Although the series lives on in shorter form, the final 20 minutes of Toy Story 3 is something of an emotional trip through the wringer (that is, if the film works as intended to the audience). Much in the same way that the opening sequence of Up is called out as an example of Pixar working at its tear-jerking peak, almost nullifying the impact of the rest of the film, Toy Story 3 has a lengthy climax culminating in a curtain call, all of which is meant as a massive payoff to a 15-year trilogy, a firm period on a franchise that could easily be extended on the silver screen for years to come. (Rumors will, of course, abound about a potential fourth Toy Story film; let’s only hope that this never comes to fruition.)
Yes, it’s time once more for a Pixar Moment column, and Toy Story 3 offers plenty of options. There is the terrifying sequence in which it appears all but certain that Sheriff Woody, Jessie, Buzz Lightyear, Hamm, Rex, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, and Bullseye will be burned to a crisp in a garbage-dump holocaust of sorts; there’s an unexpected payoff to that sequence, one of the great punchlines in recent cinema; and there’s the final scene, where Andy gets one more moment of play with the toys who stayed with him throughout his childhood, even after he began ignoring them during his teen years. So, in the spirit of spreading the wealth, we’re going to look at all of these moments today, because one’s just not enough.
Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, better known as Lotso, is arguably the most nefarious villain in the Toy Story franchise, more specifically evil than Sid and more stubborn in his motivations than Stinky Pete. Thus, it stands to reason that Andy’s band of toys would have to withstand the greatest challenge yet to their little, plastic lives when facing off against this folksy prison warden of sorts. Their descent into a fiery pit straight out of hell isn’t precisely Lotso’s doing—he likely had no idea what to expect after he got stuck in the conveyor belt of trash—but without his crippling selfishness and nihilistic view of why toys exist, they’d all be safe at Sunnyside Day Care, if not in Andy’s attic. The massive achievement of this sequence is not that director Lee Unkrich and his animators were able to concoct a most extravagant and intense way for Woody, Buzz, and the gang face down their mortality (spiritually, if not physically), but that they proved once more how adept they are at making people care about a bunch of presumably inanimate objects.
Of course none of the toys were going to die—even Lotso lives, though he’ll have to make peace with all the bugs that fly into his mouth as he rides on a garbage truck’s grille till the end of time. Certainly, as the final entry in a trilogy, all bets are off in terms of what can be accomplished in a story, what can be done to its characters. If Unkrich had wanted to, he could’ve killed off, say, Rex. (Right before the toys begin to hold each other’s hands in solidarity, Rex stumbles and falls closer to the fire; for a brief second, it seems legitimate that he’ll be the one to go, and the mere thought is, quite shockingly, horrifying.) But then, this is a Disney movie, and we are a long, long way from Bambi’s mother getting shot off-screen by Man. None of the toys are actually going to die, even Rex. What makes this moment work, four years after its initial release, is the toys’ pure and utter acceptance that there’s no out. There’s no trap door they can fall down, no way to save themselves from their doom. The entirety of Toy Story 3 features the toys grappling with their mortality—Sunnyside Day Care isn’t too far away from seeming somewhat like a retirement home when the toddlers aren’t around—and so it makes sense that they arrive at the climax ready to go, no longer fighting what appears inevitable.
That death is not inevitable—at least, not for now—for Woody and Buzz and everyone else isn’t a negation of the emotional impact of the moment where our toys band together one last time and accept their fate gracefully. They are saved, but chastened nonetheless. It is a fitting turnabout that their saviors are not only a trio of characters who were presumed dead—swept up by another dump truck before everyone else is pushed to the conveyor belt—but the same trio of characters who have been so desperate and helpless in the past. The little green men have almost no identity of their own, not even getting unique names in the series. What we know of them is that they are, essentially, members of a cult, worshiping the deity known only as The Claw. What was once a witty personification of how those toys stuck in a claw game would act became the only rescue for our heroes. The specific trio who come to the toys’ aid have only been in the series since the car-chase climax of Toy Story 2, and yet, there’s a surprising amount of weight to hearing the infamous line, “You have saved our lives, and we are eternally grateful,” when uttered by a character more grounded in the real world. Mr. Potato Head is not exactly the most logical candidate for a single second of weighty gravitas in this series; still, Don Rickles pulls off the line reading with aplomb. In those few words, he embodies the relief all the toys feel; they looked Death in the face and were barely able to stare it down. The little green men, in saving our heroes, finally became their own deity, controlling that which once decided their fate, so that they could shift the fates of their friends.
