Let me start off by saying that I never loved my toys the way Andy loved his. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever loved a person as much as he loved his possessions (nor, for that matter, they him). Over the past few years, since an undergraduate humanities education has equipped me with its well known brand of crippling, enlightening self-awareness, I’ve begun to contemplate a connection between the mostly-absent Andy and myself, thinking that, in no small way, he and I are very much alike. This, of course, begs a very important question: who is Andy?
Over the course of the three Toy Story movies, virtually no information is given about the boy at the center of what, to my mind, is some of the most potent drama which my generation has ever had the privilege of claiming for its own. Where is he from? What, apart from his toys, does he like? Where is his father? Besides being an energetic young boy, what does he do, what is he like? The questions go on, never answered. We do know how old he was, though, and that’s as good a place as any to start.
While Andy was turning six, in the fall of 1995, when the first movie was released, I was turning four. He excitedly unwrapped a Buzz Lightyear; somewhere in the year or two that followed, so did I. Or, rather, one of my siblings may have (claims of possession rarely lasted among the four of us), along with a good many other Toy Story toys. My playroom was fairly lousy with Pixar paraphernalia: an RC car, a Bo Peep, Slinky Dog, some of those squeaky green three-eyed alien guys — the works. My family made a point of seeing each Pixar film as it came out (then the only way to get to see the delightful shorts that preceded each film), as well as owning them first on VHS, then DVD, and now Blu-ray. The films took as firm a hold on mine and my siblings’ childhoods as anything else; not even Lincoln Logs have proved more durable.
The second film came out in 1999, providing excellent eighth birthday material for me. Toy Story was, to be sure, not my only obsession in childhood, having to compete with the remastered re-re-release of the Star Wars films on VHS as well as a spate of excellent, old-fashioned, hand-drawn animated films from Disney proper. As I grew, toys came and went, and not only can I not recall ever playing with my own toys as imaginatively and ecstatically as Andy did, neither did they remain as precious to me. A fondness remained, to be sure; I probably still have my Buzz and Woody toys somewhere, very likely stored in my parents’ attic, a la Toy Story 3.
In the decade that intervened between 2 and 3, during which I grew from a cute little eight-year-old scamp into a surly, depressed 18-year-old, Toy Story was somewhat shunted off into the confines of what I was very eager to be able to call “childhood” and speak of in the past tense. For a long time, I forgot about the movies. I graduated high school and got into an out-of-state college. I went to spend a few weeks of my last high school summer with my cousins in northern Michigan. It seems also that I made up some of the ground that Andy had on me; as of Toy Story 3, he, no longer two years my senior, was also on his way to college.
Seeing the movie, I had the inexplicably profound feeling that the godlike (in his power and absence) boy over whom Buzz and Woody worried and obsessed and fought was, after all, me. Which is to say that, in my eyes, the series became a most personal allegory. Suddenly, the years of playing with Toy Story toys and endlessly re-watching the movies seemed to become an investment in the profoundly affecting worldview I saw portrayed on the screen. The hours spent bonding with the toys and films began unexpectedly and emotionally paying off. The details of Andy’s life didn’t matter (nor, for that matter, did those of mine). What was he going to college for? Where was he going to college? How had the difficult high school years treated him? These were only trappings when compared to the pathos I felt I shared with him. Detail, after all, is often the enemy of allegory.
Eventually, I either found answers to my questions, or they lost relevance, subsumed under the primary importance of the allegory. What concerns me now, and what this essay chiefly pertains to, is why I should feel this personal investment in the Toy Story movies, how they got their hold on me.
It’s taken 18 of the 22 years that I’ve been alive, but Andy and I have grown together in a way that transcends the plastic and cloth and glue holding together our toys, the magnetic tape of a VHS, even the digital bits of which he is made.
