Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Logic of Toy Happiness - Toy Story 3

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:

Both Happy and Sad

By Santiago Ramos

Toy Story 3
DIR Lee Unkrich SCR Michael Arndt
Starring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Don Rickles, et al.

Restless is my heart until it rests in thee: such is the prayer of every toy. And when a toy rests - in the arms of a child - it doesn’t truly rest: it plays, and is played with. There are only three elements to toy happiness: presence, play and permanence. The child must be there; he must play with the toys periodically; he must promise never to abandon them. If he does abandon them (or threatens to, or appears to), then we have a story.

The first scene of Toy Story 3 is a flashback of sorts, because it begins with a fast-action imaginative play-session featuring Woody (the cowboy), Buzz Lightyear (the astronaut/laser-wielding superhero from the future), Jessie (the cowgirl), and Mr. and Mrs. Potatohead (the most realistic, happily-married couple Disney has produced in twenty years). The play-session is orchestrated by the toys’ owner, Andy. With this scene, we have the quintessential picture of toy happiness. But the story quickly jumps forward in time to a present where Andy is 17 and getting ready to leave for college - and here the story begins. The toys are neglected and haven’t been played with for years. Rumors circulate that they are headed for the trash; Woody, ever faithful to Andy, insists that they are actually headed for the attic. Yet though the attic is better than the trash bin, neither alternative is what a toy actually wants.

With the exception of Woody, who lands a place in the box marked “COLLEGE,” Andy chooses to store all of his toys in the attic. But first he places them in a white trash bag, and this creates confusion for all the toys except Woody, who believe they are being taken to the natural destination of all trash bags, the dump. It also creates confusion for Andy’s mother, who finds the trash bag on the ground and actually believes that it actually is meant for the dump. And so Woody must first rescue his friends from the dump, and then convince them that that’s not where Andy meant for them to go.

The toys end up neither in college nor the trash bin. They make their way back to Andy’s mom’s minivan and into another box which is headed towards a daycare called “Sunnyside.” All of the toys, except Woody, believe Andy to have betrayed them, and wish to start a new life at Sunnyside. Woody, on the other hand, eternally loyal to Andy, wants everyone to follow him in a quest to return to Andy’s house before Andy himself leaves his house for college. But Woody isn’t able to convince the other toys that Andy didn’t actually betray them. The toys instead run into an unexpected reversal at the daycare, which is not as happy a place as its name would indicate. It is a dystopia of toys; it perverts (without negating) all three elements of toy happiness.

To write more about the plot after this point would spoil too much. But there is enough here to explore the movie’s interesting logic of toy happiness. Such happiness depends upon a relationship between the owner and his toys. But the owner is not an owner in the same way that a slave-owner is an owner, and the toys are not “owned” as slaves are “owned.” The toys always remain free, but they cannot act freely for their happiness without an owner who plays with them and loves them. Their owner is something of a cross between a father (or mother) and a friend, and he loves and is loved in return. The relationship is necessary for the fulfillment of the toys.

If you think we are getting too philosophical for a Pixar movie, you’re only half-right. We are getting more philosophical than we need to be, but not more philosophical than the movie’s plot will allow. This is what’s great about the movie: it doesn’t dumb the world down, it merely covers only the parts of the world which children understand, and leaves them with an open view of what is next to explore. Andy will inevitably go to college. While the toys may get a new owner, Andy sets aside the toys of his youth, and will attempt to enter adulthood. The Pixar creators allow a small tinge of nostalgia and sadness to appear on Andy’s face: Must we grow up? Why?

These questions are the threshold between the end of Toy Story 3 and the beginning of another story, Andy’s. They are a source of restlessness; Andy is something like a toy himself, and he will be searching, like the toys, for presence, play, and permanence. But now we have truly ventured beyond the scope of Pixar. These are questions for high art-for films, not movies. It’s enough for Toy Story 3 to be a story that is adventurous and not completely superficial, with an ending that is both happy and sad.

Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City and has written for First Things (online), Commonweal, The Pitch, Traces, Image Journal and various blogs. He is currently studying toward a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston College.