties of Andy’s puberty. Watch closely and you’ll see the toys’ leader Woody repress his pain over their loss, especially over his lost love interest Bo Peep. And yet the toys press on, against what they know are nearly impossible odds. In this way Toy Story 3 is as grim as Saving Private Ryan. What are the toys but a small platoon in an enemy land, being led by Tom Hanks?

They find what appears to be a safe-haven in a daycare center called Sunnyside, made at first to resemble a retirement home but run more like a prison. It’s run by a purple Teddy Bear named Lotso, who comes across as a demented Burl Ives. But even Lotso, the villain of the film, isn’t simply evil. He too has been abused by the cruel toy-kid universe, twisting him into a tyrant. And here is another lesson the film presents: bad things will happen to you, but you can still be a good person (or toy).

As you would expect, Toy Story 3 includes many creative subplots. First and foremost is Barbie’s Ken, complete with dream house. As you would expect, he’s a complete gigolo and a metrosexual, though the writers tack on one too many gay joke about him. Buzz Lightyear’s Spanish mode also accidentally activates, turning him into a serenading romantic. This too is overdone and not nearly as funny as the writers probably think.

What I enjoyed most was the opening sequence in which we see what it’s like for the toys to play. This is the first time we’ve seen what "playing" means to them, and the results are just as thrilling and as fun as we’ve been told in the first two movies. We finally see why they loath giving it up. Conversely, we get a hysterical look at "bad playing" when a group of toddlers attacks toys that aren’t "age appropriate." To the toys it’s complete carnage, and probably the most dangerous thing since Sid the Sadist mangled his toys in the first movie.

I would have liked to see Sid grown up, considering that the toys actually broke the fourth wall and spoke to him as a child, but that might have been too dark in an already heavy children’s film.

At one point the toys are faced with certain death at the garbage dump, and rather than panic or scream, they simply join hands and await the inevitable. It’s a jaw-dropping moment, again sort of like Tom Hanks in Private Ryan, shooting at a tank with a handgun: they all know they’re doomed, but they’ll go with dignity.

I won’t reveal what happens to the toys at the end of the film, but I will say that many tears are shed, mainly from the audience. Though a children’s film, Toy Story 3 is really a Hallmark Card to all the parents out there, especially empty-nesters. Through its surprising gravity we can’t help but reflect on our own lost childhoods and what we’ll lose again as our children grow up. In that way, we are the toys, clinging to every moment.

What we realize in the waning moments of the film is that Buzz and Woody’s journey during these three movies is also our journey past childhood and beyond.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. and produced by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.

© Ryan Wilson, 2010