The James Clayton Column: The true horror of Toy Story 3

Spoilers lie ahead for Toy Story 3, as James considers just why it's managed to upset and scare him quite so much...

There are spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen Toy Story 3 yet.

Toy Story 3 is a very upsetting film. It’s even more upsetting than last year’s Pixar tearjerker, the ‘boy scout, old man and a flying house’ adventure story Up. Reflecting on the final instalment of the Toy Story trilogy, I’m left feeling touched, but yet deeply unnerved.

Much has been made of the movie’s ability to make the most emotionally-uptight adults cry. Yes! Even big manly grown men are emerging from the cinema weeping like little girls! How shocking!

Because we live in a society that sees tears as alien abominations that threaten all reason and order, Toy Story 3 is probably the most dangerous and disturbing flick currently in cinemas. It’s more frightening and potentially more lethal than Splice (sickening genetic experimentation), Piranha 3D (pop-up monster fish with pointy teeth gatecrashing the beach party), Knight And Day (Tom Cruise reaching new heights of bat guano craziness) and The Expendables (an army of geriatrics armed to the false teeth and high on testosterone).

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There should be signs placed outside the multiplex to warn of Toy Story 3‘s likely impact and point cinemagoers to less distressing diversions, like the pick ‘n’ mix stand or Cats & Dogs: The Revenge Of Kitty Galore (in 2D, of course, because 3D film might strain your eyes and make you feel like you’re being attacked by a giant German Shepherd).

If you haven’t seen Toy Story 3 yet, I’d suggest you don’t read the rest of this article in case spoilers ruin the experience for you. In fact, I’ll take this opportunity to advise you not to see the film now it’s done the business. You can probably do without the trauma and the extra expense of a 3D film ticket.

If you’ve spent years cultivating a reputation as a heartless bastard without a soul or any sense of compassion, avoid the movie like the plague. It’d be a tragedy if your credibility and career as a bouncer, repossession agent or professional wife beater crumbled because you lost your nerve for a couple of hours and went to see the last stand of Woody, Buzz and Jessie the Cowgirl. Once again, Toy Story 3 may actually be road to ruin masquerading as an innocent motion picture about children’s playtime.

Meditate on the movie and you realise that it’s brightly coloured packaging for vast themes of abandonment, rejection and death. On the surface the film says, “There’s a snake in my boots,” and “you’ve got a playdate with destiny!” with a big acrylic smile. What it’s really stating is “every footstep is dogged by your inevitable demise!” and “you exist in a cruel and indifferent universe that is going to chew you up, spit you out and discard you without mercy!”

The only moment that saves Toy Story 3 from sinking to Million Dollar Baby or Grave Of The Fireflies depths of despair is the deus ex machina sequence where the toys are rescued from the incinerator by the trio of Pizza Planet aliens and ‘The Claw’. In my opinion, not cutting the movie short at that point and leaving our miniature heroes to a flaming climax was a cop out and a missed opportunity to deliver the most miserable finale to a ‘family-friendly’ movie ever, but that might just be me.

I feel the same about the optimism at the end of Pixar’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece WALL·E as well. Aside from my sadist streak though, I appreciate the need to give audiences a reassuring happy ending to the saga rather than melting misery. With Pixar holding back, Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies retains the honour of being the most heartbreaking animated movie of all time.

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Despite this, if you consider Toy Story 3 from a different perspective (maybe by putting a fishbowl on your head, going five days without sleep and drinking twenty five litres of cherry cola before you take in the movie), it might be the most frightening horror film of the new millennium.

Take the scenes where Mr Potato Head undergoes the identity crisis of extreme metamorphosis when he becomes Mr Tortilla Face and Mr Gherkin Body respectively. Likewise, look at the ultra-unsettling Kubrick-esque sequence where Andy’s toys encounter the toddlers at daycare for their first ‘playtime’. See also the ultra-creepy Big Baby character and the aforementioned incinerator cliffhanger and you realise that perhaps a ‘U’ rating is a huge error. This is pure horror – more than any Alien, Predator or Halloween film has ever delivered.

Toy Story 3 is even more disturbing if you think about it ideologically. The overwhelming sense of inevitable death and destruction and the premise that we are all helpless, insignificant little beings in an ambivalent and uncaring world may precipitate an existential crisis in the minds of viewers.

You could come out of the screening at the point of spiritual catastrophe. That big acrylic smile and the catchphrases it calls out (“To infinity, and beyond!”) are really metaphysical affirmations that nothing really means anything, that life is a fragile, futile and pointless speck in a great indifferent cosmic schema.

Toy Story 3 could potentially kill God, though that deus ex machina ‘saved by the Claw’ scene and the hope that follows it means that the final nail isn’t hammered into religion’s coffin. There is still possibly a force of greater good out there, depending on whether you see the fish tank as half empty or half full or believe in aliens.

Those who can’t face the idea that there is no divine power behind it all don’t completely get off, however. The cruelty and torment wrought on the toys suggests that if anything God’s creation is – to quote Mr Pricklepants – “a place of ruin and despair, ruled by an evil bear who smells of strawberries.”

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If it came in black-and-white and was in Swedish it’d be an Ingmar Bergmann film. Truly, Toy Story 3 is terrifying. Pixar have delivered the effective, excellent end to the series and made another animated masterpiece. They’ve also simultaneously created a computer-generated black hole of pscyhe-shattering horror that could potentially split the world into small fragments and bring about the greatest spiritual crisis since the Reformation.

I feel numb and empty. I just wanted to play Sheriffs and Space Rangers in my bedroom, but now I find myself grasping around in a void with the sickening whiff of strawberries hanging in the atmosphere, a crippling sense of abandonment and isolation colouring my insignificant existence.

All we are is plastic playthings in the inferno. Gulp.

James’ previous column can be found here.

More thoughts from James can be found at