Monday, June 17, 2013

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

One aspect of movies that I am most demanding about is internal logic. Films often ask the audience to accept fantastical and impossible realities as valid. They accomplish this suspension of disbelief best when they create a set of rules that doesn't apply in the real world, and then adhere to them strictly within the universe they've created.

In other words, it's OK to deviate from reality, as long as you set up new and consistent standards of expectations, and then stay the course with this new "deck of cards," so to speak.

In my criticism, I am often harshest on movies that make new rules, and then continually break them for the convenience of the plot. For example, I had trouble getting fully invested in the "Harry Potter" flicks because it seemed there was always a new spell or magical item that happened to turn up right around the time the heroes needed it.

The problem with this method of storytelling (or lack of thereof) is that when there are no rules, the viewer comprehends that there is a total lack of consequences, too. It feels like the storytellers are just winging it, writing themselves into and out of corners on a whim.

To continue the deck of cards analogy, every card becomes wild and any kind of coherent game impossible.

The Pixar animated movies, on the other hand, or notable for generally being extraordinarily diligent in constructing and maintaining the internal logic of their stories. Take the "Cars" movies, for example.

They exist in a world where cars are not modes of transport but sentient beings. As such, they remove any allusion to the way humans would use a vehicle -- their doors never open, the front windshield becomes the car's eyes while all the other windows are grayed out, there are no references to cars being bought and sold as property, etc.

With this in mind, I thought I'd take a look at the metaphysics of the three "Toy Story" films. As the first feature film and cornerstone of the Pixar franchise, the 1995 film and its two sequels offer the best example of how the filmmakers (mostly) adhere to the rules they set forth for this world.

Apologies in advance if this seems overlong and indulgent. But as the father of a small boy who's had to sit through the "Toy Story" films multiple times, I've had the (ahem) opportunity to make these sort of observations and ponder them.

Since I'll be referencing multiple specific instances from all three movies, for the purposes of brevity I'll refer to the films simply as TS1, TS2 and TS3.

Altered reality

The first thing to note about the "Toy Story" world is that it is our world. Which is to say, the setting for the tale is just an animated version of the real one, with one significant fictional alteration: toys come to life when children are not playing with them.

This contrasts with other Pixar movies like "Cars" or "Wall·E" where everything is completely different (vehicles are the predominant species, Earth has been abandoned by humans). "Toy Story" takes place in present day, normal middle-class suburban America.

The notion of taking an everyday setting and putting a fantasy spin on it is hardly novel. This is especially true when it comes to giving human intelligence and qualities to creatures or objects that do not possess them, e.g. the insects in "A Bug's Life."

A common trait in these sorts of tales is that this altered reality is posited as being fact, but humans are just too dumb or misguided to have noticed. This is the set-up in all the "Toy Story" movies -- toys have always had secret lives; we just didn't know about them.

Another important aspect is that this separate existence of toys actually occurs -- it's not just the figment of the imagination of a precocious child, like in the comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes."


Let's talk toy biology in the Pixar trilogy.

The toys share some human characteristics, but not others. For example, toys do sleep; there are several examples of them doing so in all three movies. They also dream while they sleep, such as Woody's nightmare about being abandoned by Andy in TS 2. Toys also get tired from overexertion, such as during the long trek to Al's Toy Barn in TS3.

It appears they they do  need to breathe -- or at least the anthropomorphic toys do. In TS1, Woody causes Buzz Lightyear to panic by retracting his helmet shield. In TS2, Buzz pulls this same trick on his duplicate to prove his identity to his friends. And in TS3, after the aging dog Buster lies down on Woody, he hurriedly pushes him away, catching his breath as if he were in danger of being smothered.

However, the toys do not need to consume food or water. At no point in the three movies are they demonstrated doing so. Their bodies do not grow or diminish -- indeed, apart from injury and decay, they do not change at all during their life cycle.

Speaking of injury: toys can feel pain, although this seems to be a reaction to the act of being injured rather than a biologically-encoded response. They are not incapacitated by the loss of limbs or other body parts. There are multiple examples of the toys experiencing pain; here is Woody's reaction to having his arms pulled by Jessie in TS2:

However, Woody continues to function after losing his arm, though he experiences no pain once it is separated from him, other than emotional stress. Indeed, toys can continue to function even after having their heads ripped off and their body parts exchanged with those from other toys, as demonstrated by the evil next-door neighbor Sid in TS1.

Some toys that are designed with interchangeable parts, notably Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, can freely remove their limbs, eyes, nose, etc. without pain. These pieces can even operate independently despite being separated from the main body. In TS3 Mr. Potato Head even removed all his body parts from the hollow plastic potato shell and attached them to a piece of pita bread, and was able to function more or less normally (until the pita was destroyed by a hungry pigeon). He later pulls the same trick with a cucumber.

This raises a question left largely unanswered by the Toy Story movies: For toys, where does the soul reside? For Mr. Potato Head, consciousness seems to exist as much in the mustache as the torso.

Although they do not eat or drink, some toys derive at least some of their functionality from batteries. Although I should note the films generally avoid the question of what happens to a battery-powered toy when its batteries are removed or lose power. Would Buzz fall over unconscious if his batteries were taken out?

This is supposition, but I think the answer is no. The toys' consciousness and life force seem to reside separately of an external power source. Cutting off their power would simply cause them to lose certain abilities as toys. For Buzz, that would mean his voice buttons and blinking lights.

The best evidence for this is the rocket scene near the end of TS1. Buzz and Woody are trying to catch up with the gang in the moving truck aboard RC, the radio-controlled car. But RC's batteries die out and they are left stranded until Woody comes up with the idea of using the rocket. Note that throughout this scene, the battery-depleted RC is still conscious:


Different toys, different rules

One thing that seems consistent in the Toy Story movies is the inconsistency of rules between different types of toys. This is based on the design and function of the toy itself, which can determine whether or not a toy is capable of speech and indeed if the toy even has consciousness or not.

A number of toys are shown in the movie as not being "alive" -- roller skates, walkie-talkie, etc. The most basic rule here is that if the toy is anthropomorphized in any way (has eyes or other recognizable human features), then it will be sentient. See for example how RC the car is alive, but Barbie's Corvette is simply a motorized car.

But this law is not hard and fast. For instance, Etch from TS1 and TS2 does not have any kind of anthropomorphic features, and yet he has consciousness and can communicate non-verbally through his screen.

In terms of talking or not, this is again determined by the design of the toy. RC and Etch cannot talk because they do not have discernible mouths. The Chatter Phone in TS3 can talk, but only through his handset receiver (despite having a painted-on mouth).

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week, when I'll discuss more Toy Story metaphysics, including their approach to religion, politics, love and life and death.

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