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.