Toy Story 3 is about the Apocalypse

Kids movies often have strange and borderline-inappropriate imagery.  In “Madagascar 2,” the movie begins by going back in time.  In order to show that this is years earlier, we see a view of the Manhattan skyline, including the twin towers.  For some reason, the filmmakers thought it was a good idea to evoke the memory of 3000 dead in a kid’s movie.  Overall, the “Madagascar” franchise is not nearly as evocative as the “Toy Story” movies – which have become this generation’s “Star Wars,” in the way that the characters have taken on archetypal, mythic properties.  So instead of princess, renegade, and wizard, we have cowboy, space man, Mr. Potato Head, piggy bank, etc.  The entire “Toy Story” story has the feeling of an archetype – of course there’s a kid’s movie where toys come to life.  To take this perhaps a step too far, it’s like Philip K. Dick’s theory of Platonic anamnesis – remembering something that never existed.  There’s something about “Toy Story” that just feels inevitable.

There’s also a way in which the “Toy Story” movies exploit people’s basic fears.  “Exploit” is perhaps too cynical a word.  “Explore” is probably better, as these fears are reasonable.  In the first movie, there’s fear of the bully, in the form of Sid:


Sid’s a sadist who tortures toys.  With the skull on his chest, he represents a kind of fear of death, as he very literally threatens to blow up Woody and Buzz with a rocket.  With the second movie, this fear becomes more pronounced.  “Toy Story 2″ uses the fear of kidnapping when Woody’s abducted by this creep:

It also builds on the fear of death when Jessie, the cowgirl, yells that she doesn’t want to go “back into storage,” which is death for a toy.  The world of toys actually has the potential to be a nightmare, as they can be ignored and forgotten – every kid has this fear as well, as does every adult.

“Toy Story 3″ then takes this theme to a new level, in which the toys don’t just fear a figurative death by being ignored by their owner, Andy, but also a literal death, where at the end of the movie they risk being incinerated.  Like “Madagascar,” the movie begins with a strange image – which, coming at the beginning, seems fairly innocuous, but by the end takes on a new meaning.  In the beginning fantasy sequence, one of the toys drops a bomb of a barrel of monkeys that blows up into a mushroom cloud.  Sensitive as I am to this stuff, I did feel this was strange at the time, because making light of a mushroom cloud seems as inappropriate in a kid’s movie as evoking 9-11 in “Madagascar.”  But it’s creative and amusing too, so it’s not really an outrage.  Just…weird.

In the end though, this takes on a new meaning, as Woody and the gang sit in an incinerator. One by one, they look at each other. Instead of trying to fight it anymore and escape, they give in and acknowledge – we’re going to die. They hold hands with each other, waiting for the moment to come. This isn’t just the fear of not being played with, or a mere fear of death, it’s a fear of your whole world coming to an end.

It’s as emotional as this scene from “Deep Impact,” when an asteroid hits the earth. See minute 4, where Tea Leoni’s character clutches her father as a tidal wave is about to hit them. Reverting to childhood, she says, “Daddy” – one of the better moments in the movie. “Toy Story 3” is doing the exact same thing, bringing us both to a place of intense childhood  imagination and also childhood fear:

I realize this review is incredibly heavy-handed for a kid’s movie. But kid’s movies have always taken on heavy subjects. See: “Bambie” and “Old Yeller.” I love the first two movies, but “Toy Story 3″ isn’t as effective, and I wasn’t entirely sure why.  I realized that it doesn’t always follow the rules of these archetypes.

In the middle portion of the movie, the toys get imprisoned by Lotso, a stuffed bear, inside a daycare center. This sequence is not as effective as the last 45 minutes (the incineration) or the intro (mushroom cloud of monkeys). Why – because the fear of false imprisonment isn’t nearly as visceral as the fear of a bully (first movie) or fear of kidnapping (second movie) or fear of death (last 45 minutes of the third).

Also, at the daycare center, the toys are put in the preschool section, where they’re played with violently, so the toys want to escape.  But this is kind of a false choice – because to be played with at all is preferable to the opposite – which in the universe of “Toy Story” is  equal to death.  Choosing otherwise would be a kind of suicide, so the fact that the toys get imprisoned at the daycare center is less dramatic – at least they’re getting played with.

This section drags a bit compared to the rest of the movie, as it doesn’t fit the archetypes of the other movies, or the ending of this one.   So I came up with this review – which is part total overstatement, but not too far off. Each movie ups the ante over the previous one and “Toy Story 3″ exploits people’s basic and growing fear about the end of the world.  As Woody and the gang stare into that glowing fire pit, it’s like all of us staring into the uncertain future of Global Warming, or whatever other annihilation the world might throw at us.  That the apocalypse made it into the “Toy Story” franchise isn’t a great surprise, given the literal apocalypse of Pixar’s “Wall-E.” So if you look beyond the cuteness of Woody et al. there’s perhaps a deeper reason why these characters are so popular and why the issue of loss is so integral to the sequels.

