Toy Story Three Is Not Sad, But Neither Are You For Thinking So
No, I’m not a heartless monster. I cry at the beginning of Up every time. And then I cry again at the end. Sometimes, just thinking about Up makes me cry. But my lack of emotional connection to the Toy Story films can be summed up by this clip from the first installment.
Buzz’s reaction to Woody’s incredulity is analogous perhaps to how people feel when I say that TS3 does not inspire any strong emotions in me – I must be a “sad, strange, little man” to not feel anything. But I wear my emotional distance to these movies as a badge of pride; it says that people matter to me more than objects.
Here’s a digression: I am not a fan of Winnie-the-Pooh, but I like to teach the original book in my children’s literature classes for a number of reasons. One of the minor points I make about the novel relates to a concept within Marxist theory called reification. To put it simply, in a capitalist system, the values associated with people and with objects are reversed so that people become only ancillary to the production and exchange of goods. Part and parcel of this is imbuing things with personality and, conversely, the dehumanization of individuals. In Winnie-the-Pooh, I relate reification to the way in which Christopher Robin does more than engage in imaginary play with his toys. He ascribes to them independence, projecting aspects of his own personality onto them – asking that words be explained because it’s Pooh who doesn’t understand. In the absence of real human relationships with other children, Christopher Robin turns his toys into friends. Claiming they have lives of their own dissociates them from his own imagination and feelings of loneliness. When he repeatedly claims that he loves his stuffed bear, Pooh, more than anyone else in the world, we should be worried. No wonder the real Christopher Robin hated his father’s books for infantilizing him.
My favourite episode in the original novel concerns Eeyore’s birthday and the presents he receives. Pooh gets him a pot of honey, and Piglet a nice balloon. But Pooh eats the honey and Piglet pops the balloon. In the end, Eeyore has nothing but an empty pot and limp piece of rubber. And he is delighted! He proceeds to place the balloon in the pot and remove it over and over. This is an apt metaphor for the function of the worker in mass production. Eeyore’s gifts have no intrinsic value, but he happily performs his repetitive task that serves only to justify their existence. Eeyore’s happiness has become dependent on the role he plays in the manipulation of the objects, and his obsessive play is just the mechanistic transportation of the goods from one location to another. Thus, the purpose of object and user have become inverted. Goods which once served people, or a donkey in this case, are now served by Eeyore. Moreover, once he begins his game, Eeyore stops paying attention to his friends: the accompanying image is of him looking down at his toys as Pooh and Piglet walk away.
The relevance of all this to the Toy Story movies should be obvious by now. The conceit of the franchise – that toys have lives of their own and derive a sense of purpose from being played with – in many ways embodies this process of reification. Ostensibly, the toys do serve their owners, but when the emotional weight of the films is placed on the toys and not the children, we see instead the fetishization of the toys. Commodity Fetishization is kind of reification wherein human relationships become merely the relationships between exchangeable goods, with people acting as middlemen. The secret life of toys that we witness enacts exactly this. The thematic core of the franchise is only partially the special relationship between a boy and his toys. Woody’s obsession with being there for Andy no matter what is troubling enough since he believes that a young boy cannot go on if he happens to lose his favourite toy. But no, this is not what the movies are about. Each of the three is about elevating the toys to human status by giving them relationships with each other, more so than with humans, and they're about the toys' need to be purchased and used.
Now, marketing movie characters as toys and other products is not exclusive to Toy Story. These films are just more obvious about the relationship between movies and toys, and even a little bit critical of it. Still, each movie in its own way figures toy ownership as a deeply emotional affair. We might argue that the movies discourage over-buying, since they are all about hanging onto our toys as long as possible. But each film also discourages recognition of the real relationship between human and object – that of ownership of lifeless material. Instead, placing human emotions on the toys gives us an added feeling of obligation to buy them. The first movie discourages recycling toys, since Sid’s creative re-purposing of them makes him the villain for some reason. The second movie most overtly addresses the economic factors involved in buying toys, and again discourages using toys for anything but play; it tells us to use toys until they break so that we can buy new ones. Andy’s refusal to sell his beloved Woody also demonstrates the extent to which this commodity has taken on human-like emotional relevance, in turn making the ownership and maintenance of toys a moral imperative. These two movies also repeat the message that to think of a toy as anything but a playmate is absurd: both Buzz’s delusions about his identity and the Prospector’s desire to be put on display are obstacles to the happiness of the heroes. The third film encourages us to give away our toys, but this too comes with great emotional struggle for boy and toy alike, and giving away his toys is treated as an heroic act. This sends the message that all children need lots of toys – it’s no coincidence that the recipient is a girl – to develop morally and emotionally. All the time spent playing with his toys affects Andy’s decision to give Woody to Bonnie and allows him to educate her on how to play. Even if we accept the validity of this premise, and we might since play encourages all kinds of social, cognitive, and physical developments, we need not invest emotion into the objects themselves.
The emotional pull of these stories is obvious, but to me these are just stories about toys. Sure, it’s a wonderful thing to see my child’s face light up when he sees his stuffed penguin or when he hears the recorded message out of his toy dog singing “I love you”. But a part of me is also sad to think that objects – pieces of cloth and stuffing and plastic and microchips – can provide profound emotional experiences. Thinking about that made me sad as a child, and I worried that my attachments to things might mean more than my attachments to people. In many ways they do. That’s not as modern a phenomenon as we might be inclined to think: people have held close emotional ties to land, for example, in many cultures, times, and places. I’m not denigrating materialism or lamenting it. I am, however, keenly aware of the emptiness of objects compared to human relationships and intellectual pursuits. I always have been. Combine that with never liking the powerlessness and ignorance of childhood, and you can understand why I never feel sad when watching a film about leaving toys behind.