The toys exiting the tri-county dump should be the end of their trials and tribulations. There are no more tears to be shed, no more attempts on Pixar’s part to one-up itself from the “When She Loved Me” scene in Toy Story 2. But the falling action of this story, the passing of the torch from one generation to the next, manages to inspire tears still, almost specifically because of how simple it is. Andy Davis is as close a modern version of Christopher Robin as we have, functioning primarily as an audience surrogate. The traits that define Woody and Buzz are somewhat similar to those that define Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, though the former’s adventures are far more intense than those of the latter. But Andy, like Christopher Robin, does not so much as take part in his toys’ adventures as he recedes into the background, becoming as much of a passive viewer as we are. We’ll never know what would have happened to Christopher Robin’s toys when he grew up and went to college (though it’s easy to imagine that he would’ve just kept them in his boyhood bedroom, returning to them whenever he took a vacation), but Andy is faced with a choice in Toy Story 3: grow up or don’t. Arguably, a teenager in the 21st century lugging some toys to his college dorm room isn’t exactly as weird as it once might have been—how many of us tote action figures of comic-book heroes and the like around, even to the workplace? But Andy can’t bring all of his toys to college, and for a brief second, it seems like he’d rather toss them all in the attic, (possibly) revived only once he ends up having children of his own.
After the toys escape Sunnyside and the dump, returning home to go to the attic and see Woody off before he becomes, like, Andy, a “college boy,” Woody realizes the error of his ways. Even more than Andy, he has to move on. Andy could bring all of his toys to college, but they would be displays more than anything else. Though his owner wouldn’t have such self-serving goals in mind, this fate wouldn’t be too far from Al stealing Woody to be sold along with the rest of the Roundup gang to a museum in Tokyo, forever stuck behind glass so that adoring tourists could stare at him and do nothing else. The point of a toy is not, as Lotso believed, to be thrown away; it is to be played with by a loving child. (Note that, in the deliberately frantic and crazed scenes where the toddlers in the Caterpillar Room at Sunnyside all but destroy our toys, Pixar once again argues in favor of a “right way” of playing with toys as opposed to a “wrong way.”) And there is possibly no more loving child than Bonnie, the daughter of one of the day care’s employees, shy in front of anyone bigger than her but a hyperactive little goofball when she’s able to play with her various inanimate friends. So Woody, who’s experienced Bonnie’s sense of fun and play firsthand, puts himself in the same box as the rest of the toys, diverting them from the dusty old attic in place of a revival of self.
So the final few minutes of Toy Story 3 feature Andy introducing all of his toys to Bonnie, encapsulating their charm in a sentence or two. Not all of his descriptions may match totally with the toys we know and love; Hamm, for instance, has few, if any, qualities of an evil dictator when he’s not being played with. But when we hear Andy describe Woody and Buzz and the rest so fondly, it’s important to realize that some of these toys may not have started out brimming with such easily recognizable personalities; they only truly became alive when a little boy picked them up and decided how they would act and react in all manner of situations. “The thing that makes Woody special is that he’ll never give up on you,” Andy says kindly about his cowboy doll, who is so heroic in these movies precisely because his owner imbued him with such qualities. Andy’s passing of the guard may mean that he is leaving some childish things behind, but it also suggests that he’ll go forth into maturity and adulthood with a proper sense of play. Those audience members who were children when they saw Toy Story in 1995 are now adults, and one of the great joys of this series, as it is with the Winnie the Pooh shorts, is that we can return to these baubles of our collective childhood whenever we want. We may have grown up, but the final moments of Toy Story 3 make it clear that we can be children again, if but for a brief, shining minute or two.