Millennials & the Toy Story Complex

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen Toy Story or Toy Story 3 yet, first of all, what the hell have you been doing all this time, and secondly, you might want to stop reading here. While you’re not reading this, add Toy Story and Toy Story 3 to your Netflix queue (and Toy Story 2, but that one isn’t on the same level as the other two) or head over to the nearest Redbox so you can rejoin us in this century.

Toy Story first came out in 1995, when yours truly was an adorable little five year old. Toy Story was the first film ever produced by Pixar, the jumping lamp company that since that time has become ridiculous successful. Toy Story paved the way for the countless other computed-animated films that followed in its path, but its not simply Toy Story’s technical merits that make it one of the best animated flicks of all time, it’s the story. When I was re-watching the third installment of the Toy Story movies recently, something interesting occurred to me (as I sat on the couch sobbing): the movie itself has a special connection to millennials.

Image from Google
Image from Google

The general premise of Toy Story is that toys come alive when people aren’t around, and when they are, the toys must pretend to be lifeless. Toy Story follows the adventures of Woody, a cowboy, Buzz Lightyear, an astronaut, Hamm (or evil Dr. Pork Chop) a piggy bank, Mr. and Mrs. Potato head, Slinky dog, and numerous others. All of these toys belong to a boy named Andy, who was a young kid in the original Toy Story that came out in 1995. The most recent Toy Story, Toy Story 3, came in 2010, when I was 20 years old. In this movie, the main catalyst for the plot is that Andy’s going away to college, and the toys must face the reality that they risk getting thrown away or being retired to the attic, never to be played with again.

What’s significant about the life events of Andy is that his journey just about perfectly matches up with those of us born in the early 90s. We were kids when we first met Woody and Buzz Lightyear, and when Andy grew up and went off to college, we were doing the same thing. Though Toy Story receives countless accolades for the plot and the toy characters that feature voices by Tom Hanks, the dad from Home Improvement, and Cliff from Cheers, what people don’t talk about enough is that Toy Story, the third movie especially, perfectly captures the essence of growing up.

In your youth, playing pretend with your toys really becomes your first act of independence. Those days of going to the park with your parents, riding your bike down the block, or playing a game with your siblings (if you have them) are all fine and good, but there’s something significant about the role toys play in your childhood. How could being silly and playing with toys have anything to do with autonomy? Any kind of pretend play fosters the imagination, which is what makes us become better problem solvers, it’s what helps us understand our values and what we consider right and wrong, and it encourages ingenuity. The play world that’s depicted in the  Toy Story movies is nothing short of brilliant–it perfectly demonstrates the  imaginary world children create each playtime.

The opening sequence of Toy Story 3 is an excellent example of this. In the beginning of the movie, we see Woody in the middle of a desert, chasing the evil Mr. Potato Head whose in cahoots with evil Dr. Pork Chop. From the start of the movie, it’s completely unclear why Woody and his compatriots are in the desert, until it becomes clear that this is a flashback sequence to a home movie that shows Andy playing in his room as kid. Obviously there’s no desert in his room, but the vibrant, palpable world movie-goers just witnessed was entirely crafted by Andy’s imagination. Arguably, no other movie has better captured what playing with toys is really like nor has a movie ever better illustrated what children imagine playtime is like from a toy’s perspective better than Toy Story 3.

As central as playtime is for kids growing up, the toys involved play (no pun intended) a significant role as well. Toys are really the first relationships kids have aside from their family members or imaginary friends. Toys are also the first objects that children have a sense of ownership over, and it’s from toys that they start to understand the concept that something belongs to them. Eventually, those toys are replaced by the friends kids meet at grade school, but there’s a period of time in your childhood where your toys shape your entire pretend world. The older we get, the more and more we have to live in the “real” world, with real bills to pay, real decisions to make, and a real life that demands our presence and awareness. We quickly we lose sight of the significance of those old toys for shaping us into the “real” people we become.

