The Hidden Story Behind Toy Story 3

After watching Toy Story 3, hearing reviews from friends, and reading several critical reviews of the film, I am stunned that much of the real story in Toy Story 3 has gone unnoticed. Underneath the bright colors, the funny lines, and the tear-jerking moments lies an existential tension that ultimately upholds a biting and deceptive nihilism that most audiences don't pick up on and if they did, would probably sour on the film. What am I talking about you ask? Lets dig a bit deeper.


Let's first get this out of the way; Toy Story 3 is a good film. The love from the writers and animators is clearly on display here, leading to a film that is equally parts funny, engrossing, and touching. Add on top of that continued great voice work, some fun new characters, and how could this film not be a success? While Toy Story 3 is clearly a winning film, there are a few issues that serve to limit this film (in many ways the series of films as well) for me, and it surprises me that many other critics and moviegoers don't seem to notice these issues as well.
The drama of the Toy Story Universe depends on its ability to create relatable situations between the toy subjects and the audience members. While there certainly are emotional points the audience can relate to within Toy Story 3, the overall dramatic issues are a failure as they fail to offer appropriately translatable situations for us, the audience. Toy Story 3's primary dramatic tension comes from Andy's growing older and no longer playing with his toys; he'll be going off to college by the end of the film. As such, the whole cast of toys has been getting neglected, thrown out, or donated. Our remaining cast of toys has to struggle with no longer being useful to their owner and eventually getting thrown into the trash, tossed in the attic, or donated to a daycare center. While it's a very relatable feeling to no longer feel wanted or used and indeed presents the audience with a similar existential crises, I don't think it becomes an appropriate tension for an audience to relate to.

Woody makes the argument early in the film that a toy's purpose is to be "there for Andy, whenever he needs them", basically saying that the purpose of life (for a toy) is to fulfill their role (being available to give joy to the kid) regardless of the circumstances (his seeming apathy and neglect). This makes things difficult for the audience because our purposes in life are very different. While Woody makes the argument that a toy's value comes in it's usefulness and acceptance by it's owner, that's a diametrically opposed value to what we feel humans have.

For instance, if something only has value because something outside of it finds it useful, attractive, fun, or whatever, then it has extrinsic value. Yet, most religions and the predominant culture of the day would argue that humans have intrinsic value. Meaning that we are valuable simply because of who we are and not based on anything outside us, say our family's love or our boyfriend's value of us. I would argue that this is the mindset the audience comes in with. It surprises me that the audience never picks up on the idea that the movie doesn't agree with that viewpoint. Woody makes this extrinsic argument in the beginning of the film (and in a way, the whole film series has been making it.)

You might say that this is just a beginning point for the film and that the theory undergoes change. Well, does it? By the end of the film, we find that the theme has gone from, "We are here for Andy" to "We are here for each other". This is told poignantly in a moment where our cast of toys embraces their seemingly inevitable fate of death (in a tear-jerking scene that would on its own stand as one of the best dramatic scenes of the year). However, has it changed our main issue of extrinsic versus intrinsic value? Unfortunately not, it's only multiplied it. Instead of finding one's value in the acceptance of the joy of it's owner, it's now about finding value in the acceptance of community. While it's true that genuine satisfaction comes from pleasing others and finding acceptance by others, should we be so comfortable with a film that makes it not a side-truth of our world, but 'the truth' of our world?

Ultimately what it comes down to is that Toy Story 3 is a nihilistic story at its heart, making it more akin to The Road, Up in the Air and No Country For Old Men than people would think. It's a story about beings who realize their ultimate purposelessness (Andy's growing indifference, toddler's mayhem, their fate being out of their hands, their ultimate fate at the dump), and must come to terms with creating value out of that world, where none exists. In this case, the value is family and staying together. There is nothing wrong with having a movie with this theme, however, it does strike me as odd that most people don't see it, or even know that it's going on.

I don't mind a nihilistic theme in a major release, but what I do mind are inconsistent themes of nihilism, which Toy Story 3 has in spades. As our film progresses, our characters ultimately catch onto tha "finding joy and purpose in their owner" is meaningless and changes their value to "finding joy and purpose in community". However, through some clever work by Woody (read writer manipulation), they are able to find a warm and caring owner again by the end. In essence, they are able to find a new Andy, one who takes care of them and looks after them. This is a lazy way to reward our characters and resolve a major worldview issue. Instead of our toys actually embracing and finding their fates as temporary passing objects of other's affections, they are rescued and sent into the hands of a new loving owner and community of toys.

