The Theology of "Toy Story 3"

We must warn you that there are immense spoilers and plot twists to “Toy Story 3” revealed in the following essay, so please display caution and read at your leisure.

Ultimately the “Toy Story” series comes full circle when we learn it’s all one big metaphor for the power of love, the sadness of growing up, and god. Many will dispute this fact, they’ll claim others are looking far too deep in to what is just a kids adventure film, but since when has a movie by Pixar ever been just about adventures and laughs? “Up” was about the sanctity of life and love, “Wall-E” about mass consumerism destroying the world and how love can save humanity, et al.

“Toy Story 3” is very much a take on religion in the end as while the first installment explored the blooming maturity of Woody’s master and the threat of being replace, and “Toy Story 2” focusing on the lessening importance of mementos, “Toy Story 3” dares to delve in to the after life of toys and dabbles with the concepts of these characters beliefs and their faith that could lead them down an interesting path in an after life that’s alluded toward but never revealed for us after the credits have rolled in front of our eyes. When the question of an after life and the potential death for the toys arises we’re immediately drawn in to a discussion about their fates that could have potentially varying degrees of experiences.

The elephant in the room is where will the toys all end up? Will they be doomed to hell for questioning Andy i.e. the dumpster that is dark, void, and leads to the dreaded incinerator we saw in the horrific climax? Will they have to settle for purgatory i.e. the attic where they’ll linger seemingly for all eternity waiting for the return of their creator and life giver settling on commuting with unseen Christmas ornaments waiting for their chance to be wanted, or be sent to heaven for their loyalty toward their deity i.e. a now grown Andy? Notice in the narrative that Woody remains completely faithful to Andy in spite of being tossed out of paradise where he showered them with love and life, only to shun them as worthless. Has Andy ultimately lost faith in his creations, or confidence in himself to create this world?

Meanwhile the other toys question his devotion when he declares his apathy toward their ultimate demises, so he dooms the others to the attic for eternity waiting for salvation while he brings only Woody, who has remained steadfast the entire time, never questioning his intention or devotion to them and insistently preaching Andy’s word in spite of what he’s heard him say in passing. When the antagonist Lots-o introduces himself he seems like a very calm and gentle individual, one who leads his ‘Sunnyside Daycare’ pals instilling a series of ranks and classes among his followers as he dictates their well-being and welfare with an almost Jim Jones quality.

We learn that Lots-o questions his faith in his master and because of this he goes rotten and becomes a villain without a sense of remorse and is interested purely in self-preservation even in the face of Woody’s goodness when faced with the fires of doom in the final scenes. I wholeheartedly disagree in the idea that denouncing faith and a god will make you rotten since I’m an atheist and I am a very good person and a loyal family man, but I do think it’s a powerful bit of a take on faith and religion. The characters are literally saved from burning for eternity, and Lots-o’s entire stranglehold on the community could be seen as cult-like.

I think “Toy Story 3” is overall more of a push on religion and faith, but also pulls back a bit and puts the concept of religion under the microscope a bit. But the angle on the power of faith and religion is much more prevalent when you step back and take a second look. While it does encourage the concept of believing in a higher being in spite of your misery, loneliness, and woes, it also asks us if we’re really all that doomed without the support of faith. Is religion really needed to keep us happy? Especially when you consider how it was corrupted by someone like Lots-o who took the principles of his ideology and used it as a way to take paradise and turn it on its head for his own twisted gain. Lots-o defies his master and tries to be his own god begging others to deify him and it backfires big time when the toys’ belief in a bigger entity takes hold and convinces the other toys to believe.

His take on the religious representation is a cult-like following where he influences the others to not believe in any master but him offering them lives as pragmatists, and when he doesn’t find it possible to convert them all, he forces his beliefs on their representative, Buzz Lightyear against his will. When he and his thugs brainwash Buzz, he becomes militant, menacing, and unrecognizable when his language is completely changed. It’s played for humor with near perfection for most of the film, but it also stands as a metaphor in and of itself. Barbie, the second half of the female protagonists plays a big part in symbolizing both viewpoints finding that love for her man far outweighs her attachment to her goddess, but she is also still firm in her belief in a higher power. When Lots-O is taken away she stays behind at the Daycare Center to rule with Ken, probably to integrate the pragmatic and religious viewpoints over their friends.