Image from Google
Image from Google

A scene in Toy Story 3 shows Andy packing up his room in boxes while his mother nags him about deciding what to do with the old toys he loved so much as a youngster–either throw them away or put them up in the attic.What follows are numerous touching scenes illustrating Andy’s hesitation toward getting rid of the toys with whom he had countless adventures with as a boy. As Andy is about to start a new chapter in his life, he’s caught between the whimsy and freedom of his youth and the new set of challenges and responsibilities that await him in college. The viewer gets to see the sense of guilt Andy experiences when he considers just the thought of throwing his old friends away, and he ultimately makes the decision to put the majority of the toys in the attic while taking Woody, who has long been his favorite toy, with him to college. (That’s not where the movie ends, it’s never that easy, but you’ll have to see it to see how it all unfolds.)

Image from Google
Image from Google

I saw Toy Story 3 with my best friends, and I remember walking into the crowded theater and being shocked at the demographic: most of the movie goers were 20-somethings. I was expecting to be surrounded by a crowd of munchkins with their exasperated parents. What greeted me instead was an overwhelming number of people my age, college kids that came to see this latest chapter in a movie series we were quite literally growing up with. We had all swallowed our pride and crowded into the theater to collectively appreciate the nostalgia all of us 20 year olds were starting to experience around that time.

When you first start college, or even when you’ve been going a couple years, it finally starts to hit you that you’re an adult. You’re starting to prepare for your future, and the word “career” and “life” stop being terms that are on the distant horizon, instead it quickly starts to feel like “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” Toy Story 3 appeals to a millennial’s nostalgia on two different levels. The first being that simply through the timing of when the movies were released we grew up with Andy. When he was a kid, we were kids and all those years later, when Andy was college-bound, so were we. Then, in the plot of the movie itself, we see Andy dealing with a universal problem all 20-somethings contend with at some point, “What can I still hold onto from my childhood, and what do I need to let go of?”

Image from Google
The scene that kills me every time.
Image from Google

Ultimately, Andy decides to give all his toys to Bonnie, little girl that lives down the street. As Andy hands the little girl each of his toys, he gives a brief description that recalls the memories of how he’d play with each toy. The real coup de grâce doesn’t come until he gets to Woody–his favorite toy that he had planned to keep. As he holds Woody in his hands, he rectifies the implications of keeping the toy, like he intended, or giving him over to a new owner to have future playtimes. Yet, it’s easy to recognize it’s more than just Woody that Andy is giving away. As he looks at the toy cowboy, he’s looking at the last tangible manifestation of that chapter of his youth. He’s looking at all those days spent wearing a cowboy hat sitting Indian-style on his bedroom floor, toys spread out everywhere, making silly voices while traveling to faraway lands and defeating formidable foes. This brief moment of reflection as he stares at his Woody gets me crying like a two year old every single time. Ultimately, Andy rationalizes that his time for that kind of pretend and imagination are over, and he has to leave his toys behind and quite literally, drive off into the sunset.

Image from Google
Image from Google

Each and every time I see Toy Story 3, I feel this serious emotional connection to the movie. That movie, perhaps more-so than any other, truly captures the choices and sacrifices we have to make as we’re just starting to come into adulthood. If you saw Toy Story as a teenager or an adult and then 15 years later saw Toy Story 3 as an adult or an even older adult, it wouldn’t have the same profound effect on you as it does for those that were young when the first movie came out. There’s something about growing up with the movie that makes all the difference. For those around my age, Toy Story 3 is the Pixar-equivalent of our ambivalence about growing up projected on the big screen, demonstrating the Toy Story Complex in all its glory.

