Toy Story 3: Crying for ourselves

Tony Curzon Price's reading of Toy Story 3 fails to adequately explain why grown men cry in this film. There is nothing edifying to it.
Jeremy O'Grady
9 August 2010

That was a thoroughly enjoyable critique and true to boot. In fact it is even worse than you say, Tony, since the toys not only long to be slaves, they long to be retards. One of the most repulsive aspects of the movie for me was watching the toys joyfully assume a state of lobotomised floppiness as soon as they find themselves handled by their adored human overlords.

Toy Story 3 Publicity Still

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Nevertheless, what you identify as the  driving vision of Pixar is in my view only a bi-product of a quite different dynamic. Pixar, when all is said and done, isn't really trying to sell us a helot political philosophy. Would that it were that grown up. Alas, It doesn't have the virtue of being so dastardly. No its ambition is more grounded. It is first and foremost trying to make you cry... both because the film makers are soppy, and because they want your cash. The questions that need answering, the ones that helps define the architecture, the shaping intelligence behind the film, are: "Did you blub?"  And if so, "why? How did they make you do it?"

The answer, I think, is that they did, almost reflexively, what is done with 90% of Hollywood sentimental product: they turned it into a rites of passage movie. But one of a particularly contemporary sort; a  rites of passage movie for people who never grow up, that is to say for the American adult adolescent male, the perpetual teenager. For me that is what is crucial to understanding the construction of this film: that it is not the child who is being directly addressed here - she is a mere passenger, easily diverted, it has to be said, by the often brilliant hoopla -  but the infantile male adult. That is why the feminists seem to me to have been on the right tack with this.

Adult, at any rate, even if not male adult. As has become usual, the model is JM Barrie (mixed with his contemporary avatar, Steven Spielberg) rather than Lewis Carroll: to pitch the appeal at those who have outgrown childhood and flatter them with a sentimentalised  version of childhood,  at nostalgia, rather than addressing children with a reappraisal of the curious and curiouser world of grown-ups. Compare the anthropomorphism of Babe, for example, where the animal characters are formidable in their own right, with the knowing pastiches of mainly filmic stereotypes represented by the toys (right down to the baby represnting Chucky from the killer doll horror series). For a child the fact that Buzz's personality is no more than the sum of his switches, he is what you switch him to be, is disconcerting - though for the adult it's cute. In fact "cute", with its condescion towards childish innocence, is the key adjective for much of all this. The entire shtik between Ken and Barbie, and the play with the notion of the camp and the fem, is a conversation in which the children at whom the film is ostensibly aimed are included by default. This is a film for children to see and adults to watch.

But back to the tears? Why did so many grown men cry? (Maybe including you and me. Maybe not.) The tears, we know, followed the two key sentimental ending scenes, both seen through the eyes of a toy - Woody - who is a privileged spectator of these two moments  of intimacy, moments of significant emotional truth. The first is when the mother, the yummy mummy, momentarily breaks down in grief at the thought of her son leaving the nest. Suddenly she needs him. The dependency relationship of the past 17 years is inverted. Just like that. The second is when Andy holds back his own tears in the symbolic handing over of his childhood - his old box of toys - to the little girl down the street.

Now it is easy to see why the male tears might flow at this point, such is the potency of nostalgia combined with flattery. At this climactic moment in the middle class male's life path, not one but two creatures, the mother and the toy, are having to brace themselves to the hard reality of having young master leave..... Christ, doesn't it make you feel sad and important all at the same time. Better yet at this moving moment of transition, mourned by onlooker and onlooked, the departing male behaves with huge sensitivity to girl and toy alike.

But the moving parallels are false. Woody doesn't learn the lesson that Mom apparently learns. He doesn't brace himself to adapt to a life without Andy; he finds an alternative Andy on whom to be just as dependent. More to the point, in modern America, Andy doesn't adjust to life without Mom. If he doesn't return to the nest for room and board he's at the very least relying on her funds to see him through college and beyond. And while continuing to consume juvenile male fantasy products in his cultural life, he can look for some flattering redemption .. some more stirring account of his transition to adulthood ... in movies like this. No wonder this comes across as a film that wants us to be unfree.

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