Toy Story 3 and Its Horror Movie Undertones

For a family-friendly film, Toy Story 3 is steeped in horror. With spoilers, we take a look...

In August 2010, a couple of months after Toy Story 3 was released in American theaters, the chair of the MPAA Classification and Ratings Administration admitted that they might have made a mistake in giving the film a G-rating.

Speaking on industry podcast The Business, Joan Graves said that based on feedback they had received from parents since the film’s release, Toy Story 3 should have been given a PG rating “at least,” because of a climactic scene in which Woody, Buzz, and friends find themselves sinking into an incinerator like rubbish. Graves went on to say that the film changed their approach to animated family films, and that they would no longer give these movies “the benefit of the doubt” in marking them as suitable for all.

Since then, Pixar’s Brave, Inside Out, and The Good Dinosaur have all been rated PG for ‘thematic elements’ (which seems like the equivalent of the BBFC’s ‘mild peril’ warning on this side of the pond) and/or potentially upsetting scenes. But if there’s been any drastic change in the way that they rate family films, then perhaps it hasn’t been obvious because Pixar hasn’t made another film with such blatant horror movie undertones since.

The threequel, in which the toys struggle to escape the yoke of Lotso, “an evil bear who smells like strawberries,” at the Sunnyside Daycare Center has clear prison movie influences. That alone carries troubling interpretations of its own. If you want to delve deeper into this subject, be careful not to gaze too long into the internet’s reading of a scene in which Buzz Lightyear is taken prisoner, bent over and violated by other toys, and has an experience that changes his state of mind.

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For now though, we’re looking at the scary side of Toy Story 3, as evidenced in the film’s various homages and influences in horror cinema. For starters, there’s the influence of director Lee Unkrich, who was inspired to look into filmmaking when he watched his favourite horror film of all time is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, for the first time at the ripe old age of 12.

“I’ve thought a lot about why it obsesses me, and I think it’s multi-tiered,” Unkrich told Empire Online at the time of Toy Story 3‘s release. “I think on one level, it’s because it was the film that got me interested in not only filmmaking but also having a sense that there’s a singular voice controlling the imagery that’s being put on the screen.”

Unkrich’s fandom extends to curating a Tumblr blog dedicated to The Shining and helping to make the recent documentary about interpretations of the film, Room 237, named for the forbidden hotel room in Kubrick’s classic. He also inserted visual references to 237 throughout his own film.

While Sid’s house had the same iconic carpets as the Overlook Hotel in Toy Story, there are Easter eggs galore here. Firstly, RM237 appears on the number plate of a dump truck, (driven by who is believed to be an older Sid, funnily enough), foreshadowing the toys’ eventual reckoning with the trash incinerator at the film’s climax. The number 237 is also tagged onto the end of Trixie the triceratops’ online dinosaur pal’s name, ‘Velocistar_237’, and appears as the model number of an ‘Overlook’ brand CCTV camera in the Sunnyside security office.

This formative experience might also explain why his Toy Story film (he edited the first two films and co-directed Toy Story 2 with John Lasseter) is so willing to play with horror in a family film. He gets back to the horror leanings of the first film, which was altogether more playful with the notion of people being scared by sentient toys. There are countless horror movies about toys and dolls coming to life, most famously the Child’s Play series, but short of Sid’s well-meaning abominations, who wind up helping Woody and Buzz escape in the first film, there hadn’t been scary toys in the series up until now.

In Toy Story 3, our characters’ hell is made by other toys. The same toys that welcome them to Sunnyside’s heavenly Butterfly Room with open arms quickly dispatch the gang to the Caterpillar Room, where the 1:16 scale of our heroes leaves them at a disadvantage to the boisterous toddlers who haven’t learned to look after their playthings. The kids have no way of knowing that the toys are alive, but from the film’s perspective, it’s a torture chamber.

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The paedophobic angle coincides with the evil toys in the form of Lotso’s henchman, Big Baby. The oversized baby doll with a broken eyelid has plenty of pathos to him, but this infantilized enforcer has plenty of disturbing moments too. Late in the film, Woody and a couple of other toys are almost caught escaping by Big Baby as he sits dolefully on a swing and stares at the moon with one unblinking eye. A noise alerts the big lug and he does the full Exorcist special as his head rotates 180 degrees to look for them.

A more overt character reference is the cymbal-banging alarm monkey, who looks like a dead ringer for the one in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but with added bloodshot eyes and violent tendencies for more horrific effect. Every scene with the monkey screeching the alarm is funny, but it startled younger viewers every time I saw it in the cinema, which nicely underlines the close relation between horror and comedy.

Likewise, there’s some hilarious stuff that borders on body horror with Mr. Potato Head’s various parts dragging themselves around of their own accord. It had been previously established early on that Mrs. Potato Head’s eye was left under Andy’s bed, and that she can still see what’s going on through it, but the setpiece that gives us Mr. Tortilla Head is the right combination of grotesque and chucklesome.

And then there’s the scene that gave the MPAA a headache after the film was released, in which the toys survive the shredder and numerous other obstacles at the dump, only to get tipped into what can only be described as Hell. Not that ‘other toys’ hell, but an all-consuming fire from which there is seemingly no escape. For a family movie, it’s intense.

Sure, there’s a happy ending, but the real horror of this film is the stuff that you think about later on. Like what did Lotso do to older toys in order to get the ‘spare parts’ he casually mentions when Andy’s toys arrive? How safe was it for a violent toddler to be playing with a metal coil like Slinky’s? And if the Potato Heads’ body parts are ‘alive’ and autonomous, would Mrs. Potato Head have survived all of her friends and other parts being destroyed, living on in the form of her forgotten eye forever?

Toy Story 3 mostly leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy, but it’s a horrific, emotional rollercoaster for the characters. That’s not to say that it’s too scary for kids, but it’s definitely out on a limb with the horror undertones. Pixar further exercised their latent tendencies towards horror cinema on these characters in the 2013 TV special Toy Story of Terror, but the upcoming Toy Story 4 will probably overlook (like the hotel) how if this sort of stuff happened to any character, plastic or otherwise, it would probably keep them awake at night afterward.

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