Toy Story 3 is many things: heartwarming, tragic, nuanced, beautiful, and, if you stop to think about it, really quite disturbing. Not just because of all the dark ‘adult’ themes that so many critics have picked up on, but also because of the message. And yes, to forestall the chorus of objection that I’m sure this review is about to receive, of course it has a damn message. It’s produced by Pixar for Disney, and since those companies are part of big Hollywood studios and their films are aimed at kids, those films have messages, and those messages aren’t subtle. The message in Wall-E? Our lazy, wasteful Western lifestyles are killing the planet. Monsters Inc? Don’t be scared of something just because it’s unfamiliar. The Incredibles? Elitism is good, and vigilante justice isn’t half bad either (basically the exact polar opposite of Watchmen). And Toy Story 3? The only way to be safe and happy is to be the possession of one of your social superiors, who you should stick with no matter how badly they treat you, and the promise of liberty is nothing but an illusion.
The plot, very briefly, is as follows (spoiler warning, obviously). Andy is going to college, and his mother demands that he decide what to do with his old toys. Or what’s left of them, anyway; a lot of the toys from the previous films, including Woody’s beloved Bo Peep, have already gone, presumably thrown out (and, as becomes clear, later incinerated). The remaining toys are understandably apprehensive about their future, but Woody – who as Andy’s favourite and oldest toy occupies a relatively privileged position, as illustrated shortly afterwards by Andy choosing Woody alone to take with him to college – tells them they should trust Andy to do the right thing and remain loyal to him (despite the fact that he hasn’t played with them – the raison d’être for toys, obviously – in many years, and fairly clearly has no plans to do so in the foreseeable future, what with not being a child anymore and all). After a mix up in which Andy intends to put the toys in the attic but they nearly get thrown out by mistake, the toys decide to get in a box destined to be donated to Sunnyside daycare centre (a nursery), on the entirely reasonable grounds that they’ll get played with more there. Woody goes with them, but tries to change their minds, urging them once again to remain loyal to Andy.
The toys get to the daycare centre, and are informed that here they’re not owned by individual children; they own themselves, will always get played with because new children come in as the older ones grow up and leave, and will have everything they need as long as they stay at the centre. Woody continues to try and persuade the other toys to go back to Andy, but fails and he leaves alone. But the daycare centre, far from being a utopia, is a brutal hierarchical dictatorship ruled with an iron fist by ‘Lotso’ Lots O’Huggin’ Bear; newly arrived toys at the centre have to endure being played with by the youngest children, (who are too rough for Andy’s toys to cope with) and are locked up every night, and any subversives are routinely tortured or reprogrammed to ensure their loyalty. Woody finds out about what has happened to the other toys, rescues them, and manages to trick Andy into donating them to Bonnie, one of the children from Sunnyside.
Got that? You’re bought and sold, and your duty is to stay loyal to your owner, no matter how badly he treats you, how many of your friends and loved ones he gets rid of because they no longer interest him, or how long he neglects you for. If he wants to abandon you in the attic, you should be grateful – he could be throwing you out, after all. Oh, and if anyone tells you that this isn’t the way things have to be, if they tell you that maybe if you had some autonomy then you’d be able to live a decent life not dependent on the whims of those more powerful than you, then that person is a lying wannabe Stalin who’d imprison and torture you without a second thought. The continued goodwill of your private owner is the only guarantor of happiness and security. There is no freedom. There is no alternative. There is no hope.
But hey, it’s just a kids’ film, right?