For a film that is ostensibly for children, Toy Story 3 has already accumulated a wide range of analyses: a quick Google search turns up discussions of the film as a Marxist text, an apologia for capitalism, a meditation on the nature of God, even an existentialist recapitulation of the Holocaust. Much of this analysis is tongue-in-cheek, but the most surprising thing about it is how unsurprising it is; the average Pixar film is more thoughtful than most films made for adults, let alone those made for children. And Toy Story 3 is a deeply existential piece of work, asking questions about work and identity, life and death, love and faith and change. In the end, though, the film may function best on a more personal thematic level—as the collective origin story of Pixar's creative team, and the raison d'être of the company itself.
All of which is not meant to brush aside the fact that the film is a hell of a lot of fun. It starts out with an extended play sequence, a train robbery that reintroduces Buzz, Woody, and the gang even as it rapidly escalates to Axe Cop-like heights of exuberance. It's an example of the sort of inspired lunacy that Pixar has and others don't: an ability to plug into the childlike imagination that so many of us tend to stifle. It's hardly a coincidence that Pixar's villains are those who, often through bitterness at their disappointments, have lost the ability to approach the world with wonder. Sid, the sadistic neighbor of the first Toy Story (who makes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance in this film) was a budding psychopath who could only enjoy toys by dismembering them; the Chicken Man of the second film was greedy and valued them only for the profit they might bring. Toy Story 2 also introduced a villainous toy in the character of Stinky Pete, the Old Prospector, who saw children not as affectionate masters, but as destroyers of toys. (It's notable that Stinky Pete's worldview, which recurs in the third film, is never entirely refuted; there is certainly a reading of the second and third films in which the toys—Woody in particular—are delusional, willing slaves to the will of the humans in their lives.)
The third film returns to the idea of embittered and villainous toys, but first it deals with the terror and heartbreak of abandonment. Andy is about to head to college; his days of elaborate play sequences are nothing but video artifacts, and his toys lie in the trunk, neglected. Andy decides to take Woody with him to college, leaving the remaining toys speculate about their fate—either the attic, the landfill, or donation to a local daycare. There's an afterlife metaphor there somewhere, but it never quite comes together; we never actually see the attic, so it's hard to say whether it's Limbo or Purgatory; and despite its name, Sunnyside Daycare, where the toys (including Woody, after a series of complications) end up, is not paradise.
After our heroes are given a warm welcome by Lotso—a cuddly bear voiced by Ned Beatty—and a tour that makes the place look like a sort of Club Med for aging toys, they are locked in the Caterpillar Room to deal with the toddler set—a group for which none of them are "age-appropriate." Playtime in the Caterpillar Room is the second most harrowing thing in the film; the toddlers are like shrieking maenads, flinging, biting, and otherwise abusing the toys. Pity poor Slinky Dog, stretched out on the rack of the Sensorimotor Model of Intellectual Development.
Lotso is not, of course, the grandfatherly figure he presents himself as; he's the Stinky Pete of this story, except more embittered still. Stinky Pete had never known the love of a child, but Lotso has been the favorite, only to have been lost and replaced. He's a What-If version of Woody, a one-step-further Malcolm Reynolds of the plush variety. Lotso has Sunnyside wired in favor of himself and his posse of muscle toys, which include Big Baby (an exceptionally creepy baby doll with a lazy eye, which only speaks in baby coos), and a chipper but lonely Ken doll, voiced by Michael Keaton. When Andy's toys send Buzz to negotiate with Lotso, the bear returns Buzz to his original factory settings and uses him to imprison his friends.
Woody, the believer, doesn't yet know about any of this; having made his escape from Sunnyside during playtime, he's found by young Bonnie, the daughter of one of the daycare employees. Bonnie takes him home and reveals herself as a prodigy of play; her toys are so proud of her unbridled imagination that they consider themselves members of a premier improv troupe. But among Bonnie's toys is Chuckles, a clown who knew Lotso before he lost faith. He tells Woody the truth about Sunnyside, and Woody knows he has to find a way to rescue his friends.
It's remarkable that with all that happens in Toy Story 3, it's still lean and fast; there's so much backstory here, and so many characters, and yet even the callbacks and bits of foreshadowing feel organic to the plot: Jessie is still wounded by her abandonment by Emily, as seen in Toy Story 2, and the Squeeze Toy Aliens still revere both The Claw (as seen in the first film) and Mr. Potato Head, their savior (also from Toy Story 2). Buzz is still prone to identity transplant episodes—including, this time, a rather lazy Spanish-language personality transplant, complete with Flamenco poses. And Barbie, who made a cameo as a chipper, daredevil tour guide in the second film, is back as a toy donated to Sunnyside by Andy's sister Molly.
Barbie gets her moment in this film, but first she gets her Ken. The two of them immediately fall for each other, unsurprisingly; but once Barbie understands Ken's role in Lotso's mafia, she sides with her friends from Andy's room. Ken's resulting conflict—all he really wants, in the end, is for everything to be groovy—is in some ways the linchpin of the film, and Michael Keaton plays him with a sort of Bill-and-Ted combination of bewilderment and wonder; it's not difficult to imagine him breaking out into a speech pleading with everyone to just be excellent to each other.
Everything comes to a head in the third act, when Woody comes back to break his friends out of Sunnyside. It's The Great Escape filtered through a five-year-old's sensibility, and it includes an extended gag involving Mr. Potato Head and a tortilla that had me gasping. Everyone—well, all of the male toys, at least—gets their moment in the lead-up to the showdown with Lotso and Big Baby. What follows is, well . . . remember how I said the Caterpillar room was the second most harrowing thing in the film? The climactic scene of the film is so dark and frightening that it could be this generation's Bambi-in-the-forest-fire. This is not to suggest that it's gratuitous; it's honest, almost raw, albeit with a hand-of-god rescue from the jaws of doom because, after all, this is a movie for kids.
Speaking of honest emotion, in the closing moments of the film (and, as far as we know, the end of this Pixar story) the film resolves from quite a different angle. A brief scene between Andy and his mother makes interesting suggestions about the nature of the toys' relationship to Andy—perhaps, in a way, Woody and Buzz are meant to stand for parents, coming to terms with a child about to leave the nest. But this is soon replaced by a deeper, more satisfying reading, as a note (surreptitiously penned by Woody himself) leads Andy to take his toys to young Bonnie. As we see him introduce her to the cast, and the two of them begin to collaborate on a new adventure, it's as though we're seeing the origin story of Pixar itself. Andy has achieved the balance of play and pragmatism that Woody has been modeling all through these films, and he is taking it upon himself to nurture the imagination of a new generation; it's not at all difficult to imagine that his departure for college is the first step towards a career at a certain upstart animation studio. It's an oddly personal moment for a group that tends not to insert themselves so directly into their films, but it makes for a deeply satisfying conclusion to their flagship series.
David J. Schwartz's fiction has appeared in numerous venues; his novel, Superpowers, was nominated for a Nebula Award. He lives in St. Paul and blogs at http://snurri.livejournal.com.