One reviewer called this as close to 'religion' as a secular film gets, in remarking that there is an acceptance of mortality & purposelessness, but through the building of values they kind of find 're-birth' into a new world. I disagree. I think it's half-hearted nihilism. Here is the rub, if Andy can grow indifferent than so can their new owner. If Andy and the new owner can grow indifferent, then so can the other toys in their acceptance of each other. This is what the toys and the audience, after our experiences in this film should have learned. We shouldn't feel like the toys find a 'happily ever after', they have simply prolonged their fate, and allowed their value to come from community and the acceptance of an owner. What happens when this new owner tires of them? The film doesn't really want to embrace a nihilistic view of the world to it's end. It's more interested in a happy ending and a friendly loving community.

While the Toy Story 3 Universe may admit that these toys are just a piece of plastic meant to be thrown away when it's outlasted its usefulness, it ultimately doesn't treat them that way, because the audience wouldn't accept that. A brave film would've followed our heroes to their demise and to the triumph of its dramatic themes. Instead, the film stutters and panders not just to the audience, but more than likely to the half-hearted existential nihilism of the writers. It only makes me appreciate more the fully committed nihilism of a Charlie Kaufman, Cormac McCarthy, or Werner Herzog. They stare into the face of the abyss and come out changed, scared, and scarred. Our brave Toy Story characters stare into the face of the abyss and come out with smiles, hugs, laughs, and the welcoming arms of a re-born owner who lavishes attention, care, and love upon them. Something doesn't seem right here and I hope that audiences would take notice.

Sidenote: Does anyone else find it a little sad that rather than say goodbye to friends and family, Andy has to say goodbye to his 'good' friends Buzz and Woody? It's as if the film says that the best friend a boy could have are his toys. I'm all for creative play with toys, but shouldn't there be some balance with human interaction there? I just find the emphasis on the importance of toys (and the ungodly amount of toys) in a child's life to be a little scary.


  1. I picked up on much of what you wrote, but I didn't want to spoil the film's later acts too much. I do believe that the arc of Woody is a character who goes from living out his selfless purpose (being there for Andy) to realizing that he can make his own choice about what he wants his life to be. In the end, it is Woody who makes the defining decision that sets the film towards its finale. Looking at the picture of Woody, Buzz, Andy and the other toys, Woody realizes that he would rather be with his friends than 'please his master'. He makes the choice to leave the 'college box' and reunite with his friends in a manner which would allow all of them to be happy together. He makes a 'selfish' choice that he wants to spend his life with his family, no matter what that may bring. He realizes that if Andy's mom can handle losing him, that she can understand that she has value behind being his mother, than Woody has value beyond being Andy's toy.

    As far as Andy's relationship with his toys, he's basically saying goodbye to his childhood. The stunningly-powerful moment, when Andy nervously grabs Woody from Bonnie before conceding Woody to his new owner, is Andy being hit with the hard truth, one that he has yet to admit, that he is grown up, that his childhood is over and that he has to move on. His mother realizes it when Andy's room is empty, and Woody realizes it too, hence making his proactive decision to basically abandoned Andy for the sake of himself and his friends. But Andy doesn't realize that he is an adult until that moment when he has to let the last of his childhood playthings go.

    While the film is dark and raw in terms of emotion, the film ultimately ends on a positive note, with Woody having finally realized that his worth is not defined by the love of his owner, but by how he chooses to live his life with those around him. Woody doesn't make the choice so that he can have a new owner. Woody realizes that he would rather be with his friends than with Andy, so he makes the choice that would give his friends the peace they still crave (acceptance by a new owner) and allow them to all be together. Whether or not the film agrees with the worldview, Woody ultimately makes a positive choice because he has chosen to spend his days with the friends who loved him back in return. It may not be happily ever after for Woody and Buzz, but Woody for the first time has made a major life choice in regards for what's best for him, rather than just what's best for Andy. It's not the absolute end of the Toy Story saga, just the end of Woody's friendship with Andy.

    Having said all of that, friggin fantastic essay that I shall retweet and what-not.

  2. Thanks for the comments and kind words Scott. I appreciate your thoughtful response.

    How wonderful is it for a film to have as much to dig into as this one? I honestly had not considered a couple of the viewpoints you mentioned. I like the idea of Woody going from a selfless purpose (being there for Andy) to making choices about his own life and what he wants it to be. I mean, doesn't there just ring all sorts of feminist perspective out of that?
    I guess where I ultimtely find that view limiting is in the unfortunate limits of the 'Toy Story Universe'. Are toys really supposed to be able to decide what they want to be and do in life, or are they really just made to please their owners? Essentially, if the universe says the former, than haven't they ceased being toys and have become 'humans'? And if it's the former, then shouldn't the film have become more despairing and rebellious in the face of such determinism, like Camus in the "Myth of Sisyphus"? Perhaps, a little Pinocchio thematic theft could've been useful in the Toy Story Universe. How does a toy become more than a toy?
    I appreciate your comment about Andy letting go of childhood. Perhaps my mind thought the whole thing became a sellout by the end, that I wasn't able to see those little moments.
    I loved the trash/death sequence so much that I was actually ready for it to end there (although, I knew they couldn't end it there). Your right though, it does tie up Andy's journey as well as Woody's.

