If there is one thing that the Toy Story franchise has done beautifully, and deeply movingly it should be added, it is depicting the way all of us have invested vibrant, authentic humanity into our beloved play things.
When we’re kids and playing with our teddy bears, action figures and dolls, we don’t think in those terms of course; we’re just playing, experimenting with life in a delightful mimicry of what we’ve seen our parents do and what we think, in our ridiculously limited experience, life is all about.
But as Toy Story has shown again and again, those playful moments, those expansive flights of imagination, grant our toys a life far beyond the games and scenarios of which they’re apart.
They come alive for us, and while Toy Story has undoubtedly brought this facet of playing to appealing life for all of us in heartwarming and thrilling “I knew they did that when my back was turned!” ways, what it’s also done, and Toy Story 3 in particular has done, is show us just about humanity we grant our toys every time they become a part of our play times.
That humanity can be both good and bad, as demonstrated in the third instalment, by toyroom stalwart Woody and newcomer Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear aka Lotso (Ned Beatty) who exemplify what it means to be both very toy-like and very human.
The scenario in this case isn’t that divergent from earlier films in so far as the happy status quo of the toys’ lives is upset by the passing of time as Andy (John Morris) grows up, moving from fun-loving kid to graduated high school senior about to head off to college.
It’s a huge transition for Andy, but in many ways, just as much for his toys, who are greatly reduced in number down to Woody, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Mr and Mrs Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Jessie (Joan Cusack) and Bullseye and the Pizza Planet “The Claw!” aliens (Jeff Pidgeon).
They know this moment is coming, of course; not only has Andy not played with them in years but every toy knows that their being played with days are numbered and that sooner or later, they will be discarded, packed away or consigned to nothing more than fond memory of childhood.
With Andy only days away from going to college, that moment arrives sooner than they expect, their old heady days of living out Andy’s imaginative fantasies – the film opens, as Toy Story 2 did, with an elaborate story involving all the toys, this time set in a fantastical melding of Westerns and science fiction – packed away into a bag destined for the attic.
They won’t be played with again true, but at least they’ll still be with somewhere near Andy, at least when he’s home, unlike Wheezy (Joe Ranft) or Bo Peep (Annie Potts) who have, rather euphemistically gone on to other lives.
But then, as happens so often in Toy Story, their bag is mistakenly collected by Andy’s mum (Laurie Metcalf), put out for rubbish collection, with only Woody, the one toy selected to go on to college with his owner, witness to the mix-up.
While the toys escape the garbage truck, the experience, which is trauma piled upon trauma for them – not only are their playing days over but they’re being thrown out! – convinces them that being donated to Sunnyside Daycare is really the only option left to them. (The name lives out the adage that if the name is lovely, the place it’s attached to, must be one of the seven layers of hell; or as hell-ish as Toy Story 3 gets, which, as a later scene demonstrates, is actually pretty scary. (Death by furnace fire, anyone? No, just the toys then?)
Once again, and this could just be the trauma talking, they don’t believe Woody that Andy never meant to throw them out, and throw themselves in the box going to Sunnyside courtesy of Andy’s mum where a whole new wonderful life awaits.
Except it doesn’t with Lotso, scarred by an accidental rejection by his girl owner, ruling Sunnyside like some sort of cross between a police state and a Nazi concentration camp.
It provides plenty of opportunities to comedically demonstrate how brutal playtime can be in the hands of very young children, something which flies in the face, both humourously and heartfelt of what Andy’s toys are idealistically expecting of so many years of not being played with at all, but it also gives Toy Story plenty of scope to explore what love and belonging feel like to a toy, and by extension, to us.
Woody responds to the spectre of rejection by doubling down on devotion to Andy while Lotso handles by turning darkly inward, his rage corrupting the purity of his love for children into something unsettlingly malevolent.
Buzz and the others grapple with it by doing what so many of us would do – rejecting the rejector, and looking for somewhere else and more importantly, someone else, they can belong to.
It’s not that easy and as their experience at Sunnyside graphically demonstrates, fraught with all kinds of peril and dashed expectations, but Toy Story 3 makes it heartrendingly plain while it matters to them so much.
Anyone who has had to move on from someone and somewhere, and let’s face it, that’s all of us, will intimately relate to what Woody, Buzz et al are going through, and why that pushes them to makes both good and bad decisions.
After some heart-in-mouth adventures, including getting far too close for comfort to said rubbish tip furnace, they do make it back to Andy which in the other films signaled a return to happiness as normal.
But these are not normal times, and as Andy has to deal with moving on, so do his toys who, in one of the most beautifully, achingly poignant scenes in movie history, are given by him to Bonnie (Emily Hahn), the daughter of one of Sunnyside’s workers, beginning a new life away from Andy with new friends like thespian hedgehog Mr Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), Trixie the triceratops (Kristen Schaal) and Dolly (Bonnie Hunt).
Like us and Andy, the toys know there is a certain inevitability about the transition, and while we know enough about Bonnie to understand they have landed in a good place, far away from Lotso’s onetime tyranny – in a winning move, Sunnyside’s rule falls to Ken (Michael Keaton) and Barbie (Jodi Benson) – it’s a massive, emotional wrench for them, and honestly for us. (If you’re not crying when all this is happening, you have more Lotso than Woody in your heart.)
Toy Story 3 is that very rare thing – a sequel’s sequel that is actually more affecting than its admittedly excellent predecessor, one which reminds us over and over again that life is full of big and sometimes traumatic change, but that, properly negotiated with people we love around us (and Woody and the gang are one of the loveliest families around, even with their gloriously funny, sometimes maddening, dysfunction), it can be an affirming, revitalising thing that can take us to wonderful places just when we might think the good times are over forever.