Andrew Martin: Why are we men so bad at putting aside childish things?

The new 'Toy Story' film zeroes in on the Peter Pan world of the male. Our writer lives there
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The Toy Story series of films are cleverly calculated to appeal to both adults and children. But Toy Story 3, said to be the biggest film of the summer, zeroes in on men – and with shocking effectiveness.

At the start of the film, Woody, Buzz, and all the other inhabitants of the toy box, have a problem: they aren't getting played with. Andy, their owner, is 17, and about to go to college. Every yard sale and spring- clean that comes up brings the threat of diaspora, and their best hope is to remain together in that afterlife of toys: storage in the attic. None of them relishes the prospect though, and Rex, the green plastic dinosaur, is prone to panic attacks when put in a bin liner.

It is likely that any young viewer of the film – any 12-year-old, say – will soon be distracted from the question of what will ultimately happen to the toys by their more immediately pressing concern: the machinations of a psychopathic Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear. But all the fathers in the audience will be transfixed by the question of whether Andy will abandon them

I won't give away the ending, but there was a tell-tale pause before the men in my row could remove their 3D glasses. A man of about my own age – late forties – expressed the general sentiment: "That was really good.... Choked me up, though."

I do think this is a male thing. The film is written and directed by men; the principals of the toybox are boys' toys, and it is men who have commented on the extreme poignancy of the film. Novelist Brett Easton Ellis has tweeted to the effect that he was at a party with the film-maker Eli Roth, "talking about how wrenching Toy Story 3 was, and comparing notes on how much we cried during it".

In my experience, men are more likely than women to hold on to relics of their childhood. A cause of contention in my own house is a suitcase in the attic containing my childhood memorabilia: a glass tube of samples of the amazing range of coloured sands found on the Isle of Wight; a bedside light in the shape of a toadstool with an elf fishing from the top of it ("one of the ugliest things I've ever seen", says my wife, but I have never known a more consoling glow); a knitted gollywog; and exercise books covered with flock wallpaper from my last year at primary school.

My stuffed panda – Panda by name – would find the case too claustrophobic. He sits high up in the bedroom of one my sons. Sometimes I enter the room and I don't see him, because he has slumped down behind the pediment of the wardrobe. I once heard myself saying to my son: "Why is it always me that has to sit Panda up?"

My wife certainly wouldn't come to his aid if she found him prostrate in the dust. She doesn't see why he shouldn't be in the suitcase, and she doesn't see why the suitcase shouldn't be taken to the municipal dump. Every so often she says: "We really must clear out the attic. That suitcase of yours...". Our attic is not floorboarded, and she has in the past suggested that the suitcase might fall through the ceiling. If it were to do that, and if it were to land on me and kill me – the symbolism doesn't bear thinking about. My younger self would be murdering my middle-aged self.

My wife keeps no childhood memorabilia. Instead, she holds on to a chilling collection of self-help paperbacks from her young womanhood with titles like How To Understand Men and What's Wrong With My Relationship? I remind her that she doesn't need these now that she's got me.

She does keep memorabilia from our children's early years, and she recently spent a lot of money restoring a toy box given to our first son when he was three. Perhaps the reason a man feels his own childhood is worth memorialising is simply down to male egotism. This panda was mine, therefore he is important.

The psychologist Oliver James, author of How Not to F*** Them Up, is pleased that his old army truck is having a second lease of life in the hands of his own young son "even if the artillery has gone missing". But his wife keeps some of her own toys. James says: "We live in a decadent age. There's a lot of personality disorder, amongst men especially, and one way of characterising that is 'arrested development'. You know, solipsism, me, me, me, the Peter Pan syndrome. It's very hard for men to grow up. Old men find nubile women irresistible, whereas old women don't find nubile men irresistible."

In the absence of any countervailing force, such as religious belief, the God of our society is, James suggests, a man like Mick Jagger who, "for all his virtues is a basically a 70-year-old pretending he's 20". Come to that, what is the World Cup but a great festival of male arrested development?

Youth is the golden commodity of the consumer age. The Romantic Movement first suggested that children are in a state of grace because they have access to a visionary simplicity, and childhood was elevated further still in the mid-20th century.

In The Invention of Childhood, Hugh Cunningham writes that higher living standards meant parents did not need to rely on their children finding work early. On the contrary, those parents had spare money to spend on the children, and they did so in the belief that things would be better for the next generation.

This vesting of cash and hope in children was described by the American sociologist, Viviana Zelizer, as the "sacralisation" of childhood. Toys, being symbolic of childhood, are thus the icons of a new religion. But boys' toys have a double-edged poignancy. A woman who has had children would be unlikely to have kept the baby dolls of her youth, her nurturing of the doll having being merely a trial run for the nurturing of an actual child. By the same token, a member of the SAS might feel easily able to relinquish his old Action Man. But for most men, action gives way to inaction at the age of about 17. Boys' toys retained into manhood are loaded with what Oliver James calls "a nostalgia for the time when their owners aspired to power". Certainly this is the role of the retained toy soldier.

Sarge, the gruff-voiced plastic commando in Toy Story, is actually a marginal figure, being only about an inch tall, with ill-defined facial features. In the film, he says, when the clearout of adolescence starts, "We're always the first to go."

Our politically correct age also demands that Woody's holster be perpetually empty. But he is a cowboy, so a gun's there by implication, and many bloodthirsty bloggers have been anxious to recommend makes and models ("A plain Jane 1851 Colt Navy would suit him just fine"). Buzz too is essentially a martial figure. His original mission was "defeating the evil emperor Zurg", and you're not going to do that with a water pistol.

He is officially classified as a "space ranger". It's a somewhat nebulous job description, but perhaps ranging, rather than killing people, is the point here. Buzz and Woody may live in Andy's bedroom, but they represent escape from domesticity. Andy thinks that if he goes to college and abandons them, he'll enter the wider world. But we, the men in the audience, know he'll become a mid-level marketing executive with a mortgage and a drink problem.

In Edwardian Britain, rapid social change and economic anxieties created a font of escapist children's literature, including the play of Peter Pan by J M Barrie. When it opened in London in 1904, the producers were anxious about the moment when Tinkerbell might be dying but could recover if the audience declared their belief in fairies. Peter Pan urges: "Do you believe in fairies? Say quick that you believe! If you believe, clap your hands!"

The members of the orchestra had been primed to clap just in case no one else did. In fact, the whole theatre erupted in applause, and looking at the men overcome beside me at the Toy Story 3 screening, I tried to picture their forebears in that Edwardian audience. They must have been desperate cases, I thought, just as we are.

'Toy Story 3' is released on 19 July