Blog Post

Mild Complaints about a Well-Loved Film

The other week, I went to see Toy Story 3. I’ve not seen the other two films in the Pixar series, but I figured I could catch the series’ drift, and it’s summer: what’s better than air conditioning and popcorn when the temperature hits 100? 

The three films focus on the secret lives of toys, in particular a group of toys owned by one boy, Andy (John Morris).  Toy Story 3 picks up at a moment in every boy’s life (and, according to the logic of the film, in every toy’s life): incipient adulthood.  Andy is off to college, which leaves his toys in a state of utilitarian flux – will they be packed off to the attic, kept in state until such a time as they are again needed (in the reproductive, heteronormative logic of this film, when Andy has children of his own), or will the be carted off to a daycare center, charitable donations for other children. The third possibility, spoken of with increasing worry, is that they will be trashed.

In his review of this installment, The Times’ A. O. Scott focuses on the emotional potential of the film: the toys’ melancholic anxieties come to stand in for general human anxieties about loss of love and abandonment.  He writes: “That is, this film — this whole three-part, 15-year epic — about the adventures of a bunch of silly plastic junk turns out also to be a long, melancholy meditation on loss, impermanence and that noble, stubborn, foolish thing called love. We all know money can’t buy it, except sometimes, for the price of a plastic figurine or a movie ticket.”  In other words, the Toy Story series educates its viewers on the worst side effect of a requited love: that at some point, one party may outgrow the other.  It isn’t that Andy doesn’t love his toys, even as an adult.  Instead, it’s that the love he bears them has been altered into one more about their historical value: it’s an exercise in bittersweet nostalgia.  Pessimists like myself always want to emphasize the bitter over the sweet, but this seems like a satisfying reading of the film.  This is especially so if we dampen our focus on the underpinning logic of the film – that the toys are owned by Andy, and, further, that they base their worth on their owner’s valuation. 

The film’s crisis positions Andy’s owned toys against the tyrannical overlord of a daycare commune, Lotso bear (Ned Beatty), who initially offers Andy’s toys entrance into a communistic wonderland (you’re played with all day forever; once the children grow up, new ones take their places).  But in actuality, Lotso’s own abandonment issues mean he mobilizes an intense chain of command: new toys are tossed to the lions (toddlers), who don’t know how to play properly; those that make it through this pit are so demoralized and beaten that they fall in lockstep with Lotso’s stratified hierarchy, a world made up of a few “keepers” and a lot of disposable chaff.  It isn’t hard to see the logic at play here, especially when one of Andy’s toys, Woody (Tom Hanks), escapes to the home of another “owner,” Bonnie (Emily Hahn).  While Bonnie plays imaginatively, her other toys comment on Woody’s skill as a toy – “Are you classically trained?” asks Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton), emphasizing not only the actorly craft of play, but of its status as work.  Of course, in the logic of Toy Story, a toy’s work is its life: operating in an economy of play, these creatures live to serve – the perfect workers, their leisure time (that is, time when no one plays with them) is torture.

There are lots of things to like about this film.  For starters, its suggestion that the newest thing may not be the best thing seems like a valuable lesson in a world increasingly driven by novelty, and the precision with which Pixar draws the toys themselves is remarkable (in particular, the shuddering locomotion of the Barbie Dream House’s elevator was bizarrely evocative for me, as was the fractured clink of the Chatter Telephone (Teddy Newton) as he rolled through the daycare center’s halls: someone at Pixar was paying very close attention to material form!). But, there are two things that bothered me.  The first develops from what I’ve been saying about the politics of the film, and the other from the problem posed by reproduction more generally.  Toys are, after all, purchased things (cardboard boxes aside), and the key trauma that motivates Lotso’s anger is his replacement. 

But, first: the problem of the film’s politics.  The world occupied by the toys in this installment divides, loosely, into two models: an ownership system (Andy’s toys are owned by Andy, who cares for them and plays with them) and a communistic model, shown by the daycare’s toy-run society.  I was squirming in my seat when the film introduced Lotso’s politics, knowing full well that his imagined, sunny commune was sure to be tamped down by a vicious, stratified hierarchy.  This is the daycare as a Stalinist state: a tyrannical dictator makes sure that the discourse of communism flows freely while a back-room system of endemic torture and preference keeps the (unsavory) peace.  This perversion of communitarian life trucks alongside the idealized ownership society for much of the film (Andy’s idealized ownership is a kind of beneficent kingdom, where one child gets the adulation of a toy citizenry, thus it’s no mistake that Andy’s toys are eventually “donated” into another ownership society – Bonnie’s – rather than the daycare commune, even after Lotso is dispatched).  So, I squirmed away, frustrated that the capitalist logic of the film was quite so bare, while also realizing full well that, above all else, this series is designed to sell toys.  Lots of toys. 

