Toy Story 3's vision of heaven and hell


Toy Story 3 (G). Director: Lee Unkrich. Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Don Rickles, Michael Keaton, John Morris, Jodi Benson, Timothy Dalton. 108 minutes

Toy Story 3When I went to see Toy Story 3 the audience consisted almost entirely of adults in their 20s and 30s. There was just one infant, who, asleep in her mum's arms, was unaware of the screen in front of her.

I got the feeling, as the film played, that this was its intended audience: people who had grown up with the Toy Story franchise, and yet had never quite grown up.

The Toy Story films have always catered to adults in a way most animated features do not. Even when compared  to the knowing satire and social commentary of The Simpsons, Toy Story surprises with its depth of feeling and its mature exploration of such themes as life and death, love and rejection, friendship and loneliness.

Toy Story 3 may be the most 'grown-up' film in the trilogy. The toys, led by Woody the sheriff (Hanks), come to terms with the fact that their owner, Andy (Morris), has grown up and, at 17, is about to head off to college. Woody is lucky; Andy is still sentimental about his favourite toy and wants to take him along. But that leaves the other toys in a predicament. Will they end up above, in the attic, or below, in the garbage?

By happy accident, all of the toys, including Woody, end up in the purgatory of a children's day care centre, called Sunnyside. Here there are new toys, led by a seemingly loveable bear named Lots-o-Love (Beatty). And the endless rotation of children ensures the toys will never become obsolete.

But Sunnyside is not the resort the toys first imagine; rather, it's a prison, where the toys are bullies presided over by the despotic Lotso, and the children are rapacious, slobbering, unfeeling monsters.

An escape sequence follows, in which Woody and the toys give Steve McQueen a run for his money; The Toy Story films are deeply nostalgic about the history of American cinema, with old westerns and science-fiction embodied by Woody and Buzz Lightyear (Allen) respectively.

But while the toys manage to leave Sunnyside, they are not free of trouble. Instead, they are brought by a garbage truck to a landfill, where they are dragged towards an incinerator. This fiery pit is equivalent to any vision of Hell confected by Dante and his ilk. It's hair-raising and harrowing stuff for an animated feature, but you can never quite tell what the toys find more threatening: death itself or the despair of becoming obsolete.

At this point, I started to wonder what kids would make of the movie. What's in it for them? In the end, do we really go and watch animated features for nihilism and existential angst?

But Toy Story 3 is by no means all doom and gloom. The toys are some of the brightest, funniest comedians in film today. Toys are hardier and bouncier than people, so the slapstick routines are fast-paced, zany, and more than enough to entertain children (and, okay, adults).

Ever the comic stooge, in Toy Story 3 Buzz gets the laughs when he reverts to Spanish-speaking mode. Mr Potato Head (Rickles), continuing the riff on Hispanic translation, turns into Mr Tortilla. Barbie (Benson) brings girl power, while a fashion-obsessed Ken (Keaton) himself becomes an accessory. A hedgehog named Mr Pricklepants (Dalton) reveals himself to be an aspiring thespian. It's all very cute.

For all the darkness lurking in their subtext, the Toy Story films are comedies, not tragedies. Toy Story 3 might flirt with life and death, but its main theme is friendship (hence Randy Newman's Oscar-winning theme song, 'You've Got a Friend in Me'). Woody's fierce devotion to Andy is touching, but it is the other toys who are the real friends in his life.

No toys die in Toy Story 3; they just move on to the next phase of their lives. The last 10 minutes are a fittingly sentimental end to a trilogy saturated in sentiment, as the toys say goodbye to the past and prepare for the future. Andy may have grown up and put childish things away, but it's the toys that learn love.

Adrian PhoonAdrian Phoon is a freelance writer and blogger based in Sydney. He has been published in Melbourne's The Age, The National Times, New Matilda and Same Same. 

Topic tags: Adrian Phoon, toy story 3, heaven and hell, woody, buzz lightyear, disney pixar



submit a comment

Existing comments

My kids have already seen the film and really enjoyed it. This is an intelligent and insightful review. Look forward to reading more like from you, Adrian.
Patrick James | 09 July 2010

Excellent summary. We (40s) took our kids and I agree with your sentiment that I think we enjoyed it more than they did. I cried at the end and my husband even admitted to getting choked up!
Lek Koswig | 09 July 2010

Thanks for this review. I was beginning to wonder if I was the only one who was reacting in this way to the movie. I've been accused of over-thinking things in the past! I thought the Sunny-side 'prison camp' and the incinerator scene were reminiscent of the holocaust - throw in some black and white and its Schindlers List for toddlers. It was a bit too grim in places for my three year old companion. He coped by devouring a large biscuit and falling to sleep.
Michael Elphick | 15 July 2010

Fine piece, Adrian. Eureka Street should give your email so people can offer you lots of work. You deserve it. Thanks again. Very craftsmanlike.,
Cliff Baxter | 26 July 2010


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up