Screenwriter and teacher Allen Palmer had this to say on Cracking Yarns about the true reason there were so many reports this summer of grown men crying during Toy Story 3:
“In secular society, there is no longer a storied occasion that demarcates the arrival of adulthood, no clear line where on one side you are a boy and on the other a man. Into this ritual vacuum, steps Pixar…it takes this occasion and invests it with the emotional power and the universal resonance of the moment that all males desire and dread: the arrival of manhood.”
He was mostly responding to this story in the Sydney Morning Herald, which suggested that the tragedy of modern consumerism was the culprit. Behold:
“For many men, the empathetic reaction felt by watching a boy let go of prized possessions is compounded by the nostalgia that 21st-century toys are far more state-of-the-art – and less imaginative – than Hamm the piggy bank, Mr Potato Head and Bullseye the horse. The New York Times declared that Toy Story 3 reminds viewers of ”the romance and pathos of the consumer economy, the sorrows and pleasures that dwell at the heart of our materialist way of life”.
Well, I don’t agree with either of these guys. And I liked Toy Story 3 enough that I figure I ought to say my own piece.
I’m a grown man. I too cried like a baby at the end of Toy Story 3, but I’m confident that had nothing to do with the lost ritual of crossing the threshold into manhood. And no doubt, the sorrows and pleasures that dwell at the heart of my materialist way of life have certainly entertained a thought or two, yet I don’t think that’s quite what got me.
I remember the precise moment I started losing it, and that was during the scene where Woody and the gang face their fate in the pit of garbage hellfire, and one by one, they realize it’s time to stop fighting it, hold hands, and face it together. The rawness of that moment, the naked vulnerability of the entire group, completely stripped down of all pretension, all identity – and the only instinct left is to hold on to each other.
The impact was so much heavier because of my nostalgia for the first two Toy Story movies. This motley crew has come full circle in terms of community and friendship, particularly Woody and Buzz. They started as enemies, competitors, and now they couldn’t be more different – they’re holding hands, forced to let go, in a shockingly grim way no less, and their eyes are saying, “I didn’t want it to end like this, but since it is, I’m damn glad it’s with you.”
You could argue that since these characters have grown, this whole death is just a metaphor for the ritual of moving on to the next step of adulthood. But for me, it was about the odd friendships we discover that we never expected; the quirky, circumstantial companions that we might take for granted, how they stick around so long that they seep into us like family, and then the surprise that we feel when we realize how truly devastated we would be if they were to suddenly vanish. And when faced with the realization that we’re about to lose someone we love, how quickly we drop the facade and get honest about how much we really don’t want to let go. And how much more intense does that feeling become when faced with our own mortality?
Sure, the tears kept flowing when Andy went through the toys one by one as he handed them over to their new owner, but that was with the memories of the life he had shared with them. And the surprise he must have felt when he realized he was saying good bye.
I think it’s the same reason I cried during Community’s Christmas special. For those unfamiliar with the show, it follows a group of completely mismatched personalities who create an oddball family through their Spanish study group at community college. Normally, the characters joke around, tease each other, and busy themselves with day-to-day life, generally hiding their real feelings behind masks of charisma and sarcasm. But in the Christmas episode, they come to peel those layers away when they slowly realize that one of their pack is quietly suffering from an intense emotional trauma. At that point, they sacrifice their tough exteriors and open up to him, all so that he doesn’t feel the burdens of life alone.
The mismatched group that somehow forms a family. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff. But I should also point out that both Toy Story 3 and Community’s Christmas episode were animated. And animated stuff always seems to have a stronger emotional base to work with for some reason. From the Herald article:
The notion that animated films can impart emotional truths more effectively than their live-action equivalents is supported by Timothy Dalton, the former James Bond actor, who lends his voice to the hedgehog thespian Mr Pricklepants in Toy Story 3.
”What’s great about animation is that everything has such a strong emotional base, in a way that you never could have with people in a live-action film,” he says.
I think he’s got a point. I do tend to a get a little foggier in the eyes when animated imps face poignantly tragic situations. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of child-like cartoons facing situations that seem beyond their emotional design. If so, that would actually be a point for Palmer’s case – the trauma/beauty of crossing the threshold into adulthood. But it could just be that animated characters have an ability to do away with all the distractions and baggage that human actors tend to carry around. They distill the essence of human experience and desire into its simplest forms.
Case in point: The Flying Kiwi.
If you don’t get misty-eyed at the end of that, then you’re made of metal, my friend.
Ultimately, though, it’s not just animation. It’s also about that moment when something that previously seemed trivial suddenly becomes unexpectedly profound. Like a stubborn kiwi who nails trees into the side of a mountain, only so that he can taste the sweet thrill of flight for just a few brief seconds before certain death. Or a toy that attempts to trick his owner into playing with him, only because he realizes he’s about to be forgotten forever. Or a kid who’s annoying delusions are actually part of an earnest yet misguided attempt to avoid accepting that his mother has coldly abandoned him.
It’s easy to say that underneath our armor, we’re all craving some bit of connection – but the repetition of that theme in so many ill-conceived movies and TV shows makes the phrase seem glib, almost exploitative. But when something or someone admittedly glib and superficial in nature suddenly switches and reveals something surprisingly genuine and fragile, it’s hard not to feel some kind of emotional reaction. A tug on the heart strings if you will. And that tug is the realization that deep down, we all really do want the same things.
These moments of illumination, stripping away the trivial and admitting to the people around us that this is what we want, and they turn around and admit the same, give us a pause that allows all the failures of humankind to melt away for a second; they give us a glimpse of the potential for humans at their best.