My favorite film historian/critic Jeanine Basinger readily proclaims that Hollywood films tout mixed ideologies. A feature film may have a message, and it may even seem pretty straightforward, for better or worse. With very little (if any) exception, however, a closer examination reveals that all films send mixed messages.
The third installment in the Toy Story saga is very similar in theme and delivery to the first two films, which is a compliment. It works, just like the other films did, by being smart, witty, and heartfelt. Pixar’s reputation is defined by Toy Story (trivia: Toy Story is the first full length all CGI film. Duly noted in your film textbooks, scholars), and it’s a good reputation.
The problematic notion is this: it’s a story about how great toys are, being sold by a corporation that’s known for sticking the Disney Princess label on any object in order to market it toward little girls. I saw a Disney princess jump rope the other day. I’ll lay good odds that Belle and Ariel wouldn’t be caught dead using a jump rope, but “they” endorse the object for their short protoges. I phrase it that way on purpose. What Disney sells when they market toys and clothes and theme parks is a relationship to the characters in the movie. And frankly, I who own a cabinet full of Star Wars Legos, have very little room to talk.
The relationship, what the object embodies or represents, has become an important thing in our society. Hoarders hang on to pizza boxes and scraps of paper because something has imbued them with meaning, and they cannot let them go. If they let go, they lose a piece of themselves. And I think we all, in some way, find our identity in the objects we surround ourselves with, just as we do in the clothes we wear.
So movie marketing, a Disney specialty (borrowed from Star Wars, the prime example of how to make a success branding products with a film…*Jen takes sip from Burger King Star Wars glass*), is doubly interesting when the film is about toys. Buzz Lightyear, the toy, was going to be a big seller, because you could be like the toys in the movie. You, the movie fan, could be Andy. Andy both represents something that already exists, and serves as an example to be emulated. He is both point of identification and role model. And Toy Story 3 tells us this: Love your toys, and let them go. Don’t throw them away; give them to someone who will love them, too.
The film had to end this way. If Andy had thrown them out, he would have been throwing out the equivalent of human beings, because that’s what characters are. Anthropomorphizing toys is not illogical, many societies have dolls, and just as many have smaller versions of adult things so that children can imitate adults. We learn by play-acting, and toys are a part of that. We make our toys human in order to try out social rules and learn to be adults. But in a completely animated movie, this takes on added meaning. Film has inherent reality: what we see on the screen looks like real life, and we buy it as such. In an animated film, the toy characters are just as human as the humans. They are shot in close-ups, with emotional expressions. Their relationships and interactions are paramount. Toys are humans. And humans can’t be thrown away, so neither can toys.
I will say that as the toys were sliding down the trails of mashed garbage toward the incineration, I completely left the narrative. The crane, humorously used by the Alien Guys to rescue the band of toys, is the definition of a Deus Ex Machina ending. As soon as the toys were in the dumpster, covered with pre-school paint, marker, and goo, they were out, in my opinion. I’ve cleaned up too many old things. Sorry, no magical garden hose will make Jesse just like new after she’s been used as a paintbrush. So even though in reality the toys would be trash, because they’re really people, they must be redeemed.
And yet, if Andy keeps them, what lesson is that giving the young viewing audience? Find these beloved objects a good home. In my real life scenario, that’s eBay. My Strawberry Shortcake dolls live on in a collector’s holdings, and I am satisfied to let them go. My GI Joe guys were auctioned, and I paid two months rent. Everyone was happy.
The interesting thing is that Pixar promotes toy sales by creating new characters and endearing us to returning ones. However, the message of the film is not to buy new toys, but to recycle the old ones. A mixed ideology. One can buy the Toy Story 3 lunch pail, but one has a vague sense that this object ought to be lovingly cared for until it’s found a new home. Pixar has practiced this before (remember Wall-e?) but it’s an old tradition. Corporate filmmaking, a mass media and a major industry, makes money by selling us our chance to be a part of the movie (where did I put that lightsaber?). But now the object being sold to promote sales of subsidiaries is also promoting recycling and satisfaction with what one has. Not a good marketing technique, but a moral stance worth taking.
The other major point is this: these objects are given such an important emotional place. By making them the equivalent of people, toys become objects we can’t throw away, on a moral premise. This could become a big problem. And are some toys evil and others good? Good toys should last forever, and bad toys can be duct taped to the grill of a garbage truck. Does this mean that mangled Tonka truck in a neighbor’s back yard had bad karma?
Toy Story 3 is also best seen at the theater. It really is more fun when you’re surrounded by people. I laughed out loud, embarrassing my family. That’s what should happen.
And although I’ve already passed my word quota, I will quickly add: The short that precedes the film, Night and Day, is one of Pixar’s best. While it does get pretty heavy-handed in message, the experimental subject that is the premise is very akin to the stylings of classics like Duck Amuck. That conversation will be brought up in a Film Theory class, trust me.