8 Responses

  1. Pingback: Toy Story 3 and the Apocalypse | Disinformation

  2. Phillip Lozano says:

    “Kids movies often have strange and borderline-inappropriate imagery.”

    Who among the American public would ghettoize Toy Story 3 as simply a movie for children? Aside from the 18-to-25-plus-year-olds who weaned on the original 15 years ago, the franchise has always cultivated a total family audience. The classic Disney films were directed at all ages – they weren’t originally intended to be video-age babysitters for lazy parents. And yet the “Toy Story” films convey a remarkable set of ethics and values usually absent from most so-called family entertainment.

    If your big epiphany is that the “Toy Story” films employ universal archetypes that appeal to the hopes and fears of adults as well as children, you’re about the last person in America to figure that out.

  3. Henry Baum says:

    Thanks for your crappy, dismissive internet comment. Appreciated!

    Jesus, I don’t know why “Toy Story 3″ is mainly a kid’s movie. Maybe because it’s about kid’s toys. That it has fodder to keep parents interested is nothing new – but we’re in trouble if a movie like “Toy Story” ever becomes primarily for adults. Point of this is to figure out what the archetypes are – and “Toy Story” is not being advertised as an apocalypse movie, obviously, in the same way as “Wall-E” or “Nine,” but it might be tapping into that kind of fear.

  4. dETROITfUNK says:

    Phillip probably works for Disney.

    Henry, your review is not only far from heavy handed, it only scratches the surface of dark and inappropriate themes in this film. The Hiroshima/Enola Gay sequence is reinforced by including specifically the dinosaur (Godzilla) to make sure we get the WW2/Atomic bomb reference.

    The furnace scene is just that. A charming rendition of my childs favorite toys suffering the Holocaust. What deranged people made this film, what is the matter with Tom Hanks and the actors who played the characters, and what the HELL is the matter with the director who proudly brags that he referenced PRISON FILMS AND SHOWS for the themes in this CARTOON. Obviously Schindler’s List was one of the films they are referencing. Cool Hand Luke is another.

    Merry F-n Christmas PIXAR. I will NEVER trust Disney ever again after this experience. Do not give me any blowback about “age-appropriateness”, because this crap was demographically targeted at my 2 1/2 year old child with very specified marketing. My kid was saying “Toy Story 3″ before she knew what it even meant, due to advertising during her age appropriate programming on the Disney cable channel.

    And aside from my child, it disturbed my wife very deeply, and she found it to be “culturally insensitive” to say the least.

    Worst movie ever made – for these reasons – no matter how clever or slick – worst children’s movie in history.

    no more Disney.

  5. Mel Noir says:

    Wow…. just wow. I can’t believe people are being so ridiculously sensitive about a film, of all things.

    The fact is, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of picture books and films aimed towards children that have heavy themes throughout. The commenter above needs to stop thinking his child is an idiot, and wrapping them in cotton wool. Children are smart, they know it’s just a film, and they can easily handle really complex themes. I can’t believe people will just assume their children are stupid like that, kids are actually really smart.

    Why can’t you guys just get that this is just a film? It’s about Toys that come to life when you’re not looking! They… are… TOYS!

    Besides, when we went to the cinema, the kid I was with saw the incinerator scene and shouted, “wow, how are they going to get out of this one?” in excitement. Put yourself in your kids shoes, and stop assuming how they feel, man.

    But I guess I’m going to have a snarky “thanks for your crappy comment” reply, and fall on the deaf ears of an idiot.

  6. Henry Baum says:

    You had me till “idiot” which is crappy and dismissive. Personally, I’m not going to shield my child from the movie, but it did strike me as reflective of current apocalyptic paranoia, which is on a grander scale than something like Bambi’s mom dying or Old Yeller getting shot. And I thought that was worth exploring. Of course a kid’s going to have fun at “Toy Story” – they’re kids. They’re not going to think – oh, this is a reflection of the apocalyptic zeitgeist so common in post 9-11 America. I may be overthinking this, but at the same time, there’s no such thing as “just a film.”

  7. Mel noir says:

    I won’t lie, I reread “crappy and dismissive”, realised you clearly have nothing of interest to say and stopped reading. Maybe you should buy a thesaurus to avoid that happening again. Oh, is crappy in there? Probably not…

  8. Carolyn Sollenberger says:

    I was so greatful to read this review. My son watched this movie and shortly thereafter was so afraid to throw his toys away. He thinks that their is fire in the trash truck and his toys will be burned to death. His precoccupation with throwing things away has crossed over to clothing, food, every object in our household. It has also suddenly sparked a preoccupation with death. Great. I think I will send the bill for the child psychiatrist to disney. I thought the movie was great, but I didn’t realize that the imagery of toy death would be so powerful that it would evoke this sort of response from a 5 year old.

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