The XX Factor

Toy Story 3’s Real Subject: Parenthood

Prompted in part by Dana Stevens’ terrific review , I admittedly rushed out this weekend with my 6-year-old daughter to see Toy Story 3 . I was not disappointed. I wept as Dana wept-but less because the movie conjured up my own lost childhood (even though, as a kid, I had the exact same toy rotary-dial phone that plays a heroic role in the movie) than because the entire Toy Story franchise strikes me as a deep and moving meditation on parenthood. This past week, there’s been a lot of talk on the XXFactor about how child-rearing necessarily makes parents unhappy. Yes, life as a toy can be hard, scary, and more than a little heartbreaking. But I defy anyone to see Toy Story 3 and not also comprehend its profound consolations.

In all three movies, the toys are the parents who are owned by “their” children. That’s not to say Pixar romanticizes childhood or parenthood. For every sweet kid like Andy in the series, there are several holy terrors: the neighbor who tortures toys in the original Toy Story , the out-of-control toddlers at Sunnyside Day Care in this latest installment. In her review, Dana recalls the tear-inducing montage from Toy Story 2 , when the cowgirl doll recalls how she used to play with her previous owner-that is, until the girl moved on to nail polish, boys, and beyond. In other words, kids grow up and in the process necessarily leave their toys behind. In the new movie, Woody crawls up on Andy’s dresser and looks out over the room of his child-at the old posters, pictures, and sports trophies that Woody knows are all about to be packed away as Andy heads to college. What parent hasn’t surveyed a similar scene with the same sense of loss and foreboding? Woody wants to go to college with Andy-and at first it seems he will. But as every adult-averse teenager in the audience must be thinking: That can’t possibly work!

Early on, the toys try various schemes (one, in a sign of the times, involves a cell phone) to try to get Andy’s attention, to no avail. Woody remarks, “We knew it was a long shot,” before conceding it’s been years since Andy has really played with any of them. This existential dread of the end of child-rearing is part of the magic, poignancy, and humor of all three films. Toys know their role in any child’s life is necessarily limited. They get their kids on borrowed time-all they can do, as Woody keeps saying in the new movie, is “be there for Andy” as long as he needs them and then hope for the best. As a toy, you can’t begrudge your owner’s growing up. (In this sense, the bitterness in the movie of Lots-O-Huggin Bear is a cautionary tale about parents who can’t let go.)

At the film’s beginning, Woody tries to cheer up the other demoralized toys by noting that, if they’re lucky, they’ll get tucked in the attic and might be dragged out again, years hence, if and when there are any grandkids. Woody and co. can’t seem to imagine, at first, a life beyond the empty nest: It’s either the boredom of deep storage or the trash. Without giving away any secrets, I hope, this is why the rest of the movie is so satisfying. The toys, in fact, do move on and have adventures, but not before getting to see the fruits of their love: how one small boy grew up into a mature and compassionate young man.