Today’s EW poll about Toy Story 3 (“Did you cry?”) prompts me to make a little confession of my own. At the screening of the movie I attended, I was seated directly between a couple of EW colleagues who are both good friends — a pleasant situation that, by the end, turned just a little bit uncomfortable when I realized how hard I was working to conceal my tears. Now don’t get me wrong: I’ve cried at a lot of movies in my time, it’s not really that big a deal — and in this case, besides, I knew I had my trusty 3-D mega-glasses to hide behind. But what you have to understand is that when it comes to my reaction to Toy Story 3, I’m not just talking about shedding a tear or two, or having that Brian’s Song lump in the throat. I’m talking about that soppy, awkward thing where you make sounds. Even in our huggy-sensitive post-New Age it’s-okay-for-men-to-cry culture, I was, quite frankly, a little bit embarrassed. So now, with the hope and cause of transcending my shame, I would like to own up to my inner sap and ask my fellow weepie male moviegoers to join me in saying: I cried at Toy Story 3, and it’s okay!
There, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Now have a cookie.
I think I know why Toy Story 3 gets to me — and, from all evidence, a lot of other men — on that primal sniffle level. I can’t talk about it, though, without plunging right into the end of the movie. So please, if you haven’t already seen it, stop reading. I have no desire to spoil your pleasure.
The thing about the end of Toy Story 3 is that it works on so many layers. It doesn’t so much push buttons as touch little themes and bubbles of emotion that have been planted throughout the movie. On the simplest level, of course, the ending is a homecoming, with Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang finally finding a place for themselves — finding, that is, a child, a little girl named Bonnie (voiced by Emily Hahn), to be their newly devoted owner and playmaster and friend. It’s a classic happy finale: They’ve been rescued from the darkness and given a home. That’s enough to give you that Lassie Come Home three-hankie feeling right there. Andy’s introduction of each of the toys to Bonnie, as he moves on to adulthood, is a series of little heart tugs: nostalgia and loss and friendship and and rebirth, all at the same time.
As always, the desire and goal of the film’s chattering menagerie of toy pals is, quite simply, to be played with, and that in itself is such a highly delicate and unusual and touching force to encounter in the heroes of a kids’ movie. It’s just so…generous. (They’re like faithful, eager-to-play pups who come with their own toy-size, squabbling, play-act version of the egos of humans.) It’s what’s always been so moving about the Toy Story toys: that they’re programmed, in their plastic and polyster DNA, to be part of something larger than themselves — to do everything in their power to make a kid glow with delight. When Woody decides to stay with the gang, rather than go off to college with Andy, he’s affirming his very destiny as a plaything. He has to abandon the owner whose favorite toy he was to be the true toy he is.
By the end of Toy Story 3, however, we’ve come to see that Woody and the rest really are old-school toys, scuffed and battered plastic relics from a lost era. There’s something a little sad about them. They’re dolls and action figures and rigid little animal models; with the possible exception of Buzz, they barely have moving parts — they don’t do anything. The universe of this kind of toy really came into being in the early 1960s (which is when I got my first Mr. Potato Head), and even Buzz, the spaceman, now seems a “futuristic” figure out of the past. However old and classic these toys may have been in 1995, when the original Toy Story came out, they seem much, much older now, in an age when toys are often digital games and gizmos that flash and dazzle and light up.
But here’s the thing: The new wave of toys is so techno-magical, so advanced, that a lot of them basically do the work for you. They practically do have lives of their own. And that’s where the ending of Toy Story 3 touches something profoundly tender and heartfelt that’s worth getting all choked up over. The movie’s toy heroes seem forever innocent because the kind of play they inspire is innocent. With a Sheriff Woody figure, who does nothing but look straight ahead and say stuff like “There’s a snake in my boot!” when you pull his string, his glory, paradoxically, is that he himself does nothing – that he depends on a child’s imagination to animate him.
That’s the spirit that technology is now taking out of our world. Which is why the ending of Toy Story 3, in which little Bonnie starts to play with those toys, is more than a cuddly sentimental homecoming. It says: That spirit of imagination hasn’t gone out of our world — it’s there every time a child picks up an inanimate object of fun and sees, feels, experiences the hidden life in it. The fact that the movie’s snips-and-snails-and-puppy-dog-tails collection of ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s objects have passed from Andy to Bonnie makes its own statement. It’s saying that girls now own the keys to the rough-and-tumble imaginative kingdom as proudly as boys once did. In its way, it’s a passing of the torch.
But for the men, like me, who grew up with cowboys and soldiers and spacemen and Mr. Potato Head and a Barrel of Monkeys, there’s something deeply special and transporting about seeing those toys find a second life in the new century. It says that they — and we — are going to be okay. As long as we remember that our inner child isn’t what we’re told, but what we invent.
So time to fess up: Who among the men out there cried at Toy Story 3? And what was it that got to you?