Thu
Jun 21 2012 1:00pm

Toy Story 3: The Steadfast Plastic Cowboy

Toy Story 3: The Steadfast Plastic Cowboy

But what fascinated Ermengarde most was [Sara’s] fancy about the dolls who walked and talked, and who could do anything they chose when the human beings were out of the room, but who must keep their powers a secret and so flew back to their places “like lightning” when people returned to the room.

We couldn’t do it,” said Sara, seriously. “You see, it’s a kind of magic.”

—Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess

It’s an old story, the fancy about toys who come alive when we can’t see, but pretend to be inanimate when humans are around. Hans Christian Andersen takes a turn with it in “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” and it makes an appearance in the Edwardian melodrama A Little Princess. But it also sits comfortably in a contemporary, computer-and-cell-phone-strewn setting, as in recent books like The Doll People and Toys Go Out, and in the “Toy Story” trilogy.

Usually, the story is about love. Toys, the story goes, live on the love of their owners the way the gods in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods need the worship of human beings. There’s even an Biblical version of the toy story: the legend about Abraham, the first monotheist, who broke most of the idols in his father’s shop, then insisted that the idols had gotten in a fight. When his dad didn’t believe him, Abraham challenged: If they can’t break each other, if they have no power, why do we worship them?

As with gods, so with toys: if their people don’t love them, don’t believe in them, don’t play with them, what are they?

And so Toy Story 3 opens with a spiritual crisis: Andy, the owner of Woody the cowboy and Buzz the astronaut and the whole motley crew we’ve come to know and love in the two previous Toy Story movies, is grown up and packing for college. He hasn’t played with his toys for years—in a regrettable moment, he even refers to them as “junk.” The toys are hurt when they hear this, but even more, they’re terrified about their fate: will they be consigned to the attic? Donated to a daycare center? Or, worst of all, put in the trash?

In the end, as in all good adventure stories, almost everything that could happen does happen: there’s a heartstopping mix-up and the toys are accidentally left at the curb on garbage day, but they flee to Sunnyside daycare center, where they endure abuse, imprisonment, betrayal, and the spectre of the dreaded sandbox. Throughout all their vicissitudes, and despite his friends’ disbelief, the stalwart Woody insists that Andy never meant to throw them out, that he still loves them, that they have to get back to him.

Toy Story 3: The Steadfast Plastic Cowboy

Woody’s body might be plastic, but his heart is true. Over and over, he gives up his own safe position to join his fellow toys: at the movie’s start, when he alone was chosen to accompany Andy to college, he voluntarily leaves the cardboard box to rescue his companions from the curbside. And when he’s found safe haven with Bonnie, a daycare worker’s child, he hitchhikes back to Sunnyside in her backpack so he can help his friends.

In stark contrast to the steadfast Woody, there’s Lotso, a tyrannical villain in the guise of a pink fluffy bear, who smells like strawberries and talks like a folksy television grandpa. Lotso, a bitter nihilist who can’t forgive his former owner for abandoning him at a rest stop during a family car trip, rules over a discontented, dystopian gangland realm at Sunnyside, while Woody leads a tight band of compatriots who have each other’s backs, joining forces to engineer an escape worthy of “The Shawshank Redemption.”

In the movie’s climactic scene, with the toys on the literal brink of destruction, they place their faith in each other, as they all take hands and face their fate together. Love is all they have, and love—plus a timely deus ex machina (or alien ex machina)—turns out to be enough.

Toy Story 3: The Steadfast Plastic Cowboy

But the love that saves them doesn’t come from nowhere: it springs from a shared history, and the history comes from playing together. Play is, famously, the work of childhood, and it’s borne of love: you need to love something to pay that much attention, to turn it into something else in your mind. To make magic. Because imaginative play really is a kind of magic: even small children are mysteriously able to function at a higher developmental level when they’re playing than when they’re doing real-life tasks. And the root of all creative work is play: you could say that play makes the world, or at least that play can make worlds.

It’s clear that the writers behind the Toy Story series know this; after all, imaginative play is their actual livelihood. The brilliant opening scene of Toy Story 3 is a triumphant mashup of the kind of genre juxtapositions—a train robbery! And a speeding car! And a dinosaur! And a horde of monkeys!—that characterize deep play. And then there’s the giddy cascade of visual jokes and riffs: the wobbly tortilla that Mr Potato Head creates to escape from the sandbox; the See ‘n’ Say roulette wheel; the goofy flamboyance of Buzz Lightyear’s Spanish mode.

In the last scene of the movie, Woody’s need to play, and to be played with, trumps even his devotion to Andy, and he joins his friends once more, as Andy bequeaths them to a worthy successor: Bonnie, a preschooler who lives fully in her imagination, a girl whose toys inform Woody that “we do a lot of improv here.”

