Civil Religion Repost: Toy Story 3: As Childhood Ends the Search for Identity Continues

Tomorrow my oldest child leaves for a 6 month volunteer stint at Lee Abbey in London.  The thought of not being in the same room with him, of not seeing him play with his little sisters, of not being able to give him a hug for SIX MONTHS is almost unbearable.  Although I haven’t posted in weeks it seems appropriate, in Baph’s honor, to repost my review of Toy Story 3, written last summer.  There’s nothing in my life that is as bittersweet as watching my children grow up.

I love you, Baph.

image courtesy univam.blogspot.comI’ve finally seen Toy Story 3.  Yes, I’m one of the last parents in the country to see it, but it was worth waiting for a time when my entire family could go together.  Toy Story 3 was visually engaging, funny, suspenseful – and also one of the saddest movies I’ve seen in recent years.  The sadness is what is still lingering with me today, as I recall the movie.  Admittedly, I am in the demographic most likely to be reduced to a puddle by Toy Story 3.  The plot hinges on Andy’s passage to adulthood as he prepares to leave for college.  Down the row from me at the theater was my 18 year old son who is starting college this fall.  So, yes, it hit a little close to home.  And yet, that was not inevitable.  Plenty of films have featured young adults launching themselves into the world in which the transition is merely celebrated.  Tearful parents are simply comic backdrops in those movies; not so in Toy Story 3.  Andy’s toys carry the bulk of the pain over the end of his childhood, but even Andy himself is allowed to express some ambivalence.

At the heart of Toy Story 3 is the toys’ search for a meaningful life when Andy no longer needs them.  There are places in the film in which Andy’s God-like status is made explicit.  The toys belong to Andy, they “live” to serve him, and the possibility  that he might abandon or discard them is almost unthinkable.  The film even dips briefly into theodicy.  As the toys face almost certain extinction, the villain (Lots-O- Huggin’ Bear, perfectly voiced by Ned Beatty) taunts them with, “Where’s your Andy now?”  What the toys long for is not just to be kept by Andy, but for Andy to play with them again.  And while the idea of being donated to a daycare – of not having an owner, but of being played with by endlessly replaced children – initially sounds heavenly, the film provides the real celestial vision when Andy plays with his toys one last time as the story draws to a close.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it’s a scene that is both glorious and heartbreaking.

Still, for Andy, it is the last time.  The filmmakers are honest enough to acknowledge this, and to recognize that Andy need not be a god for the issues to remain.  The underlying question of identity permeates the film.  Who is Woody if he is no longer Andy’s toy?  Can we lose those we’ve loved without being destroyed by the loss?  This theme is not new to Toy Story 3.  Who could forget Jessie’s song about her former owner from Toy Story 2, “When She Loved Me”?

When somebody loved me, everything was beautiful
Every hour we spent together, lives within my heart
And when she was sad, I was there to dry her tears
And when she was happy, so was I, when she loved me….

So the years went by, I stayed the same
And she began to drift away, I was left alone
Still I waited for the day, when she’d say “I will always love you.”

And I suppose this theme is what I’m still thinking about this morning.  I’ve been a mother for 18 years now, and an at-home parent for most of that time.  Surely I’m not the only woman who has asked these questions:  who will I be when I am no longer primarily a mom?  What will be my purpose  when my children outgrow their need for me?  This past year, seeing my son graduate from high school, I’ve consoled myself by remembering that I have many years of parenting ahead of me.  And I do –  my youngest child is only five years old.  But I remember when my oldest was five, and it seems like such a short time ago!  I know how this works; I’ll blink and my youngest will be graduating from high school.  Childhood is so very fleeting.  Even the happy ending of Toy Story 3 is shadowed by that knowledge.  The toys have found a new home, a new owner who will love them.  But she, too, will outgrow them.

image courtesy wtfman.netAs I started writing this post I remembered the last movie that left me with this same aching sadness.  It was Up, another Pixar film.  The much-acclaimed sequence in Up which tells of Carl & Ellie’s life together is sweet, humane and moving.  Carl, like the toys of Toy Story 3, is seeking a new identity, now that his beloved wife is gone.  Up also ends happily, with Carl not only having experienced the grand adventure he and Ellie dreamed of, but also having found a new “family” in young Russell.  I remember watching the credit sequence, however, and feeling wistful.  “Carl is an old man,” I thought.  “Eventually, he will leave Russell.  Or, if his health holds out long enough, Russell will grow up and leave him.”  It was a happy ending, but as in all such stories, it wasn’t really an end.

Lines from a William Butler Yeats poem come to my mind:

I heard the old, old men say,

“Everything alters,

And one by one we drop away.”

They had hands like claws, and their knees

Were twisted like the old thorn trees

By the waters.

I heard the old, old men say,

“All that’s beautiful drifts away

Like the waters.”

Perhaps these heavy thoughts are simply what a midlife crisis feels like.  But I think what makes films like Toy Story 3 and Up so exceptional is that despite their fantastic premises, they show life as it really is; beautiful and funny and painful.  When I was a child, I could have moments of pure happiness.  As an adult, moments of happiness are always tinged with the awareness that they are only moments.  Life is full of meetings and partings, and we are navigating our way through what they mean to our identities.  Andy’s growth into adulthood is nowhere more evident than when he struggles to say goodbye to his childhood toys.

In a moment when all seems lost, when the toys believe that they’ve come to the absolute end, they reach for each other’s hands.  That seems an appropriate response to the inevitable changes ahead.  We don’t regret giving our lives for others, we love them while they are with us, we reach for each other when trouble comes.   I’ve said almost nothing in this post about my faith – partly because I think the analogy between Andy and God can only stretch so far.  What’s more, I think that in the themes I’ve mentioned believers and unbelievers are not so different.  Yes, I believe in the afterlife (a far more permanent celestial vision than the one offered in the movie), but that doesn’t remove the pains and questions that come with being human.  There is one explicit connection I can make between the movie and my own spiritual life, however.  What brought the toys together in the beginning was that they were owned by Andy.  What keeps them together is love.   Despite their confusion over what Andy is doing, they have a deep commitment to “stick together” and care for each other.  Even as my identity has in many ways changed with the passage of time, the community of people drawn together by the One we serve has remained .  If I find someday that my children no longer need me, if I find myself alone in my old age, those hands – the hands of my spiritual family – are the ones I’ll reach for even as the end draws near.


About Sharon Autenrieth

Wife, mom to 5, homeschooler, Christian Education Director, idealist, malcontent, follower of Jesus.
This entry was posted in aging, movies, parenting, spirituality and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Civil Religion Repost: Toy Story 3: As Childhood Ends the Search for Identity Continues

  1. A very good post. No words can add to this so I’ll just say Thanks.


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