As someone that hasn’t been an adult that long, I still have some appreciation for toys and what they mean to kids. When I see people taking toys away from their children or insisting on throwing old things away, I still feel that empathy that when you’re young, a toy isn’t just a toy–it’s an entire world you get to create and live in for a few hours every day. I think the older we get, the more prone we are to losing our Toy Story Complex, because pretty soon, like everything else, toys just become things, and there just isn’t time to go off into your pretend world for an hour every day. (Not for lack of trying though, why do you think I love to write?) I still have a lot of my toys in storage bins in my basement. I can’t bear the thought of throwing them away. I’m not ready to pass the torch on to some other kid, because most of the time, I still feel closer to being a kid than being an adult. I’m not sure when that switches over.

…Oh, if you were wondering about my Woody equivalent? Well, his name is White Sox, and he’s a white stuffed animal dog who has his own bed (which I made out of a box when I was kid), and he has a special place in my closet. I never really pick him up anymore, and I could really use the extra closet space, but I can’t bring myself to let go of him yet. Call it immature, call me the weird girl with a stuffed animal living in her closet, but I don’t think it’s wrong to still see the value in imagination, and I know that White Sox was an important part of my childhood. So I’ll cram my sweaters somewhere else for the time being. If that makes me silly or naive, that’s okay. I know I’m not alone–and I don’t think having a Toy Story Complex is anything to be ashamed of.

15 thoughts on “Millennials & the Toy Story Complex

  1. The answer for me on the thought of when you feel closer to adult than kid is never. I still do adult things on a regular basis because I have to and for my kids, but I still feel like a youth in many aspects(except for my sad grasp of the young slang).

  2. I don’t think anyone could have better articulated how I (also a 20 year old when it came out) felt about Toy Story 3, and how surprised I was at the effect it had on me. I’m still constantly finding myself torn between childhood memories and notions, and adult me, and I love that something like Toy Story exists to remind me of all those rites of passage. Phenomenal writing!! 🙂

  3. I still wish I knew were some of my old toys were. I didn’t have that many, I was more a video game kid, but I regret ever giving them away. My favorite was my Megazord from Might Morphine Power Rangers and my Raphael from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I know I’m like 4 years older than you, but the little scene makes me tear up to.
    Have you seen the movie Ted? My “so-called” ex-girlfriend said she couldn’t understand why i was tearing up when Ted died. She didn’t get it was his best friend and toy… everything every little boy and MAN dreams about. I called her a “Heartless Ruskie wench and that the Nazi’s should have killed all her Jew people.” Yeah, I don’t take criticism easily.

    1. I loved Power Rangers. And are you kidding? I straight up cried when Ted died. That was literally tragic. I hope it was after that display that she became an EX-girlfriend.

  4. And let the waterworks begin! I grew up with Toy Story as well, but when I was younger I didn’t really care for the original movie (I’m a Disney Princess kind of girl, lol) but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to enjoy all of the Toy Stories. None of them has made me cry, maybe whimper a bit or sigh, but reading this post brought tears to my eyes, and now I don’t think I’ll watch those movies the same way! 😀

    1. I was always Lion King or Beauty and the Beast kinda gal myself, but when I was watching Toy Story 3 recently and sobbing, I thought it was time to figure out why. 🙂

      It’s an amazing concept for a movie. Just a great premise, really.

      1. Beauty and the Beast is my favorite and as much as I love the Lion King, I kinda have to limit (then and now) how much I watch it considering I cry uncontrollably with the whole Mufasa thing, lol. But you are right, it was an amazing concept for a movie (TS3), I hadn’t thought about it before, but you are most definitely right! 😀

  5. That was just great! Reading that brought about a lot of nostalgia. I have this plastic triceratops(Cera) That was the first toy I was ever attached too. There was my stuffed rat I got at a garage sale. His name was radical rat because he had radical written on his shirt, then there’s my angry G.I. Joe who kept me safe at night, countless amounts of ninja turtles, and I can’t forget beanie animal wrestle deathmatch! I had a lot of those. I didn’t even realize how profound it all is. Thank you for writing that!

    1. Thank you! I think toys are important, and they serve a significant purpose. I really think that’s also part of why Toy Story 3 is such an excellent movie.

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