Monday, June 24, 2013

Reeling Backward: The Metaphysics of "Toy Story," Part 2

Continuing last week's discussion...

Love and Faith

Toys certainly can fall in love. Woody has a longstanding relationship with Bo Peep in TS1 and TS2, although by the time of the third film she has been disposed of. The growing romance between Buzz and Jessie is a running theme through TS2 and TS3. And obviously Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head refer to themselves as husband and wife in the latter two films.

Beyond kissing, hugs and holding hands, there doesn't seem to be much physical expression of their love, and certainly there are no offspring. Mrs. and Mr. Potato Head "adopt" three of the Pizza Planet aliens at the end of TS2, resulting in the franchise's only nuclear family.

As for religion, there doesn't seem to very much of it in the Pixar oeuvre in general or the Toy Story universe -- though I should note in "Cars" Mack the truck at one point exclaims, "Thank the Manufacturer!" -- an appeal to some sort of higher power.

There's no corollary in the Toy Story trilogy. In TS1 when Buzz asks the other toys where they come from, they respond with the name of their manufacturing company: Mattel, Hasbro, etc. When facing certain death at the end of TS3, there's no existential crisis as the toys consider the end of existence, the possibility of reincarnation or an afterlife, and so forth.

Rather, their relationships are based much more on a humanist model, where faith in their fellow man and the bonds they have formed between them are the ultimate source of strength. When faced with death, they turn to each other rather than to God.


Toys do not have a specific system of government, but there is definitely a sense of leadership structure. This is based on a single designation: Favorite Toy.

Whoever is their child's favorite toy is automatically relegated to a position of authority over the rest of the company. Though their power is not absolute, and other toys can talk back to, defy or complain about the head toy, it's pretty much taken for granted how the politics of the playground will play out.

For example, TS1 is pretty much the tale of Woody resisting a challenge from Buzz to his status as Favorite Toy. Before the arrival of Buzz, Woody is the unquestioned leader of Andy's room, with Hamm and Mr. Potato Head the resident malcontents. (Not coincidentally, they are also the toys Andy chooses to play the villains in his various imaginings.)

Slinky Dog is Woody's number two and sergeant-at-arms (and is mocked for his unwavering loyalty) while the bucket of army guys operates as their force for military operations (mostly spying on the household humans).

The other toys only revolt against Woody when they mistakenly believe that he has killed Buzz because he posed a threat to his status as Favorite Toy. Before banishing Woody, Mr. Potato Head asks if he will be the next to be knocked off if Andy starts to play with him more.

Eventually, Woody and Buzz reach an agreement at the end of TS1 to coexist peaceably -- though this seems contingent on Buzz accepting Woody's status as Favorite Toy. Buzz becomes the unofficial vice president, smoothly stepping into the leadership role in TS2 when Woody is kidnapped by the evil toy collector. When Woody initially chooses to remain with Stinky Pete and his group, the other toys follow Buzz to rejoin Andy's room with the space ranger as the new headman.

At the beginning of TS3, we can see the hierarchy has reestablished itself with Woody in charge and Buzz assuming the supportive role Slinky use to have. Woody is again separated from the (diminished) group later in TS3, and again Buzz becomes the unquestioned leader.

It's notable that when we encounter other societies of toys in TS2 and TS3, their power structures also revolve around the Favorite Toy concept. In a flashback glimpse of Lotso's community of toys in TS3, he was the leader because he was the favorite of their child, Daisy, as Chuckles the clown explicitly states.

In Bonnie's room, we don't hang around long enough to get a clear sense of the power structure, but Dolly seems to take the leadership role in welcoming the new toy, Woody, and questioning his motives in returning to Sunnyside. It's a fair guess that Dolly is Bonnie's favorite -- even though she plays the evil witch in her games.

An interesting question to ponder if they ever made a "Toy Story 4" would be if there was a power struggle between Dolly and Woody when Andy's old gang merges with Bonnie's.

When no "owner" child is present, the most willful or wily toy is the one who dominates. In TS2, Stinky Pete is the de facto leader because of his scheming manipulation of Jessie and Bullseye. Lotso is the dictatorial leader of the Sunnyside daycare in TS3, though this is through his own force of will rather than the affection of a single child. (There are children at the daycare, but "no owners," as Lotso himself states.)

As for Sid's room, there appears to be no Favorite Toy because the twisted boy favors none of his toys as anything other than objects upon which to experiment.

In a sense, in the toy world power is derived through love -- the more a toy receives from its child, the more status it will have on the toy totem pole.

Birth and Death 

Though it's never made explicit, the Toy Story movies suggest that a toy is "born" -- aka gains consciousness for the first time -- not when it is first assembled, but when it is removed from its packaging, usually by the child who will become their owner.

The only toy we see this happening to in TS1 is Buzz, who blinks his eyes and ponders his existence when deposited on Andy's bed after being opened moments earlier at the birthday party. In TS2, other toys in Al's Toy Barn who do not yet have owners but have been removed from their packaging are also alive -- the "other" Buzz Lightyear and a gaggle of Barbies, for instance. Note that none of the hundreds of other Buzz Lightyears still in their boxes come to life -- they remain in "hypersleep," according to doppelganger Buzz.

But apparently, being jostled sufficiently can bring a toy to life while still in its package. This happens to Emperor Zurg in TS2 when Buzz knocks his box off a pile of toys. He breaks through the packaging himself, spots Buzz running away and begins his pursuit.