But the end of the film takes an even stranger turn.  Ken (Michael Keaton), a long-standing Lotso collaborator, diverges from the tyrannical path and becomes a new kind of daycare dictator.  Ken’s major character feature is his unabashed consumerism – his home becomes a costume museum with a full complement of Ken-doll fashions (key piece: a mint condition Nehru jacket).  Crucially, the film imagines this consumerism as a less virulent form: Ken is a collector, not a buyer.  This mediates his fetishism.  If Ken loves his clothes, he loves them because they’re rare – not available in the open market at any price.  But, this only obscures their saleable status; it doesn’t destroy their commodification as such (in fact, it increases their value, a value well above and beyond their utility as clothing: they are priceless).  The film’s end features a re-imagined community, wherein toys take turns working with/playing with toddlers – the hierarchic enforcement becomes a group effort.  This vision also includes a nod to Ken’s unabashed consumerism – if the commune is a place where everyone chips in, and the collective eventually relieves your hard work, it also seems to be a place where commodity fetishism is decoupled from inequality. 

The wish of this commodified fairyland is a wish that looks for a peaceful end to capitalism without fully acknowledging commodity fetishism as one of capitalism’s major supports.  Such fetishism is, after all, the major source of capitalism’s hold on our daily lives: put baldly, identifying as aesthetic pleasures purchased pleasures such as these leaves us no room for real critique.  Of course, realistically dislocating oneself from this aesthetic machine is impossible, but paying close attention to it might help loosen its hold on our lives.  Sure, we’ve all bought things we “love,” but I’m suggesting that we try seeing those loved things as they are: implicated in a system of commodification that depends on inequality and hierarchy, not as routes out of such a system.  My concern with Toy Story 3 was that it implied that commodification could be excepted from pain and violence.  True, Ken’s utopian Dreamhouse features possible pain (toys sent to the toddlers may come back injured, but their wounds are massaged away).  But, by suggesting that Ken’s collecting finds no check and, it seems, is given greater license, the utopian vision focuses its attentions primarily on economies of work and not on the material things capitalism uses to bolster its inequalities.

As I was discussing the film with some colleagues, a writer friend of mine, Naomi

Fry, pointed out another problem with the conundrum reproduction presents in the film.  As the toys best Lotso, they describe his replacement negatively, something like “she didn’t replace us, she replaced YOU.”  And, of course, his trauma (being replaced by his owner), motivates his tyranny (this film is very much indebted to psychoanalysis): in many ways his siphoning off of the new toys as new “recruits” for the toddler’s rough-and-tumble “Caterpillar Room” brackets newness long enough for it to obsolesce: by the time the “new” toys reach the “Butterfly Room,” (that is, if they reach the “Butterfly Room”), they’re worn out.  But, Naomi pointed out that the framing of this replacement as negative misunderstands the phenomenological nature of toy replacement.  In our world, Lotso wouldn’t have been replaced because he was unloved, but because he was loved the most. Molly’s other accidentally abandoned toys remain the only representation of each of their “types” in the film (a plastic baby doll, “Big Baby,” and a morose clown doll, “Chuckles,”).  They remain singular because Molly doesn’t replace them.  Weirdly, then, because the toys are all imbued with deeply subjective interiors, we see the moment when Lotso peeks over a windowsill to see Molly playing with another version of himself as traumatic because it’s a moment of untethered mirroring.  If we assume the toys have deep interiors, we assume that this impostor Lotso is a wholly separate creature.  This is the mirror stage gone very, very wrong: the other image actually is the other.

What’s fascinating about this is that the movie never takes up reproduction explicitly – the only other representatives of doubling are the trio of alien toys, referred to collectively as “Aliens,” and voiced by a single actor (Jeff Pidgeon) and the Army Men, who are referred to by their rank (i.e. “Sarge,”).  The Aliens have less depth than a character like Lotso, and manifest a kind of unified agency; the army men are separable and, while they act together as they abandon the other toys, the logic of their abandonment is managed by an allegiance to order: what Sarge orders, the men do.  Without fully engaging with the contradictory logics of reproduction at play, the film muddles the motivation behind Lotso’s psychotic tyranny: what kinds of toys can be doubled and, if they are doubled or multiplied, what kinds of interiors do they have? Are the important energies in toy adoption material (as they seem to be at times as the Pixar cameras lovingly detail each object’s form) or psychological (do they depend on imaginative play that imbues each form with character and substance)? While the film often suggests the second aspect is ascendant, our own nostalgic responses to the first indicate its persuasive power. It is telling, then, that we don’t get “inside” the second Lotso – what, I wonder, would that interior look like? These are questions we could pull out to engage with other narrative forms that detail character, but Toy Story 3 offers a particularly interesting example, absorbed as it is within a materialist world saturated with reproduction.

Claire Jarvis's picture
I'm an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Stanford, working primarily on Victorian literature and culture.