The prolific and distinguished film career of the late Ned Beatty, who died recently at 83, began unforgettably with his debut performance as a city slicker famously admonished to squeal like a pig during a boys trip gone awry alongside Jon Voigt, Ronny Cox, and Burt Reynolds in Deliverance, John Boorman’s classic 1973 exploration of survival.
Several decades later, at the very end of an extraordinary career that saw him flourishing in everything from big-budget popcorn fare like Superman to broodingly intense dramas like Network, All the President’s Men, and Mikey and Nicky, Beatty made an indelible impression as the voice of the head bad guy in a movie nearly as dark as Deliverance but pitched to more of a family audience: 2010’s Toy Story 3, which has the distinction of being one of only three animated films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (Up and Beauty and the Beast are the other two).
Toy Story 3 is the best, darkest, most philosophically and metaphorically rich entry in the Toy Story franchise, one of the greatest and most beloved in all of pop culture, not just animation, in no small part due to Beatty’s masterful performance as Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear (or just Lotso if you’re into the whole brevity thing).
Once upon a time Lotso was the favorite toy of a little girl named Daisy who loved him as much as it is possible for a girl to love a toy and vice versa. Then life happened and Lotso was left behind.
The distraught bear that smells of strawberries and innocent childhood dreams eventually finds his owner only to discover that he has been replaced with an identical but newer model.
Lotso never gets over it. In true Pixar fashion, he is a gently soiled anthropomorphic pink teddy bear who uses a cane yet is nevertheless infinitely more human and complex than the vast majority of human cinematic protagonists. Lotso is so intent on never allowing himself to get hurt the way he did when his owner abandoned him that he hardens his heart, ignores the dictates of his conscience, and commits himself to the blind pursuit and cold-hearted display of power. Even before this pleasant-smelling, cuddly, huggable figure of rage and resentment enters the equation Toy Story 3 is already bracingly dark. The shatteringly emotional plot finds Andy, the owner of the toys from the first two films, growing up and going to college.
This of course sends his toys into a terrifying existential crisis. What value do they have if they’re not being played with? Will Andy ever return? Have their days of happy, joyous play ended prematurely and permanently? What does it mean to face obsolescence, irrelevance, and the cruelty of age and time when you’re a sentient Mr. Potato Head, Barbie Doll, or Slinky Dog?
The toys end up at Sunnyside, a crowded and noisy daycare that Lotso presides over with honey-dripping Southern charm masking a cold heart. Being an evil sonofabitch, Lotso deludes the anxiety-ridden, lonely and confused toys into thinking that they had essentially died and gone to toy heaven. Lotso assures the toys that they will soon receive the attention and validation that they desperately crave from children overjoyed to be playing with them. He tricks them into thinking that they’d escaped hell and found paradise when they really just went from a bad situation to an even worse one. When the PTSD-addled toys complain that they’re stuck in a room full of pint-sized sadists whose conception of rough-housing looks an awful lot like torture from the outside, Lotso’s facade of gentleness and kindness dissipates.
The pink bear with the beguiling fruit scent reveals himself to be the unquestioned Fuehrer of the daycare, a psychotic bully with a ghoulish assemblage of henchmen and flunkies, including the viscerally unsettling Big Baby, a beaten-up sentient baby doll that is pure nightmare fuel, fashion icon Ken (Michael Keaton, having a blast) and the ironically named Chuckles, a sad-faced clown. Lotso runs Sunnydale like a prison masquerading as a safe haven where the cast-off, unwanted misfit toys of the world can feel wanted and desired, to finally feel at home.
Beatty makes Lotso a figure of guile and cunning, a bitter madman with a deceptively avuncular, overly ingratiating exterior that allows him to do horrible things behind the scenes. Late in Toy Story 3, Lotso has an opportunity to redeem himself and prove that he’s still capable of good, that the tender-hearted bear that loved his owner with all his heart and soul isn’t gone forever when he has a chance to keep the other toys from being incinerated, melted alive, reduced to a gooey blob of painted plastic.
It’s a testament to what a rich and morally ambiguous movie Toy Story 3 is that it seems entirely possible that Lotso will seize upon this chance at redemption, that he will rise to the challenge and save the lives of the titular toys. But Lotso is too far gone for that. The pink teddy bear that smells like strawberries has no problem whatsoever with Buzz Lightyear and the gang all meeting a brutal, premature end but they are saved from that bleak fate (this is a kid’s movie, after all) by the hand of fate in the form of a giant claw wielded by their alien toy friends.
Lotso is a smiling dictator, a monster with a thing for doling out hugs. He does awful things for selfish reasons with a Texas-sized grin on his face.
Even in a voice cast that includes Tom Hanks, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn, Timothy Dalton, Kristen Schaal, Jeff Garlin, Bonnie Hunt, R. Lee Ermey, Richard Kind, Whoopi Goldberg, and many, many more Beatty’s powerhouse turn stands out. Like the best villains, Lotso’s motives are all too relatable and understandable. Like all of us, he wants more than anything to be loved and needed, a poignantly universal desire that unfortunately leads him in a decidedly dark direction. Great heroes deserve a great villain and Toy Story 3 has one for the ages in Lotso, the deepest, darkest, and most unforgettable Pixar heavy in the legendary studio’s auspicious history.