Stinky Pete in TS2 is something of a puzzle, in that when we first meet him he is sentient despite having "never been opened." Later it's revealed that Pete can come and go from his box as he pleases. Pete himself describes his life as waiting for years on a dime store shelf to be sold -- implying that he gained consciousness long ago, since he was aware of the passage of time.

Either Pete's box was dropped or otherwise manhandled years earlier, or something else occurred to make him gain sentience.

On to death. In last week's discussion we talked about toys being able to sustain lost limbs and other serious damage and continuing to live. They can even fix themselves and each other -- the Sunnyside group has an entire operation dedicated to repairs.

However, there appears to be a point where a toy is broken so badly that it cannot continue to function as a toy, and its life ends. In TS3, we learn they are sent to the dump and completely obliterated -- chopped up into pieces and then fired into slag.

Being sold or exchanged does not seem to bother toys, other than the emotional separation from their child owner. But their greatest fear is "being thrown out," since it implies being utterly destroyed.

Another interesting, unaddressed question: What if a toy were thrown away and put into a landfill rather than being pulverized? Would they continue to be alive, buried for eternity under tons of garbage? Horrifying thought.

The Buzz Problem 

There is one glaring conundrum in the Toy Story world that's never really answered: Why is it that Buzz is the only toy who is born not aware that he is a toy?

Of course, the central joke of TS1 is that Buzz thinks he's the "real" Buzz Lightyear, an actual Space Ranger with lasers and the ability of flight, rather than a piece of plastic. "YOU ... ARE ... A ... TOY!!!" is probably the most famous piece of dialogue from the trilogy, as Woody screams at Buzz to accept his fate.

None of the toys from Andy's room, Bonnie's room, the toy collector's office, Sunnyside daycare or Daisy's room ever appear to have this problem. They know instinctively that they are toys, and embrace their role of being both playthings and passive guardians of their child.

But not Buzz. And this delusion applies to all other toys from the Buzz universe. "New" Buzz and Emperor Zurg from TS2 also believe they are the real McCoy and not just toys.

There's no real explanation for this schism from the existing Toy Story metaphysics. Rather than just dismissing it as a plot hole, I'll offer my own theory.

I think the character of Buzz is a commentary on modern toymaking, in which a toy is not just a toy but part of a larger marketing strategy of movies, television, video games, clothing, etc. The Pixar storytellers offer the purity of older classic toys like the cowboy, piggy bank, Etch a Sketch and so forth in contrast to convoluted, newfangled toys like Buzz.

This is not to say that Buzz is inherently bad. But in aspiring to an ambitious line of products -- and resulting expanded revenues -- the Pixar movies imply toy manufacturers have lost their way from the concept of making a great, single toy that can enrapture a child for years. Instead, it's about putting out the newest thing, to be used and discarded quickly in favor of the next iteration.

It's only when Buzz is confronted with his fallibility and impermanence -- when he attempts to fly in Sid's stairwell in TS1 and crashes, losing an arm -- that he realizes he is a toy. After a period of despondence, he allies with Woody and determines that his real mission is to "be there for Andy," always.

Of course, the "Toy Story" films themselves embody this modern toy trend, with an untold line of products and commercial tie-ins. That's hundreds of millions our dollars that have been siphoned off into the Pixar coffers.

But at least they wink at themselves while doing it.

I'm with the Kid

The last, and perhaps thorniest area I'd like to discuss is the relationship between the toys and humans -- specifically, the mechanics of how they act like normal toys when they're around, but come to life when they're not.

First off: this behavior is a choice, not an inherent aspect of their existence. There are numerous examples of the toys "going limp" when they hear a human approaching. They usually try to resume their former position where the child left them, but in a pinch they'll just plop down wherever they happen to be.

But, in extreme circumstances, they can remain active while humans are around. The most obvious example is Woody and Sid's toys coming alive to frighten him at the end of TS1.

In TS2, Woody also runs down into the yard sale to rescue Wheezy, despite humans being all about. And Buzz and the gang walk across a busy street covered by traffic cones in full site of motorists and pedestrians. Although the humans can't see them, there isn't any logical explanations for walking traffic cones.

The toys do not appear to have an extrasensory perception of when humans could be observing them. They rely on their hearing and vision to know when to play dead. This results in many, many occasions throughout the three films where it seems almost inconceivable that someone wouldn't have observed the toys in their "live" state. Examples:

In TS1, Woody and Buzz' fight at the gas station is interrupted when a semi-tractor trailer pulls up. Woody immediately drops lifeless, but Buzz chooses to run away.

Also in TS1, Sid's dog Scud is lying on his porch and observes Woody and Buzz chasing after Andy's car. Later, they drive through busy traffic where motorists would surely see them.

At the end of TS3, Lotso plays dead when a garbage truck pulls up. But it appears literally a second after he had been upright, making it unlikely the driver would have failed to notice a walking toy bear just a few feet ahead of him.

And here's the biggest flub in the Toy Story franchise: If Buzz in TS1 believes he is an actual space ranger and not a toy, why does he "go dead" when Andy plays with him? Since he thinks he's crash-landed on a strange planet, why wouldn't he continue talking and interacting with the giant human?

Though in general the internal logic of the Toy Story movies is superb, this is one instance where the philosophy seems to be: "Just shut up and go with it."

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