Toys in the Attic: Coping When Andy Goes to College

An unexpected melancholy underscores the 3D sequel, adding new emotional dimensions to the beloved characters

As adorably devoted as Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head always are, I thought I was over Pixar’s Toy Story series. Not quite, it turns out. Far from it! The humor and complexity of the 3D animated characters are expected by now, but this sequel’s underlying melancholy is the real surprise. Toy owner Andy, whom we first met as a boy, is now shuffling off to college at age 17, leaving his family and most of his playthings behind.

For any mom facing an empty nest right now, Toy Story 3's premise is undeniably a little sad. In the movie, Andy’s adoring single mom gets him to pack up his room before he drives off into the sunset and onto campus. She’s always been a good mother, and I applaud her parenting skills as she asks her nearly-grown son to organize his room before he leaves, putting keepers in boxes marked “Attic,” and other things to dump in garbage bags.

As a mother (with a child departing for school), I can tell that this is a big step for Andy's mom, and yet she refrains from overburdening her son emotionally. She stays strong, even if she gets annoyed when he’s on his computer rather than sorting his belongings. And, after all, his procrastination is also part of the push-pull dynamic of leaving the nest and entering adulthood.

The Toys -- Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and the gang -- are also experiencing empty-nest syndrome, but in a different way. As Andy puts Woody in a box to take with him to college, reaffirming his role as Alpha Toy, he puts his other playthings in a garbage bag, intending to store them in the attic. But, in the farcical way such plot glitches play out, the bag is mistakenly tossed as garbage by too-efficient Mom. Cue the miraculous escape and rescue, as the toys go off to a daycare center instead of the dump.

This switcheroo leaves the toys wondering whether Andy truly left them behind, literally trashing them. And that's another aspect of empty-nest syndrome for parents: Did the kid ever really love them, if he could move on so easily? Were they so unnecessary to his development that he’s gone on to girls and gears and geometry without even a backwards glance? The toys' emotional devastation, amplified as it touches each character differently, deepens the movie and bridges the world of children and parents in a way that resonates deeply with both.

Sure, this animated comedy is funny when Buzz gets rewired and starts speaking Spanish, acting seductive toward cowgirl Jessie. And when Barbie meets her Ken, then encourages him to do an impromptu fashion show. And when Mr. Potato Head sets aside his plastic body so his eyes, ears and feet can slink around and do recon. But what makes Toy Story 3 so memorable is the way it plugs into the real emotions of empty nesters, and then reminds us that the good times we’ve shared together will always live in memory -- and that a child moving on doesn’t mean the end of a relationship, only a new beginning.

Do you look forward to seeing Toy Story 3? Chime in below!

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