Farewell, childhood: Tears & Toy Story 3

by Kristin on July 14, 2010

in Love, family & community

Photo by Vincent Teeuwen

Last night at dinner, when our family spontaneously decided to go to a movie, I didn’t expect to cry. It was an animated kids’ movie, after all—Toy Story 3. I expected lots of magical, imaginative moments from the film, and lots of laughs, but I certainly did NOT think to pack Kleenex.

Those of you who aren’t living in a popular culture hole quite as deep as mine might be wondering how I missed the word on the street: “If you go see Toy Story 3, expect to cry. Maybe even more than once.” But I missed it, so I went in blindly, unguarded.

The movie makes good use of the usual cinematic storyline techniques to tug at your heartstrings—from happy flashback montages of Andy’s imaginative childhood playtime, to scenes of solidarity and love between the toys as moments of sure tragedy inch in, ever closer.

But the thing that really got to me (and, I suspect, to most adults) was the scene at the very end, which Pixar could have just hinted at, but instead takes time with, to beautifully draw out  (don’t worry, no spoilers here). The scene perfectly articulates this aching sense of loss we have all experienced: The loss of our childhood—our imaginations, and sense of carefree wonder, and possibility.

Parenting just throws salt in the loss-of-childhood wounds

As parents, many of us are going through that loss all over again, as we watch our own children approach (and in some cases cross over) that great divide. I think it just might hurt even more to watch them go through it, because we’re aware of so much that they aren’t.

This has been a particularly weighty matter at our house in the past year or two. H will be in ninth grade this fall—a true teenager, who surprises us with her height and maturity every time she walks down the steps or into a room. She seems to have shed childhood completely, and with grace, but every once in a while she still calls her dad “Daddy,” attempting to snuggle in like someone who isn’t full-grown.

At 12, Q is stuck in an in-between land that regularly confounds her (and those around her, as well). Sometimes she throws herself into imaginative play with her younger sister and friends, still clearly enjoying it and being fed by it. Other times she is 100 percent pure adolescent, rolling her eyes and turning her back on her little sister’s pleas to play.

That, of course, leaves 10-year-old S right where you would expect: mourning the loss of her sisters’ childhoods, and clinging desperately to her own. And the issue is not confined to home. Throughout her fourth grade year at school, this was a regularly wailed refrain from S: “I have lots of friends but no one likes to imagine and pretend anymore!”

Participating in some healthy, collective mourning

So no wonder I cried last night during the movie, right? Apparently I’m not alone when it comes to adults who have seen Toy Story 3. When I shared my movie experience on Facebook and Twitter, dozens of friends immediately responded with their own teary-eyed tales. Gregory said “My sister and I were sniffling all the way through the last 15 minutes,” and as my friend Laura said, “If you don’t cry in that movie you’re not human.”

And isn’t it good, after all, for us to be human, all together—to recognize what experiences we share, like childhood, and what we’ve collectively lost? It’s good for us to corporately mourn, and to have opportunities to empathize and console.

My own kids surprised me by not crying during the movie—maybe because they haven’t completely lost their childhoods yet, so they aren’t ready to fully mourn them. Still, I will put on my mothering hat for the benefit of my grownup friends, and say, “Go ahead and cry—cry. Sometimes we just need to let out all those bits of sadness that have collected inside.”

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  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    Your post today reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ sense of aching for the reality behind the beauty. He called it “longing.” “The sweetest thing in all my life,” he wrote “has been the longing…to find the place where all the beauty came from”

    And I need your opinion: I also cried at “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Is that wrong?

  • http://joehollenbach.blogspot.com Joe Hollenbach

    Great post, Kristin.

    I love the Toy Story 3 discussion mostly because people’s reactions are, more or less, an informal study of the generational progression of human psychology. Everyone finds it sad, but my experience has been that each age group holds a different explanation than others as to why it engenders sorrow.

    It was a fierce sort of grief that overcame me in the cinema, an invasive and unwelcome misery, like the family dog had gone hostile and ruined years of good and decent memories with a few snaps at my face. Those characters are keystones of many childhood recollections and to watch their fates be so wrecklessly tossed about rankled me. I didn’t mourn the loss of childhood and innocence and imagination but became territorial, and feared my vivid reminiscence of youth and revelry was going to be assaulted in the theater that night.

    “Woody and Buzz are some of the good guys. They have to take care of them,” I kept whispering to my wife, when i was really thinking “They can’t do this to me now; they can’t come in and upset my childhood retro-actively.”

    Again, great post.

  • bookhouseboy

    Lovely post, Kristin.
    Do you suppose this is why we pass along favorite toys, make our kids watch our favorite movies with us, push our favorite books on the young people in our lives? Are we trying to re-create our own sense of wonder and delight by attempting to nurture it in those who are still young enough to access it? (I suppose it’s part of the reason I’m a teacher, too. Hmm.) In most cases, I think these efforts fall flat; kids will create their own touchstones of childhood innocence and imagination, different from ours because they live in different times and places.

    I think your observation that your kids didn’t cry at the movie because they haven’t realized that sense of loss yet is fascinating and perceptive. Now I need to go spend some more time with my nieces.

  • Robin

    Excellent post Kristin!

    Like you, I shed a few tears during this movie. I was not expecting them either. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I was one of the first of my friends to see the movie, so I had not heard the kleenex warning either.

