For a franchise that’s only offered four installments over the course of a quarter century, Toy Story feels awfully omnipresent in our popular culture. A lot of it has to do with simple quality: These are very good films, highlighting some of the best that Pixar’s community of artists, animators, and storytellers has to offer. (By Rotten Tomatoes score, Toy Story ranks as the most critically acclaimed franchise ever.) Each entry can stand on its own, but taken together, they form an affecting bond between audience and characters that’s carried over between movies and over the years. But the widespread affection these films inspire also has to do with their subject matter. They’re stories about the things we choose to love, why we choose them, and what it means to care about something that might seem disposable to everyone else. In other words, the Toy Story films are about loving something as much as kids love Toy Story.
By the time Toy Story 3 rolled around, the series already felt like both a well-established brick in the firmament of American children’s entertainment and a slightly long-in-the-tooth property. After all, it had been more than a decade since Toy Story 2, with production on the third film the victim of a years-long power struggle between Pixar and Disney, the latter of which owned the rights to the characters (and even forged ahead on part three without Pixar’s involvement for a while). The original audience for the films had grown up—and presumably moved on to more adult interests, making it uncertain whether a new generation of kids would cotton to the ongoing adventures of Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang. So after Disney bought Pixar outright in 2006, original Toy Story creatives John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and Lee Unkrich (the last of whom directed Toy Story 3) returned to the cabin retreat where they had developed the concept for the original, and over the course of a weekend, hammered out the idea for the new film. The results spoke directly to not only the situation of toys confronting their possible obsolescence but also the concerns of artists revisiting their creations a decade later and fearing they no longer had a relevant place in the world.
Toy Story 3 follows Woody (Tom Hanks) and the rest of Andy’s toys as they grapple with the fact that their owner has outgrown them. He’s an 18-year-old headed off to college, and after their years of loyalty and love, they’re rewarded with a retirement of sorts: being stored in the attic. But Andy’s mother confuses the bag of toys for trash, and, thinking they’ve been thrown out (and mistakenly believing Andy was the one who discarded them), our protagonists climb into a box bound for a nearby daycare facility. There, they soon learn that the dream of endless children to play with them has become a nightmare, with the entire toy population ruled over by an authoritarian teddy bear, Lotso (Ned Beatty), who has turned it into his personal fiefdom. After a struggle to escape that sees them nearly incinerated, the toys make their way back to Andy, who finds a note Woody has written, asking the playthings to be donated to Bonnie, a local child from the daycare. In the final minutes, Andy gives all his toys—his beloved Woody included—to Bonnie, realizing it’s better for a new child to get the chance to love them as much as he did.
In that closing scene, the theme of Toy Story 3—and arguably the franchise as a whole—snaps into focus. These are toys that have spent a life with a child and have watched him grow up, but now, as is proper and inevitable, he is putting away childish things. So what’s their ultimate purpose? Is it to be enjoyed, then placed in a box and pulled out periodically for a hit of nostalgia? Just as Toy Story 2 argued against the idea of toys as untouchable collectibles, Toy Story 3 raises the broader question of when it’s time to really let go. Because by 2010, the original Toy Story audience was moving on and growing up—and so the film, just like Andy, realizes it has to look to a new generation.
This being a Pixar movie, the message is as much for the adults as their children. In an interview, Unkrich and screenwriter Michael Arndt discussed the emotional impact of the ending, how the feeling of wanting to be acknowledged and cared for is universal. “I think that’s part of why people feel so much emotion in that last scene, is that we’ve created a moment where the toys are appreciated,” said Unkrich. “They are loved, against all odds, and they are able to have that glorious feeling one last time. And I think it speaks to something deeply in a lot of people in the audience at different points in their lives.” Playing with his toys for a final time, Andy acknowledges their value to him, even if he doesn’t connect to them like he used to and he bequeaths them to someone new.
That coming to grips with the passing of time—and trying to deal with things ending—looms over the whole film. (It’s also there in another scene we almost chose for this entry: the toys facing the incinerator, in the climax, silently joining hands and accepting their fate with quiet dignity.) Toy Story 3 argues that we need to accept how things change, to not hold on to what we’ve outgrown (be it a cherished toy or a beloved childhood movie) but instead pass it on to the next group of kids who can love it just as much, if not more, than we did. And counterintuitively, in that passing, we can see our favorite things through new eyes. Witnessing that is a thrill in itself, arguably even richer and deeper than the one that first sparked in us as kids. Can children’s entertainment justify itself any more powerfully than that?