In the finale to the first season of Mad Men, in an already classic scene (seriously, Google “mad men carousel” and you get more than 70,000 pages), Don Draper describes the allure of nostalgia in a pitch for an ad campaign for Kodak’s new carousel slide projector:
Nostalgia—it’s delicate but potent. … In Greek, nostalgia literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. … It takes us to a place where we ache to go again … around and around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.
It’s a gorgeous scene, in part because it reclaims the idea of nostalgia as something beautiful. In contemporary culture, the word has been sullied by its association with dumb reality programming about washed-up sitcom stars and uninspired remakes of 1980s kids’ shows. Too often, nostalgia is something cheap to sneer at, but in that scene on Mad Men, it’s precious again—an idealization, yes, but something comforting and good, something childlike in the best sense, something that can bring out the best in us. And yet it’s a painful beauty. As Don delivers the pitch, he uses the slide projector to show slides of his own family in happy times—times that are slipping away from him. The sense of impermanence and fragility gives the scene another layer of poignancy, as does the needling thought that part of the reason Don’s wife and children are slipping away is the fact that he wants to see them only as a frozen, crystalline ideal; he’s not equipped to meet them where they are, to relate to them as changing and imperfect people, as a changing and imperfect person himself.
In an odd way, that conception of nostalgia—as something but beautiful but sharp-edged—informs the dramatic arc of Toy Story 3, the culmination of a series that has a long history of dealing with heavy themes in a light, delicate way. In the first movie, Buzz Lightyear’s existential crisis is central to the story; the theme of the second is not just that it’s better to have loved and lost but also that loss is inevitable. The movies easily work as cute, clever children’s flicks, but the underlying emotional resonance is what makes them special.
Toy Story 3 follows in that tradition with typical humor and insight. It sprawls more than its predecessors—more characters, more action—but when it collects itself for the final punch, it’s as good as anything the incomparable Pixar has ever done. I was skeptical of the idea of a third Toy Story movie (and I’m still nervous about the upcoming sequels to Cars and Monsters Inc.), but the studio handles it beautifully. Toy Story 3 is a delightful movie in its own right and a tender farewell to its much-loved characters.