The most common interpretation of Toy Story as an allegory, the one with which I began to think about my own place in it, is born of a lazy, incomplete sort of Marxist thinking: by anthropomorphizing, giving human speech and complex emotions, to what, after all, are nothing more than chunks of plastic, painted and labeled with the brand names of multinational conglomerates, and, we have every reason to assume, assembled by exploited workers in a third-world country, the Toy Story movies reflect and inform the grotesque overvaluation of possessions — which is to say the materialism — of modern society, what the easily excitable undergraduate is satisfied to be able to point out with the term “commodity fetishism” and thereby diagnose the perverse relationship that characterizes all of capitalist life (cf. Kapital, all of it). Buzz, Woody, et al. are thus the contemporary incarnations of Marx’s “dancing table;” but they not only dance, they laugh, love, sing, cry, and in fact co-opt virtually all human activities.
This, as I understand it, is the standard reading. Andy is like me (and you, and all Americans) insofar as he is a consumer, the end towards which the capitalist wheel turns, and the adventures of his toys are entertaining to us because they enable our unhealthy materialism by showing that toys want more than anything to be bought and played with; to fail to do so is, in fact, tantamount to a criminal act; it inflicts an emotional wound on a sentient being.
The shortcomings of this theory, however, are numerous, and it can in fairly short order be seen how inadequate it is. We must, for example, remember that the movies are by no stretch of the imagination about Andy, or his relationship to his toys. They are, rather, about the toys themselves, their relationships with each other, and only secondarily about their relationship to their owner. One need only look as far as the nail-biting climax of Toy Story 3 to see how far from Andy the emotional and dramatic action of the series is centered. The reading is necessarily insular owing to its Marxist root; that paradigm defines it.
Thus, the argument for allegory must undergo a paradigm change, beyond the Andy-as-consumer model, and, as I see it, can go in one of two directions. On the one hand, in order to continue to see the film as a dramatic enactment of commodity fetishism, a self-contained document, a work of art, the viewer must double down, as it were, on the wager for allegory, at the cost of a direct identification with Andy. In other words, Andy may borrow his realness from the viewer via the bridge of allegory, but he may not be the viewer. We are like Andy; his toys occupy the same semantic space as our commodities. The connection with the real world becomes, perhaps necessarily, attenuated by metaphor.
Of course, to ask art to be more than an attenuated representation of life is little short of insanity, or at least stupidity. Further, especially in light of its unique historical position as the world’s first computer animated feature film, Toy Story cannot simply be divorced from the real world and shunted off into the clean, nicely-ordered world of allegory. To my mind, Toy Story is not affective without first being a fact of my life. It would otherwise be much more easily forgettable, another turn of the Hollywood wheel. It must be remembered as an artifact in its own right, one which has been attended by a virtual tidal wave of related artifacts in the forms of toys, video games, breakfast cereals, bed sheets, and so on.
Thence arises the film's self-contradictory nature: it is invested with artistic meaning because of its status as a piece of the physical, rather than artistic, world. In other words, it is not only unsatisfying to say that Andy’s toys are like mine, or that I am like him; it is also incorrect. My toys, quite asymbolically, were his; he is me.
Getting on to the point now: not only do the Toy Story movies recognize this bizarre duality, they also work through it via a much more subtle and pathetic allegory than the one discussed above.
First, it must be remembered that the films are about Andy’s toys, not Andy. Further, the toys themselves should no longer be thought of as anthropomorphized chunks of plastic, but as characters more fully human than any others appearing in the trilogy. Which is to say that reading Buzz and Woody as merely “special” objects entirely misses the point of the films. The question of identity is, to be sure, still there, but it is not Andy’s identity that the plots of the films work to expose.
Toy Story begins with the introduction of Buzz Lightyear, a popular new space toy, into the happy, stable, Woody-centric world of Andy’s toys. This in itself would perhaps not be a problem were it not for the fact that Buzz is not aware that he is a toy, thinking instead that he is a real space ranger. A gradual reversal of the self-perceptions of the two lead toys follows: Woody, largely replaced by Buzz as Andy’s favorite, must cope with the loss of personal importance and stature, eventually overcoming his jealousy in order to save Buzz from Sid, the vicious neighbor boy. Buzz, on the other hand, suffers no such insecurity about his identity, and happily continues his delusions of space heroics, despite Woody’s continual harassment (see: “you are a child’s plaything!”), bolstered as he is by Andy’s affection, until he is suddenly and violently disillusioned.