In the end their whole belief in one another as they join hands and prepare to accept their fates at the vicious mouth of the hell fires saves them again as they’re saved by the bright light from above: the claw! It’s representative of divine intervention by the unflinching believers i.e. the Martians and the claw when the toys are about to be sucked in to hell in the dumpster. They’re pulled from the ashes and saved from death because there is still some essence among them that holds true to their principles. Or have they died and are grabbed by a hand escorting them in to the after life because they’ve accepted their mortality? As I’ve said in previous writings, I don’t enjoy movies that push religious themes (like “The Chronicles of Narnia” that pretends to be simple fantasy but is just blatant propaganda) on audiences, but I loved “Toy Story 3” for exploring such issues and undertones subtly and quietly while entertaining us to a great degree.

I don’t endorse pushing blatant religious views as a form of conversion on impressionable viewers, but it’s perfectly human and rational to question what happens after we’ve all died. And in the end it’s not a whole summary where the writers explain: “They believed in god, so they’re safe now and Lots-o isn’t because he was not a believer.” The whole message is that belief in a higher being can empower us and keep us moving to a certain extent but in the end love is what really matters. Whether we think love can come from one another or from a more powerful being in the sky. They lose their god in the final scenes, but they on the bright side they have faith in each other and in the force of their devotion to their goals and their bonds, and that empowers them more, and they learn to be out on their own in a world that’s vast and scary. But we’re told deep down they’ll survive because religion and a god should be a back up and not a crutch.

The end result reminded me of when I became an atheist; I was very scared about dropping religion from my life completely and I turned out just fine. When the screen fades to black, the belief in a higher being is still present in the toys, but they also learn they can exist and walk with love and faith without any help from a higher being. The question that ultimately stands is would being handed over to toddler Bonnie by adult Andy in the climax be representative of reincarnation? Or have our toys died and been granted a ticket to heaven? Deep down I think it’s just an open door for a possible reboot or part four (should Disney demand more from this universe), but you could look at it the outcome as a two-fold result.

The toys all stick to their guns and their god rewards them with a new life in greener pastures, a new start with more friends, and a young loyal master who treats her creations with respect and love. In spite of her rough treatment, she gives her friends respect and equality and because of that they never question or disrespect her. Mr. Pricklepants is even committed to playing his part encouraging the others to follow her rules while Buttercup the unicorn offers Woody a way out through the door to his own world but he himself and his friends never choose it.

It’s an option, it’s right there, but they choose to remain in their god’s world. They choose the comfort of their love from their master Bonnie instead of the world outside where danger lurks. When Woody discovers this new life with Bonnie, a fresh new master who appreciates and loves him, he questions his loyalty to Andy as well, and this dooms him to turmoil and pain that sucks him in to hell until his god, Andy, decides to hand them over to a new master Bonnie, a new god and creator of worlds for them. What can be interpreted by this final act is through the final scene where our protagonist and new owner Bonnie explores the intricacies of her characters and allows them free reign of her house where they can live in peace to which the camera pans up to the open blue serene sky. Is this a new domain with a new maker… or have the toys died and are now resting in heaven? I guess we’ll find out in a decade or so if Pixar is willing to let it end on this note, or continue sapping at this mythos undermining all theories about religion as applied to the arc.

“Toy Story 3” is, as many have agreed, a wonderful finisher to the story of Woody and his pals and arguably a masterpiece from Pixar, so in spite of this article the interpretations on the many themes of prevalent in the threads of the narrative should not dictate your enjoyment. The question I pose to readers is: Is “Toy Story 3” and the entire trilogy a take on the force of religious belief, or a summary on the force of love that doesn’t always have to include a higher force? The messages are mixed and there are slight contradictions, but I think that will be left for us to interpret when we fade to black.