  3. This is really interesting. I would like to say that the choice at the end, is not only Woody's.

    Yes, he decides that the best place for him to be is with the other toys, but Andy picks him up from the box, and lets him go. Andy chooses too. This choice he does freely, knowing it's the best thing.

    So, Woody presents Andy with that choice to make, and Andy lets go, which is both a sign of growing up, leaving childhood behind, and the opportunity to give those toys a better home, and that little girl more happiness.

    As for your sidenote: well, I don't think of it that way. I mean, this story is being told from the point of view of the toys, so, we don't get to see Andy with his friends and family, any more than what we need to see. Even then, the moment when Andy's mom enters the empty room is full of almost quiet emotion.

    And he doesn't lose his family, but he does let go of his toys, of his childhood.

  4. Wonderful, thoughtful post.

    Let me just say that the toys are not real, and never are. As shown in the opening scene, whatever "human" qualities they possess are from their owner, Andy. If Woody is heroic, loyal and brave, then this is how Andy has imagined him to be.

    When Andy ultimately hands over his toys to another child, he doesn't merely drop them off, he takes the time to explain their names and personalities, thus he is transferring more than mere plastic and cloth - he is sharing a part of himself.

  5. I think you misread this film. It is not nihilistic but rather extremely religious. It is the story of Job (or perhaps Lot).

    Andy is clearly a deity figure to them (and the name on their shoes in equivalent to both circumcision and a Muzuzah) so when Woody says the most important thing is "being there for Andy" what he really means is "being faithful to Yahweh." He, as a true believer and Andy's most favored follower is given a privileged perspective while the other toys remain in the trash bag. They have their moment of doubt (like Jesus in the garden) and feel that their lord has forsaken them. Thus, they lose faith.

    Woody, still faithful to Andy, knows this is untrue and so he tries to bring them back to the fold but he cannot do this until he has HIS moment of doubt (which is the new girl's bedroom where he sees the possible pleasures of a venial life) and then redoubles his efforts, literally traveling into hell to save the souls of his brethren.

    I mean, it's not really subtle. Lotso literally says, "Where's you child now!?" before sending them into the flaming pit. The questions are about existential life versus a life of religious piety.

  6. @Scott and Martin
    - I agree with your assesment about the final closing moments betwen Andy and Bonnie, how I missed that is beyond me. It really makes a sequence that I initially disliked into something much more meaningful.

    - An interesting take, but doesn't that ultimately make the movie filled with puppets rather than characters? If Woody is only what Andy imagines him to be, then isn't the Toy Story Universe one of determinism and fatalism, giving no dramatic importance and consequence to his choices? While I think the film is nihilistic at its core, it holds firm to the thought that, like Scott mentioned earlier, the choices our characters make (especially Woody) define them and who they want to be.

    @Hunter D
    - I love that reading of the film. I certainly think there is much room for that interpretation. Again though, I don't see how that interpretation removes itself from the criticism that our characters still do not have intrinsic value. In a religious (Christian in particular) view, humans have inherent value since they are made by God as well as made in his image. Our purpose to "be there for God" is less about gaining value by serving God and more about finding our rightful roles and relationship. I don't think your interpretation takes seriously the indifference and hurt that 'owners' (or deities in your interpretation) show their toys. How does Andy's shelving of the toys equate to a Christian God at all? If anything, the film starts out with Andy as a deity figure and the toys lose their faith, not because of misinterpretaion, but because they realize their God has changed and doesn't care for them anymore. This is where the nihilism begins to step in and it's hammered home by Lotso.

  7. Not Christian god, but Yahweh (Jewish G-d) was a jealous and angry G-d who worked in ways that were beyond our comprehension. Keep in mind the story of Passover when the Torah says that Yahweh simply "forgot" about the Jews for over 400 years.

    Also, though I am 100% sure this was not intentional, this film does well with a Gnostic reading. Gnosticism stipulates that God is not actually a deity, but rather a solipsist who believes himself to be a G-d and thus tests man over and over to prove his own omnipotence which does not actually exist.

    Again, I don't think that that's actually in the film, but you can read the film that way.


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