Why Adults Cry So Easily in Animated Kids Movies

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"TOY STORY 3" (L-R) Mr. Potato Head, Bullseye, Barbie, Hamm, Ken, Woody, Jessie, Slinky Dog, Rex, Buzz Lightyear, ©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Toy Story 3 is coming out on DVD next month. This is the movie, you’ll recall, which hit headlines not just because it made more than a billion dollars worldwide (a record for an animated movie), but because of all the reports that it made grown people cry.

Of course, that’s not all that unusual. People wept in Up. People wept in Bambi. There are adults who will curl up into a fetal position sobbing uncontrollably at Dumbo. And let’s not get started on such quadruple-ply tissue-fests as Fox and the Hound or Charlotte’s Web or Wall*E or The Lion King. (More on Top 10 Movie Rereleases)

And yes, there are obvious reasons for the wailing — sometimes it seems Disney has created more orphans than WWII, its movies kill off parents so often. But Toy Story 3 is a particularly interesting example because its protagonists aren’t even alive. Who wouldn’t be gutted when a baby elephant is separated from its mother? But hunks of plastic about to be incinerated? That barely even qualifies as sad.

Lee Unkrich, who, having directed Toy Story 3, co-directed and edited Toy Story 2 and edited the original, is something of an expert; he has a few theories on why the latest film set people off. The most interesting is that animated movies can be more affecting than movies with real people in them. “Live action movies are someone else’s story,” he says. “With animation, audiences can’t think that. Their guards are down.” Because the characters are clearly not alive, he suggests counterintuitively, people identify with them more readily.

It’s possible also that the response is hormonal. It turns out that human tears — in both men and women — contain prolactin, the hormone responsible for breast milk production. Pregnant women, who are awash in the stuff, often find that something as benign as a pet food commercial will bring on the waterworks. Maybe our nurturing instinct is somehow connected to our crying. (More on “Mompetition”: Why You Just Can’t Make Mom Friends)

But how do you get people to feel nurturing about inanimate toys? For Unkrich and his colleagues, they’re not just playthings. To get the right tone for Toy Story 3’s incinerator scene, in which the toys are carried toward a fiery death on a conveyor belt, “I thought of what I’d do if I were in a plane with my children and something went wrong,” he says. Think you couldn’t imbue a bunch of toys with that much love? Well, it worked well enough that Pixar’s employees teared up just upon seeing the storyboards.

“They’re like family members,” says Unkrich of the toys. “They’re people we go to work with every single day and we respect them and want to do right by them.”

Having primed the pump with the narrowly-averted-immolation, viewers are already a gooey mess for the ensuing scenes in which Andy — the young owner of the toys, who is now all grown up — has to say goodbye to his mom and then his toys before he goes off to college. Toys are like parents, it suggests; they do everything in their power to make kids happy until the kid is ready to leave them, blithely unaware of the devotion that has been lavished upon them.

Finally, it may just be that an inaminate object is actually easier to feel affection for than a human. Toys don’t nag or pressure or abuse or lecture or make you stack the dishwasher. They just want to be your frie…sorry, can’t go on. (Muffled sob.)

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