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'Toy Story 3' and the Triumph of a Single Mother

By Mary Pols
Special to MSN Movies

I must have watched Pixar's "Toy Story" (1995) and "Toy Story 2" (1999) a dozen times each without realizing what I had in common with Andy's mother. It took another single mother to point out that Andy, the proud owner of Woody and Buzz Lightyear, was being raised by a single mother. "Are you sure the dad isn't just at work or something?" I asked. "Nope," she said. "Single mom."

But their house is so nice, I thought (idiotically), looking around at the rented apartment my son and I outgrew years ago. Andy's mother seems so together. She's never hustling him out the door to day care. His birthday party seemed so organized, that trip to Pizza Planet so peaceful and easy. There are no scenes involving her sprawled on the couch, too tired to lift the wine glass sitting on her chest, a sink piled high with dirty dishes awaiting her in the kitchen. If the two Woodys and two Buzzes that happen to live in our apartment came to life and did some post-bedtime exploring, that's what they'd find.

Photos: "Toy Story 3" Gallery | Video: "Toy Story 3" Inside Look

Maybe Andy's dad is just on a business trip, I thought. Maybe when they moved, he'd gone ahead and left mom to pack up the house on her own. I mean, there was little sister Molly to contend with, too; these kids came from somewhere. But the third movie, a strikingly emotional journey in which Andy (still voiced by the original Andy, John Morris, now 25) is packing for college, finally convinced me. We see a photo from Andy's high school graduation, with Molly (now a tween), their mother and Andy, and the way they look together just tells you, they are a family unit of three. Dad, whoever he was, doesn't live here anymore.

I did want the backstory, though: Is dad dead? A deadbeat? So I posed the question to Lee Unkrich, who directed solo on this film after co-directing with Ash Brannon and John Lasseter on "Toy Story 2" (Lasseter directed the original "Toy Story").

"It's an oft asked question, but there is no concrete answer," Unkrich said. "We don't mean to be mysterious about it; it's just never been relevant to the story."

It's just always been that way, Unkrich said. "The decision was made really early on in 'Toy Story' to have Andy's dad not be around," he said. "We've never addressed it directly, nor have we given any explanation for where he is or why he's absent."

Unkrich points out that while animated movies are often mocked for the missing-parent syndrome (from "Bambi" right on through to Pixar's own "Up," where Russell struggles with an absentee father), having a character with a missing parent opens up possibilities for emotional richness, the kind found in a situation that's a little off-kilter. "When you've got the mom and the dad, the tendency is to just think everything is perfect," he said.

Of course, we all know how rare the "complete" family actually is in America. Unkrich's parents divorced when he was 10, and since he was an only child, for a long time it was just Lee and his mother.

The host of screenwriters for "Toy Story 3" includes Unkrich, Michael Arndt (who also wrote "Little Miss Sunshine") and Pixar icons Lasseter and Andrew Stanton. They all have their own ideas about the backstory, including him. But he's not sharing. "I'd rather not talk about it because then it becomes this concrete new thing out in the world."

The most he'll offer up is his own speculation about Woody's origins: "This is another thing that we've never been explicit about," he said. "Maybe Woody is so special to Andy because he was given to him by his dad. I don't know if that is the case or not, but there is that kind of unspoken question, 'Why would Woody be especially special to him?'"

Based on that, if I were to take a wild guess, I'd say Andy's dad died. But whatever happened, the remaining family is solid.

"They've kind of fashioned this family of their own," Unkrich said. "Whatever they went through they've just had to persevere."

Unkrich laughed when I asked if they ever considered bringing in a stepdad or a love interest for Andy's mom (still voiced by Laurie Metcalf). "I honestly don't think we ever had any conversations like that at all," he said. "We live in a world where it's not just as easy as hiring another actor to do the voice work. We'd have to design and model the humans, if I was going to bring in Stepdad, it would have been a lot of work, and I don't know that it would serve the story."

Who really cares about Andy's mother's marital status, anyway? Well, I do, and I bet a lot of other single moms do. Our ranks have grown dramatically in the last decade, but we're still in the age of finding and appreciating role models. No matter how many times we tell each other, "Look at what Barack Obama's mother did," we still worry about not providing that perfect family.

Being a single mother is often a graceless business. You are constantly faced with your own limitations, whether it's trying to get the cursed stroller to fold up or navigating a 25-square-foot airplane bathroom with a squirmy baby. You feel guilty asking other mothers for favors, because you know how hard they're working too, but you have to do it sometimes because otherwise, there will be no one there to pick up your kid at the end of the school day. Day care is precious, because it allows you to work, and also vicious, because it costs so much and reminds you of all the time you aren't spending with your child.

I'm a lucky single mother in that my son's father lives nearby and is eager to help. But like 6.3 million other people in America (as of January) he's been unemployed for more than six months, and a chronic illness landed him in the hospital earlier this month. As it happens, his hospitalization coincided with the press junket for "Toy Story 3," held at Pixar's headquarters in Emeryville on a weekend (translation: No day care). We live close by, and Pixar's people are generous -- they didn't mind if I had to bring my 6-year-old to the nighttime screening of "Toy Story 3" -- but, let's face it, you can't tell your kid to go play in the enormous replica of Barbie's Dream House -- a piece of nostalgia that features in the new movie -- in the Pixar lobby while you sit down for roundtable interviews.

I could have gotten a sitter, but as it happened, the screening I needed to attend in order to participate in the roundtable interviews (the offerings included Michael Keaton, who spectacularly voices the Ken doll) would have required me to bail on an event my son had been looking forward to for months: Little League night at an Oakland Athletics game. Even the temptation of a super special early screening of "Toy Story 3" couldn't persuade him to blow off that A's game. Believe me, I tried.

Faced with this dilemma, I did what most single mothers are going to do at some time or other. I coped and rearranged and tried to avoid bringing up just how stressed I was. I tried to fake it. Then, when it turned out that the magical plan we'd all agreed to wasn't going to work out after all, I broke down and cried on the phone with a publicist. She probably thought I was insane and unprofessional (I was, at least at that moment in time) but she was also kind and created a loophole in the rules to allow me to attend a later screening and talk to director Lee Unkrich on the phone instead.

I wish I hadn't sniveled. But sometimes you run out of coping strategies. Sometimes you have to admit, even if you've been pulling it off for weeks and months and years, this time you just can't do it.

Andy's mother, she's halfway done walking her own parental tightrope. Molly is still at home, but Andy's 18. He's going to college. Now that he's of voting age, who is he? Unkrich said, once again, Pixar wasn't aiming for perfection.

"We tried to make him a good kid, but at the same time, I didn't want him to be Eddie Haskell," he said. "We have some nods to some friction with his mom in the beginning, and he's grousing with his sister. My conception of Andy as a character is that I really wanted him to be on the cusp of adulthood, but he still very much feels like a kid. He gets a little short with his mom. But the moment she leaves the room, you see that he's still a sensitive kid."

There's a scene at the end of the movie where Andy's kind, imaginative heart is very much in evidence. You can see what a good man he's going to be. I shed more tears over "Toy Story 3," although not in stress and sorrow. Even though Andy's mother is an animated being, it was awfully heartening for this single mother to see how that one has triumphed.

Mary Pols is a Bay Area-based journalist. She reviews movies for Time.com and was for many years a film critic for the San Jose Mercury News, Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times. She is also the author of a memoir, "Accidentally on Purpose," published in 2008 by Ecco/Harper Collins. When she's inspired, usually by something weird, she blogs about it at www.maryfpols.com.

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