    Even though my children are still young and in love with their toys, I am starting to see my oldest, who is 7, let go of some of the old favorites. For three years he was totally absorbed in Thomas the train. He had the table, the tracks, the trains, EVERYTHING! Now…they are sitting in boxes in our basement. His sisters just never were attracted to them like he was.

    Throughout the movie I kept finding myself thinking how soon it would be me standing in my child’s room like Andy’s mom, staring at the empty room and sending them off to college. I know I have years, but more and more everyday I realize that those years will go by in the blink of an eye.

    I guess you could say I’m doing my very best not to blink.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Ray, “aching for the reality behind the beauty”—wow. That is what we long for, isn’t it? And it seems to be something kids are more in touch with than adults. So often for us, those two worlds are completely divided. (Re: “Hot Tub Time Machine,” I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know what to tell you. Crying during a film by that name seems a bit “off,” but it’s never wrong. :)

    Joe, that’s super interesting—the whole thing about each generation responding differently. Do you think it has more to do with the character traits of each generation, or the particular stage they’re at in their lives? Your personal response to the movie is so fascinating, too: “[I] feared my vivid reminiscence of youth and revelry was going to be assaulted in the theater that night.” Thanks for bringing a different perspective into the conversation.

    bookhouseboy, YES! I love where you’re going with this, the whole passing on our toys to our own kids, nieces and nephews. It’s so much more than just saying “these toys are still in good shape, someone might as well get some use out of them.” So many of our childhood memories reside in those toys—it’s as close as we can get to reliving our childhoods (and nearly doing some time travel to play *with* our kids, as kids). My parents still have my favorite childhood toys, games and books, and my daughters LOVE playing with them when we visit. I wonder what it means to them? Hmm…sounds like a whole new post to me… :)

    Robin, I guess there are many opportunities for us to get gradually weaned off our kids’ childhoods, aren’t there? From the moment they grow out of their crib, to that first favorite toy they’re no longer interested in. I’m thankful it happens in stages, and, like you, “I’m doing my very best not to blink” and miss too much.

  • http://salvagedfaith.blogspot.com Katie Z.

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I hesitate to comment too soon. I am absolutely struck, however, by the idea of a collective mourning. It is not often that there are cathartic cultural events that come along and form all of us individuals together as community. Besides funerals and moments of national and community tragedy, we shift along as isolated people. But there in that movie theater, in the darkness, you all shared something as you sat and watched and cried together. And as you have continued discussions with others – those moments and feelings have formed emotional bonds. It’s powerful stuff!

    Just the other day, I watched “UP” for the first time. Alone. And I was bawling after 15 minutes. Somehow, those Disney/Pixar films have tapped into the power of relationships and community and love in a very simple but powerful way. And as they become a part of our shared cultural reality, I think that we have been blessed by it.

    I think when we want to pass on our favorite toys and movies and books to kids and neices and nephews – we are doing so because we want to let them in on a piece of reality that we have experienced. We want to share with them the formative pieces of our lives. That book that first taught us about love. That building set that helped us understand how things fit together. It’s good stuff =)

  • Elaine Tolsma-Harlow

    Actually I didn’t cry (does that make me a good mom?) at TS3 but I do morn my daughter’s passing that literally one day she is playing playmobile with her little brother, the next she packed up for a week at soccer camp. It is also a time of celebrating the next stage & enjoying watching their rites of passage & praying that there but for the grace of God we will make it to adulthood relatively unscathed.

    PS. Katie Z…I cried my eyes out at UP, that one kills me!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Katie, you’re absolutely right, we mostly move through life as isolated individuals, coming together in moments of tragedy. But the smaller losses impact us, too, and we mostly just shove them away, keeping them to ourselves. Maybe this is one of the most important things about movies–the way they bring people together around common experiences and shared emotions. It’s not just about the people sitting in the theater with you, either, but also about the conversations with others for days after seeing the movie. The movie itself can become an experience that connects us.

    Elaine, just hearing about your daughter reminds me that she’s the same age as one of my girls–I recognize that stage so well! You’re right, of course, about celebrating various milestones, too. I’ve really embraced my girls’ growth & maturity up to this point, but suddenly I’m not ready to keep up the pace. Maybe I’ve just enjoyed this 7-10 year-old phase too much.

  • Elaine Tolsma-Harlow

    There is something so nice an innocent about this age isn’t there, something that we are about to loose in the not-so-distant future (sigh)

  • http://themoderngal.blogspot.com The Modern Gal

    I appreciated so much that Pixar didn’t focus on making a feel-good, sing-songy happy ending but instead a real ending — and one that seems to have spoken to everyone who’s seen the movie. They did it with Up as well. Those tender moments make us really feel — something a lot of movies miss the mark on.

  • Charlie

    Thanks for your post, I sat through all 3 movies this weekend (first time) to enjoy the ending as you described. Honestly, though, you did an even better job writing about the intent of the final sequence than what was actually shown. I keep wondering, how could it have been better, how could they have made it even more emotive–but then I realized that the world of art isn’t particularly rich in exploring the theme of losing one’s childhood.

    I myself have only just surfaced these feelings as I recently turned 40 and had my first child a few months ago. I didn’t understand that there was something here to lose–and yet it has hit me as hard as a death in the family. All those things that made up my childhood–they have been just as gone after leaving home as now–and yet it is only now that I truly see it. My baby has been keeping me up nights, but now that he is sleeping better I find myself awake those same hours, going through the good times I had in the third grade, the sunny days long passed and gone forever.