Around this time last year, Toy Story 4 arrived in cinemas and we said goodbye to Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the rest of the gang in a somewhat unexpected sequel that (supposedly) marks the end of Pixar Animation’s smash-hit animated franchise.
Since then, I’ve been quick defend Toy Story 4 whenever people knock it – far from being an unnecessary follow-up, I see it as an essential epilogue that expands on the themes of the series and brings Woody’s character arc to a definitive, satisfying close – even I’ll admit that it fails to reach the same emotional heights as its predecessor, Toy Story 3.
But then, how could it? After all, Toy Story 3 – released a decade ago this month, and originally billed as the series’ swansong – delivers a level of cathartic closure that’s rarely seen in any film, cartoon or otherwise.
So, given it’s currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, let’s take a look back at the Toy Story 3’s final scene (not counting its cute closing denouement), and marvel at how director Lee Unkrich, screenwriter Michael Arndt and a whole host of talented animators managed to craft the perfect farewell to audiences still not ready to say goodbye.
Wrapping up a story for kids (that’s really about parenthood)
At this point, you might be scoffing at my use of words like “closure” and “catharsis” in the same breath as Toy Story 3. You probably even thinking: “This is the same kiddie flick about the exploits of a toy cowboy and space ranger and the rest of their plaything pals, right?”
However, while it’s true that Toy Story 3 is ostensibly targeted at younger audiences, it’s also important to remember that the entire franchise is built on some decidedly heavy themes – themes that are often more likely to connect with adults than children. And that’s because at their core, all four Toy Story movies are more about being a parent than they are about being a kid.
As more than one online commentator has already pointed out, Woody – the devoted, brave, and distinctly flawed cowboy ragdoll voiced by Tom Hanks – serves as a symbolic stand-in for his owner Andy’s conspicuously absent father.
Because of this, the narrative, thematic, and emotional thrust of the Toy Story franchise revolves around the fears Woody must confront in his role as a de facto daddy. Seriously: we’re talking about everything from being replaced by his pseudo-son to being abandoned by him – y’know, stuff actual grown-ups can relate to and empathise with.
And Toy Story 3 represents the moment those fears finally become a reality. At long last, Woody’s boy is all grown up and heading to college, and like any boy who has become a man, his newfound maturity means it’s time for him to put away childish things – even if one of those things happens to symbolically represent his old man.
Fittingly, this coincides with Andy – historically more of a walking plot device than a true character; a child-sized MacGuffin designed to drive the story forward – stepping up to serve as an audience surrogate himself. However, whereas Woody was solely a parental proxy, Andy (like most precocious teens) goes one step further than his figurative father by standing in for all of us – parent, child, or otherwise.
This is a masterstroke on the part of Unkrich and Arndt, as it allows Andy to become a vehicle for us to vicariously wave so long to these characters in manner that may not be particularly realistic, but that is, crucially, emotionally true, instead.
In movies, emotional truth > genuine reality
Because on the face of it, Andy’s sincere, protracted farewell to Woody, Buzz and friends in Toy Story 3 doesn’t really add up. Let’s be honest, here: even the most sentimental grown-up audience member would be forced to admit that their affection for their childhood toys doesn’t run so deep that they would deliver a heartfelt send-off for each of them before donating them to someone else.
Yet the almost elegiac tone to proceedings as Andy bestows his treasured toys to 4-year old Bonnie seems wholly appropriate all the same – and that’s largely because we need the scene to play out this way. We need to take the time to properly acknowledge each of these colourful characters – whom many of us grew up with, just like Andy, between 1995 and 2010 – and what made them special to us, before we’re ready to accept that this is the last time we’ll see them again.
So, when Andy fondly murmurs “Thanks, guys” before driving away forever, he’s saying it on our behalf, and a potentially schmaltzy, overwrought line is transformed into a powerful agent of closure. This is something that only fiction can do: circumventing what we know to be true about how the world works and how people behave in it, in favour of plot and character developments which – by virtue of the emotional truth behind them – feel right.
Unkrich and Arndt know this, and it’s this knowledge that has allowed them to craft a scene that delivers the kind of closure we constantly crave and yet so rarely receive in real life, the resulting relief of which is deeply profound.
Not bad for a kiddie flick about toy cowboys and space rangers, huh?