Toy Story 3: The Steadfast Plastic Cowboy

Andy chokes up when he discovers Woody in the box he’s giving away, and before he says goodbye, he plays with his old toys one last time, joined by Bonnie, in a golden sunlit idyll. It’s the kind of scene that makes adults go all sniffly and verklempt, but even kids can wax nostalgic about the passage of time and the handing down of toys. It’s hard for Andy to let go—it presages the final letting go—but it feels right, to him and to Woody. It’s time.

So, let’s see: mortality, creation, spirituality, love—heady themes for a cartoon about a plastic cowboy with a string in his back. But the old story, the toy story, is sneakier than a snake in your boot: it’ll move and shift and transform when you’re not looking, becoming more alive than you ever realized.


Elisabeth Kushner is a writer and librarian in Vancouver. Her toys would like you to know that they stay right where she puts them; her socks, though, are another story.

13 comments
John R. Ellis
1. John R. Ellis
Lotso impressed me because he and Woody truly were appropriate mirrors for each other. By all we saw, his owner loved Lotso just as much as Andy loved Woody...but never even realized Lotso was missing, because her parents just bought a replacement.

Lotso couldn't get past that, just like Woody (iin the earlier two films) initially couldn't get past the deep down fear...I'm not special. I'm just one toy of many. I'm replacable. No one will miss me.

The only thing truly seperating them is bitterness. Lotso embraced it so that he'd be the one doing the hurting from now on, Woody went through a difficult process of growing past it.

A rare case in cartoons where the "evil opposite" baddie truly is that. Because he's -almost- the same.
Meghan Deans
2. Meghan
This is a lovely review. I love the bit at the end with Andy and Bonnie. And the entire preschool setting was so rich and smart, a great way to embellish the existing life-of-the-toy universe.
John R. Ellis
3. Stefan Jones
Three thoughts:

1. The majority of the movie was "only" top-notch Pixar. Enough to make Toy Story 3 a worthy sequel and a great movie. Woody's play time with Bonnie was a highlight of this part.

2. The scene in the trash incinerator could be looked at as a false ending. I was fully expecting, as they spiraled in with hands clasped, for this to happen:

{Everything would go white.

The action would skip forward a year or two, to a Christmas morning. A six year old boy and his slightly younger sister tear open their presents. After they run off to breakfast the toys introduce themselves. Their voices are familiar, and they all confess to a feeling of having met each other. }

I wouldn't have minded that ending. But I think kids might have been puzzled and traumatized.

3. The real ending.

Oh. Oh my.

I managed not to cry in the theater, both times I'd seen it. Barely.

Part of its power lies in it being both a surprise and, in retrospect, inevitable.

Another part of its power lies in its sheer perfection. It is a calm moment, in a quiet suburban back yard, no fireworks or triumphant music . . . just characters we've come to know spending a few minutes together, and yet seeming to do something utterly profound. That alone is enough to make you catch your breath in admiration and awe.

And the actual content of that moment: Woody, sacrificing a few more years with Andy, comes up with the perfect solution, for Andy (who is growing up), for Bonnie (new toys!), for Woody (who wants to keep his tribe together, safe, and having fun with a kid) and for the rest of the toys.

We know they're be OK with Bonnie. We've seen her playing. She imaginative, and a bit daft.

Andy proves himself a mench by gamely going along with Woody's suggestion. He passes on the lore of his personal play universe before heading off, under a blue sky of puffy white clouds, mirroring the opening of Toy Story.

As it was in the beginning, so will it be forever, as long as kids grow up and other kids play.

And with that ending, Toy Story 3 becomes something for the ages.
John R. Ellis
4. Mike Cugley
The playing-at-the-end sequence isn't where I (nearly) cry (manly tears). It's in the furnace, when Woody takes Buzz's hand. Because that's when he stops fighting. That's when he accepts death.
Joanne Center
5. thegloop
As much as I love Toy Story 3 (cried in the theater, no denying it) I can't help feeling like this notion that Andy can't hang onto his toys even when he "grows up" is a bit disingenuous. I say this because I am an adult who hung on to a few of my old toys (and now gets to watch my toddler play with my My Little Pony) married to an AFOL (adult fan of Lego) with a huge collection. Wouldn't the ending have been so much more meaningful if we cut ahead several years and Andy is the parent playing with his toys with his OWN child, not the neighbor girl? I dunno. I still love the movie to pieces (that Tortilla Head bit gets me every time) but I wish that it didn't emphasize this notion that adults can't own/ play with/ collect toys (and not in the sterile way that was portrayed in Toy Story 2).
Dave Slaven
6. Dave.41
Am I the only one that has a problem with this movie?

I've only seen this once, and my memory could be faulty, but I remember watching Woody deliver a moving speech about how they should all go back to Andy even if he was just going to put them in a box and shove them in the attic, because they're his toys, and thinking, "This is wrong."

Loyalty (to Andy, or anyone else) is a fine virtue, but it's a virtue that must be earned by the recipient. It's a two way street. And when the object of your loyalty repays that loyalty with abuse (by throwing you in a dark box for the rest of your life, for example) then the proper lesson should not be to remain loyal, but to stand up for your rights.