This, Buzz’s realization that he is a toy, is the moment I wish to focus on. During an attempt to escape Sid’s house, Buzz comes upon a TV, which happens to be showing a commercial for Buzz Lightyear action figures — for him. He sees identical copies of himself, stocked by the hundreds in toy stores nationwide, while the voice-over parrots back to him the lines with which he introduced himself to Andy’s toys. He sees boys Andy’s age playing with other Buzz Lightyears the same way Andy played with him, each feature of the toy debunking some boast Buzz made in speaking to the other toys. First to go is his laser; when a hand comes in from off screen to knock down a stack of cans, Buzz knows that his laser is nothing more than a lightbulb. Then, and most damagingly, Buzz sees his supposed power of flight parodied by obvious special effects as, spelled out in capital letters and read aloud as though it were a legal disclaimer, the words “NOT A FLYING TOY” appear at the bottom of the screen. Crushed, Buzz leaves the room and, marshalling the last of his determination, attempts to fly. The damage to his character is complete when he falls and breaks himself at the foot of Sid’s stairs.
The total profundity of Buzz’s realization, that, far from being an intrepid action hero, he is not even a unique being, is in fact cast from the same mold as thousands, perhaps millions of others, and is nothing more than plastic (he notices at this point, for the first time, that, in raised letters, hidden under his “wrist communicator”, are written the words “MADE IN TAIWAN”) is beyond me and this essay to unpack. It is, rather, the method of his realization that concerns me. Which is to say that the fact that Buzz received knowledge of his true identity from a television commercial is the crux of the matter.
Now that Buzz is back to being a symbol, and his actions deeply meaningful, we come back to allegory, and a little Plato is inevitable: what happens to Buzz seems to me to closely resemble Plato’s allegory of the cave. Chained in the dark, seeing only the shadows from unseen fires, Plato’s cave dweller is woefully misinformed about the true nature of the world, seeing only two-dimensional shadows of things that in reality possesses the qualities of depth, color, texture, and so on. So far so good; having no way to learn the truth, the men in the cave indeed might plausibly think the world to consist of two-dimensional forms.
What Plato never, at least to my recollection, imagined was a man seeing his own shadow, seeing himself, flattened down to two dimensions, projected onto the wall in front of him. What conclusion can the captive man be expected to draw from the experience? Would he not immediately see the shadows for what they are, checking the one shadow that he can manipulate against what he knows to be a real, three-dimensional body, his body? In other words, doesn’t the revelation of the one shadow, the self, violate the reality of the others?
As Toy Story posits, stepping out into the sun, Plato’s imagined end to the misery of illusion in the cave, is not the only way to learn the truth. In seeing one’s own shadow on the cave wall, even the least astute man will be filled with the apprehension that what he sees does not match what he cannot help to know to be the truth — namely, that he is a real, individual being, possessed of himself and able, by moving his body, to manipulate the shadow on the wall, which is nothing more than a partial extension of his own existence.
The irony, of course, and the portrayal of which makes Toy Story a distinctly modern allegory, is the devastation to one’s identity caused by such a revelation. Far from actualizing him as an individual being, Buzz’s seeing himself represented on the screen causes him to second guess what had formerly been a solidly founded identity. Mercilessly stripped of his illusion, Buzz is left not enlightened, as Plato would have had it, but empty, bereft of all that he once held as important. Knowing the truth has not set him free, and the misery of life in the cave is made all the more stinging for his self-awareness. When he knows that everything he has seen and continues to see is false, what comfort is there in the one truth he possesses?
The same theme is repeated in each of the films in the trilogy. In Toy Story 2, it is Woody who is brought face to face with a ready-made identity quite apart from his own experience. Where he previously thought himself to be nothing more or less than Andy’s toy, he suddenly finds that an independent cult exists solely to his exaltation: a TV serial, a long list of paraphernalia, and, most compellingly, a group of other toys who have already accepted their places in the constructed mythos as his sidekicks and friends, and who want very desperately for him to join their way of thinking. The answer to Woody’s identity crisis is not, as it was for Buzz, that he belongs to Andy (in a symbolic masterstroke, Woody has Andy’s name on his boot painted over), but rather that he, along with his sidekicks, belong to someone and are played with, rather than becoming museum pieces.
