What’s So Great About Toy Story 3?

With an estimated opening weekend box office of $109 Million, you don’t need me to tell you that Toy Story 3 is a major hit. Pixar’s biggest opening yet speaks to the power of the franchise—and the indelible mark that Woody, Buzz and the whole crew have left on our culture in just 15 years. In fact, it’s hard to imagine many kids growing up without these films—like Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz, they are now part of the kids’ movie pantheon. Yes, the reviews have all been glowing, and even our reviewer Cynthia Fuchs gave the movie 10 stars. Yet what has intrigued me are some of the subtle—and not so—messages that the movie delivers and the brilliant worldview of Pixar and Disney that offers all of us so much insight and food for thought over and above the sheer entertainment value.

We become what we play. Andy at 17 is a considerate, well-rounded and hopeful young man. You can go back through all the play scenarios in Toy Story and the opening of this movie and see the essential thread of goodness that runs through all of them, even within the child’s-eye-view play narrative that Pixar understands so well.

We’re supposed to grow up. The role of play is to help us define and understand ourselves in the context of our culture. What we learn through play about ourselves, interaction with others and such skills as imaginative problem solving are meant to equip us for the adult world. Our toys may not feature in our daily lives as we become adults, but neither do we want to forget them. They remain a reminder of the journey we’ve been on. Giving up the toys does not mean giving up the lessons they’ve taught us.

It’s not over til it’s over. This is a message that permeates all the Pixar films, including this franchise, Finding Nemo (“Just keep swimming,” Dory says.), Cars, Monsters, Inc., and so forth. Even in what seem like the most challenging situations, there’s usually a solution. This is nothing that originated with Pixar. It’s a theme that permeates virtually all children’s literature and entertainment from the Legend of King Arthur to The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew to Harry Potter and myriad more. Experiencing this vicariously through fiction helps empower kids to try things on their own in their (assuredly less dramatic) lives. Kids need to learn to solve problems and resolve situations on their own, and most of these narratives remove the adult and forces the child to use his or her own intelligence to overcome the challenges. No wonder these characters become popular—and powerful—role models. The lesson for parents and caregivers in this is that you have to let kids try things, make mistakes and learn. (Always within reason, of course.) In real life, it’s the rare kid who is cast off into the world to fend for himself, but learning and practicing that while being cared for prepares children to take responsibility for themselves. In Toy Story 3, when Andy goes off to college, he goes by himself. Hard as that is for his mom, she has prepared him for the new set of challenges, and he’s more than equal to the task.

Friends matter. None of us does it alone, and why would we want to? In the world of Toy Story, the characters are idiosyncratic and don’t always see eye to eye, and they can frustrate one another from time to time. What matters, though, is that they are all in it together and their loyalty to and love for one another is more important than any superficial differences. In fact, it’s their different skills and talents that allow the group to survive and thrive.

Let go. At the opening of Toy Story 3, Andy is presented with two choices: donate his toys to Sunnyside Day Care or put them in the attic. The ensuing mix up sets the stage for the story, though neither is the “right” solution. What Andy chooses at the end is to let go of his childhood and move into a new phase of his life. Like all of us, Andy can’t know what’s ahead, but because of his toys and play he’s more prepared for the journey—and best of all, he has helped another child begin her journey.

I suppose this is why I was teary at the end of the movie. It presents life at its best—as we hope it can be—and that’s about as good as it gets.

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