Yes, I realize that these are toys, and that (just as with the 'toons in Who Framed Roger Rabbit) they follow their own set of rules. But within the world of the Toy Story movies, these toys are every bit as human as you or I, and they have the same inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness as anyone else. And we know that what makes toys happy is to be played with, not to be thrown in a box.

The message of blind, unthinking, unrequited loyalty is wrongheaded. Would you tell a battered woman not to walk out because "you're his wife"? Would you take a beaten dog that's run away and return it to its master because "it's his dog"? Would you consign the toys to a cardboard box for eternity because "they're Andy's toys"? No, Woody. It's time for the toys to leave.
John R. Ellis
7. Stefan Jones
Three thoughts:

1. The majority of the movie was "only" top-notch Pixar. Enough to make Toy Story 3 a worthy sequel and a great movie. Woody's play time with Bonnie was a highlight of this part.

2. The scene in the trash incinerator could be looked at as a false ending. I was fully expecting, as they spiraled in with hands clasped, for this to happen:

{Everything would go white.

The action would skip forward a year or two, to a Christmas morning. A six year old boy and his slightly younger sister tear open their presents. After they run off to breakfast the toys introduce themselves. Their voices are familiar, and they all confess to a feeling of having met each other. }

I wouldn't have minded that ending. But I think kids might have been puzzled and traumatized.

3. The real ending.

Oh. Oh my.

I managed not to cry in the theater, both times I'd seen it. Barely.

Part of its power lies in it being both a surprise and, in retrospect, inevitable.

Another part of its power lies in its sheer perfection. It is a calm moment, in a quiet suburban back yard, no fireworks or triumphant music . . . just characters we've come to know spending a few minutes together, and yet seeming to do something utterly profound. That alone is enough to make you catch your breath in admiration and awe.

And the actual content of that moment: Woody, sacrificing a few more years with Andy, comes up with the perfect solution, for Andy (who is growing up), for Bonnie (new toys!), for Woody (who wants to keep his tribe together, safe, and having fun with a kid) and for the rest of the toys.

We know they're be OK with Bonnie. We've seen her playing. She imaginative, and a bit daft.

Andy proves himself a mench by gamely going along with Woody's suggestion. He passes on the lore of his personal play universe before heading off, under a blue sky of puffy white clouds, mirroring the opening of Toy Story.

As it was in the beginning, so will it be forever, as long as kids grow up and other kids play.

And with that ending, Toy Story 3 becomes something for the ages.
John R. Ellis
8. Stefan Jones
OK, something odd just happened. A short response to #6 turned into a repost.

Please erase #7 and this post.
John R. Ellis
9. RobinM
I was a little torn by the ending of this movie it's good the toys will be played with by Bonnie, but I wanted Andy to keep them. I wanted Andy to share his favorite toys with his kids someday like his mother did for him.
John R. Ellis
10. Stefan Jones
Did I watch the same movie as Dave.41?

When Woody gives the speech that Dave objects too, it is, I believe, intended to come off a little idealistic, and perhaps a little desperate.

"No, Woody. It's time for the toys to leave."

Ah . . . but that is exactly what he comes to realize between his speech and the scene where he is reunited with his friends in Andy's room. He doesn't lose faith in Andy, simply that the boss has grown up and that it is time to move on.
JS Bangs
11. jaspax
I, unfortunately, have never gotten to see this film all the way through. I've seen the second half, and then a big chunk of the first half, and then some spots in the middle (a hazard of watching over my kids' shoulders while theoretically doing work). I think I've seen the whole film by this point, just not all at once.

Let me tell you: the incinerator scene broke my heart. It succeeded in making me believe that they were really going to kill their entire cast IN A KIDS MOVIE, that this was the end, and that there was no going back. When the characters stopped struggling and simply joined hands to face their deaths together, I sobbed. That, for me, was far more gut-wrenching than anything in Up or any of the other Pixar films.

And then! Eucatastrophe! Catharsis! Apocatastasis! The poor, abused, overlooked little ones, the bit players, the comic relief come to the rescue, in a scene that calls back to the very first movie. It's awesome. And the final resolution with Bonnie is just perfect. I cannot imagine a better resolution to the trilogy.

(Let us pray that there is never any Toy Story 4. It would tarnish the beauty of the close to this trilogy, in much the way that the abominable prequels tarnished the original Star Wars trilogy.)
John R. Ellis
12. AlBrown
Can't bring myself to talk about this one without getting all teary-eyed. One of the best of the Pixar films.
Dave Slaven
13. Dave.41
@10
Yes, but what does the movie itself tell us? When the toys decide to take charge of their lives and look out for their own happiness, it all goes horribly wrong. And when they decide to return to Andy and submit to "attic mode," everything ends up wonderfully working out. What kind of message does that send?

I know I'm way out of the mainstream on this one, and I don't expect that to change, but I find it hard to believe that I'm the only one who saw the movie this way. I'm pretty sure I'm just never going to like this movie. Everyone's different. (Especially when compared to me. :-)

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