In Toy Story 3, the same question is taken a step further. Woody attempts, and ultimately fails, to persuade his fellow toys that their identities hinge on their belonging to Andy, and not, as they believe, on their being played with by him or any other child. After a rough stint being played with by the “wrong” children at a daycare center, Andy’s toys, at the threshold of their destruction in a Dante-esque trash incinerator, finally realize that their identities depend on each other, their shared memories and experiences, and, with Andy far away and all but forgotten, are able to bravely face death together. The coda, then, wherein Andy passes on his toys to a six-year-old girl as imaginative as he ever was, and who will make a wonderful new owner for them, is truly bittersweet. The toys contend equally with the emotional turbulence of leaving their beloved owner of fifteen years and the realization that they no longer depend on him the way they once did. Having moved past the compulsive need to be owned and played with, the toys may now live truly fulfilled lives, able to enjoy being played with for its own sake, and knowing that when their new owner outgrows or forgets about them, they will still have each other to lend their lives meaning.
Back to what prompted these thoughts, to Andy and I: I would like to return to this essay’s epigraph, Proust’s thought that connections with objects end by acting as bridges across our lifetimes, connecting the present self with one from the past, a current moment recalling one when we thought a different way, surrounded ourselves with different people and things, and were, in fact, different people. This is the simplest explanation that I can come up with for the intensity of my connection with Andy: that Andy does not actually exist, and that the power that his character has had over me throughout the trilogy stems from exactly this fact. He does not exist, of course, because he is me, and watching the films now, at a remove of x years from the moment when my memories of them began forming, provokes in me an episode of partial Proustian involuntary memory; this is no identity crisis; the shadow on the wall is me, not as I currently am, but as I once was. It is some part of my past self that I see in Andy.
I leave no room for Marxist or Platonic interpretations; I do not believe that this identity has been forced on me by either the cultural superstructure under which I live or an unfair, incomplete flattening of the texture of my real existence. Andy enacts those of my memories that center on the Pixar toys with which I used to play, on the time spent watching the films with my siblings and friends, of playtime and childhood in general, so completely has he found a way into my life. If this is, after all, a flat, incomplete picture of who I am as a person, it is due solely to the exigencies of representation, memory, and language itself, and not a shortcoming of the films. Similarly, reason balks at the thought that my (or anyone’s) childhood memories should be stripped of their gravity, or even reversed in their fondness, because they are constituted by an act of consumption.
What then of Buzz’s identity crisis? Whereas I had my behavior reinforced and approved of by seeing my memories enacted in a positive context in the films, Buzz’s worldview is left totally invalidated. This, however, is an altogether temporary effect, and the happy, successfully re-adjusted characters at the end of each of the movies are far too much to ascribe to the strictures of the Hollywood format. Which is to say that while Buzz is stripped of his illusions, is left with virtually nothing on which to base his sense of self, by the end of the film he has built his identity back up on a more solidly laid foundation, a pattern repeated in each film of the trilogy.
Not only that, but this foundation is exactly what I myself revisit when I watch the movies. Buzz bases his identity on his experience, his memories, on Andy; Woody on his use, his actions, on “playtime” in general; just as each of the other toys comes to base their identities on one another and their shared memories. For my part, who I am is based on who I was, who “Andy” is, the things I chose to do and to connect myself with, among, of course, innumerable other things.
If ever a song was slighted at the Oscars, surely it was Randy Newman’s “You've Got a Friend in Me.” The message, delivered in Newman’s inimitable maudlin cowboy twang, is of the pleasure of fraternity, of the joint creation of persons that takes place between ourselves and the people we choose to be around. Just typing the song’s name, I begin to feel an immense nostalgia, and as the lazy do-si-do of the clarinet starts up, pulling the chords of my memory, I remember who I was, and that I am. It, and the trilogy as a whole, stands as a resounding affirmation of identity at a time when such affirmations are few and far between.
//Ryan Groendyk just finished the fourth volume of Proust's In Search of Lost Time and is working on his Merchant Marine certifications.