Why “Toy Story 3” Makes Me Cry Every Time

My children love movies (as I’ve written before; that post, by the way, still gets over 100 original views a day on average, far and away the most popular post I’ve ever typed!). So it was business as usual when Jon wanted to plop in front of the TV this morning and watch Toy Story 3.

Or, as he says, “I wan’ see Woodee an’ Buss?”

(That the request comes out in the form of a question is his attempt at psychological maneuvering. I honestly think Christopher Nolan got the idea for Inception from dealing with someone’s toddler.)

I sighed. I love Toy Story 3. I think it is one of the most beautifully animated and heartfelt movies ever made, but I hate to watch it because I cry every freaking time I see it. Happened again this morning – we got to the scene where Woody and the gang are slowly slipping to their doom in the garbage furnace, and as they do, the friends all join hands and lean into one another for comfort. Only Woody, in the center of the gang, holding them all together as always, faces their impending deaths alone. The way he closes his eyes and grimly accepts their collective fate just gets me.

The tears just came on their own. Rachel walked by and said, “Are you crying again?”

Yes. Yes I was. Because I can’t help it. The movie is just that good.

There’s a reason why Toy Story 3 makes me cry every time – it’s called parenthood. Having kids of my own, I’m acutely aware that every day that passes brings me that much closer to the end of my time with my kids. They are growing up, as evidenced by Jon’s rapidly expanding vocabulary and Ella’s writing and illustrating her first book.

(Seriously, Ella has written and illustrated a book. Sure, she copied pictures from a Clifford book and simply wrote descriptions of what she drew, but the fact that she cut out pages roughly the same size and tried to follow the same formatting for each page tells me that my little girl is really freaking smart. And talented. And perhaps adopted.)

I have noticed in my own children the sad, forgotten truth that the Toy Story franchise brings achingly to the fore: that the process of time is best observed through children and their toys. Even as Ella transitions away from some of her previously beloved toys, turning instead to crayons and paper and toys for older kids, I see that part of her past fading away like morning mist. And Jon’s the same – while he’s still into some baby toys, he’s asking for Spider-Man, Star Wars and other action figures that move beyond the Little People and their world.

Heck, the only baby toys he really plays with anymore are his Woody and Buzz figures (almost called them dolls).

Why does this franchise have such an impact on the culture (and me in particular)? Because it engages us in that forgotten place from childhood – our imagination. When our sense of pretend gets cranked up by watching Andy construct elaborate worlds with his toys – and then watch as those toys inhabit an elaborate world all their own – we cannot help but be transported back to those times in our own childhood when all we needed was the plastic warmth of a beloved toy and space in which to play.

And perhaps the reason we all go to those places so willingly is that they feel safe. The memory of them, that is. When you think about that favorite toy and how you used to play with it for hours (assuming you were fortunate enough to have such things; I know I was) there is a sense of security and protection that comes over you that belies even the very truth of what was going on around you at the time. Maybe mom and dad were fighting all the time, or maybe dad had walked out. Maybe you only had the one toy because you couldn’t afford any more. Maybe you were abused by someone you thought was nice. The fears and worries of childhood can be many.

But the safety represented by that toy, and your ability to escape via your imagination, could not be undone. It was the one place we could each go to escape whatever else was going on.

It was only after we got older, after we lost those places of safety and solitude, that we put away the toys and tried finding another refuge. Most of us found that there wasn’t really a better one to be had. Adult escapes are generally magnifications of our greatest weaknesses – whether it’s booze, pills, sex, the internet or something else, when we try to get away as adults we usually end up where we started.

So when I watch Toy Story 3 and sense the death of childhood innocence and safety as seen through Woody’s love for Andy, or the toys’ love for one another, I can’t help but shed a few tears for the lostness of my own childhood and the creeping loss of my children’s. Does it make me a pansy? Probably.

But it also forces me to get down on the carpet and play with my son in his world, instead of dragging him into mine. It makes me sit at the table with Ella and marvel at how excited she must feel as she sees her penmanship or artistic skill continually improve.

I cry because Toy Story taps into the truth of human existence: that we all face this world on our own, but we survive it through the company of good friends who inspire us to imagine, who help us discover new worlds, who are simply there when we need them.

And I guess I cry, too, because all too often those good friends are only made out of plastic, instead of flesh and blood.

But I’ll take them all the same. And I’ll love them as much as my kids do while my kids love them, because one day, they’ll represent that portion of my life which was simultaneously the most difficult and most beautiful: the precious few years I had with my daughter and son, just us, together and dreaming.