'Toy Story's' Continuing Resonance
Before 1995 every animated film by Disney was entangled in the narratives of period pieces ranging with the same storyline of princesses falling in love with a prince or tales of talking animals seeking freedom from asylum. The animated landscape lacked creativity on a commercial scale until John Lasseter, along with a team of rebellious animators, came along to develop Pixar. Exercising their skills from "Luxo Jr" to the Oscar-winning short "Tin Toy" the Lasseter team began development on "Toy Story." Despite its perception of being a wholly original tale of toys come to life the idea was adapted before in 1849 with Danish author Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale "The Shepherdess and The Sweep" and a 1990 cartoon from Australia "Johnson & Friends." The only difference was they weren't released on such a commercial scale. "Toy Story's" animators were adamant that they didn't want the typical Disney musical but rather a buddy comedy about two complete opposites. Woody was a reflection of the popularity that Cowboy toys had in the 1950s being faded out by Buzz Lightyear, the representation of spaceman toys whose demand pushed cowboys to the side as a result of Sputnik and the space race or the 1960s. Both toys are set within a contemporary setting of a child's room. There's no castles or carriages. No zoos nor circuses. No singing tea kettles or magic genies. Despite being purely fantastical, "Toy Story" was placed in our world, making its concept not entirely fictional in a sense. What the "Toy Story" team didn't expect was the permanent impact their little animated film would have for almost every animated film made to this day.
Twenty-four years later we still view "Toy Story" along with its sequels as the pinnacle for animated storytelling. It's not because of the technology, or the toyetic property of the license; it's the deep resonance of its existential themes that grows with us ever so much more as time marches on. Issues of being loved, abandonment, jealousy, resentment, mortality each have matured through every subsequent picture. Toys contain a sentimental value linked to our innocent nostalgia. I was only ten years old when "Toy Story" came out. Now, as an aging man, I share the same fears as Woody at an alarming rate. What will happen to me when someone no longer wants me? Everyone around me is dying, yet I still have many years of my life left to live. How do I deal with another loss of someone I love?
In the beginning, "Toy Story" was a straightforward narrative about dealing with jealousy. Woody is Andy's favorite toy; then Buzz Lightyear comes in to rain on Woody's parade. Woody must learn to keep his ego in check, to care for others more than himself, to learn that he's not the center of the universe. As children, we are often more selfish than selfless. Even as adults, we must tackle our ideas of self-worth, some of us more so than others. By the end of "Toy Story," both of our heroes live in blissful coexistence. The inception of "Toy Story 2" stemmed from director John Lasseter's toy collection making him ponder what happens to a toy when it's a collectible? Stemming further from that idea was a deleted scene in the original "Toy Story" where Woody envisions a nightmare of Andy throwing him in the trash, thus came to birth the extremely mature existential themes of abandonment and mortality. Questioning his worth, Woody must come to terms with what will happen when Andy becomes an adult one day. Who will play with him or his friends? Will he wind up in the trash? Only time will tell. For the moment he must enjoy the time he still has with Andy while he's still a child.
"Toy Story 3" takes that concept of desertion to an extreme but necessary level. Andy's grown up; he hasn't played with his toys in years. With Andy heading off to college, the gang is sent to daycare unbeknownst to Andy. After a successful prison break from the daycare center, the toys finally wind up in one of the most shockingly mature scenes ever put in a Disney film since Bambi's mother got shot. The toys we grew up with loving are holding hands amidst the fiery inferno of a garbage dump accepting their fate. We know they're going to be rescued at the last moment, but the reality of that scene still hits home like a ton of bricks. Pixar went where you would never expect a Disney film to go. If I was a child, I don't know if I would have been traumatized by that scene or not. Once saved by none other than the claw the gang's insecurities regarding a grown Andy's feelings towards them is put to rest as he plays with them one last time when handing the toys off to his mother's friend's daughter Bonny. One last time does Andy get to have fun with his toys. Woody watches Andy drive away, saying goodbye to him for the very last time. Not a dry eye is left in the theatre.
Why do we cry so hard when we see that ending? It's complicated. Other than being aware of our imminent demise, we are reminded of how we all must move on in life. We must say goodbye to the ones we love so we can either thrive in our career or develop a family of our own. As we have grown since 1995 so has the toy gang. They're aware that they can't have Andy forever, the ending to Andy's arc was one of the most emotionally satisfying, terrifying, moving, transformative experiences recently placed on the big screen. It's us saying goodbye to our childhood accepting the adulthood we currently must live. Moving out of our comfort zone is one of the hardest things an adult must do. Entering a new world brings a sense of longing that's indescribable. We continuously thrive in regaining our childhood, whether it be through playing with our toys, looking at old pictures or whatever fulfills our heart's content. In that longing, a burrowing resentment can be formulated. It can manifest through those who have abandoned us in the past or the present, transforming us all into The Prospector or Lotso. The sentimentality of "Toy Story" is never stretched too far; its humor keeps its serious themes at bay, preventing itself from going overboard in its emotions. Some can argue that the ending of "Toy Story 3" does overstep its sentimental bounds with a grown man acting like a little kid playing with toys. Initially, I believed there was validation to a certain degree regarding that argument. In my later years, its resonance is staggering.
As an uncle watching my sister raise her children, I fully embrace those final moments Andy spends with his toys. When I was a an eleven-year-old boy, I had a collection of Buzz, Woody, and RC from a Burger King "Toy Story" set. I don't know what happened to Buzz and RC; I wish I did. Somehow Woody always stayed in my possession. I remember getting him for the first time at that Burger King that was so very far from where I lived. I recall his boots clanking on the ground as my late pet rabbit dragged him across the tiled kitchen floor.
Now my Woody has a new owner, my one-year-old nephew, David. Dave loved Woody the instant he held him; he goes to bed with him, cherishes him. Whenever he's hyper, I put "Toy Story" on the screen, the image of Woody makes him lay perfectly still bringing a sense of calm to him. As an adult, I play with my toys once more with my sister's children. Perhaps one day I'll have playtime with kids of my own. We become adults, but the child in us never dies. Despite what happens to us, nobody can take away our youthful spirit. We grow, we wither, but we always can remain young at heart. The "Toy Story" films are a reminder that life will hit you harder than anything possibly can, but like its last-minute escapes, you can always maintain the perseverance for a fruitful existence. Thank you, Pixar for being my friend and helping me grow throughout the years.