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Toy Story 3 and the Problem with Stuff

Dinoco_StationOne of the best sight gags in Toy Story comes when Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear are stranded at a “Dinoco” gas station, its brand logo a silhouette of a brontosaurus. With this play on Sunoco, Pixar reminds us of fossil fuels, our cars running off of dinosaur bones. In this scene, Woody fears becoming a part of our culture’s detritus: “I am a lost toy!” Woody laments, recognizing that, if unclaimed, he might become just another piece of garbage.

This scene highlights a theme central to all three Toy Story movies: anxiety about waste. In a consumer culture that tells us that pieces of plastic are our friends, as the theme song “You’ve Got A Friend in Me” underscores, how do we justify their constant replacement? In the first Toy Story movie, Woody fears replacement by Buzz Lightyear or destruction by a vicious neighbor; in the second, he faces being broken by his owner or consigned to a museum shelf; and in the third, donation or the trash heap loom large. These fates belie the luminous fantasy sequences that begin each movie, the alternative world of childhood play. In the real world, there seems to be a failure of imagination when it comes to what happens next to the toys that we treasure.

One of the striking aspects of the Toy Story movies—their visual aesthetic, ironic humor, and childhood nostalgia—is that Disney purchased the rights to represent branded toys, which means that the films jettison the craftsman’s uniqueness and the playroom’s timelessness. Andy and his friends will of course forget their last favorite toy because there will always be a new one that everyone buys (along with the matching sheet set, as we see in the first Toy Story movie). As a former occupant of a Rainbow Brite canopy bed, I recognize both childhood acquisitiveness and brand nostalgia. These two affects of consumerism seem to maintain a paradoxical relationship to one another—the more urgent the child’s drive to own the next big thing, the stronger the adult’s nostalgia for those Proustian My Little Ponies. (The Toy Story movies serve both audiences.)


Toy Story 3 follows the narrative to its inevitable conclusion: where should toys go once their owner is no longer a child? In some ways, it would be easy to read this fear of disposal as an allegory for the human condition. When Woody and his friends slide towards the incinerator in Toy Story 3, clasping one another’s hands in the face of the inevitable, we recognize that “Buzz Lightyear, c’estmoi!” After all, the film charts Andy’s journey from childhood birthday parties to moving out and heading to college (perhaps the first twenty minutes of Up provide the rest of that life narrative). Towards the end of Toy Story 3, Andy’s mother says “I wish I could always be with you,” implying that sentimental bonds are the only ballast against the inevitable tide of time and change. Sure, childhood will end, Woody tells his friend Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 2, but at least he’ll have his friend and companion “to infinity and beyond!” Interpersonal relationships lessen the inevitable vertigo of intimations of mortality. We may be falling, not flying, but at least we are “falling with style,” as Woody puts it in the first movie.

If we look past the allegorical reading, however, we are left with the inescapable thingness of the toys in Toy Story 3. This question is an ecological problem as much as it is an existential one. The villain in this film is a Care Bear-like toy called “Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear,” who goes by “Lotso.” Lotso’s truncated name sheers off affection (“Huggin’”) from excess (“Lotso”). His view of toys  is accordingly cynical: “Y’think you’re special, Cowboy?” he asks Woody “You’re a piece of plastic! You were made to be thrown away!” This insult acknowledges the postwar culture of plastic and disposability that these movies (shrink)wrap in nostalgia. The visual omnipresence of Hefty Bags, banker’s boxes, recycling bins, and dumpsters in this film underscores that as a culture, we still don’t know what to do with all of our stuff. In spite of Woody’s name, he and Buzz are not biodegradable.

springAn earlier fable confronting the terrible disposability of toys, The Velveteen Rabbit (1922) by Margery Williams, also came out of a cultural moment of proliferation, the ascension of mass production, but because she writes about cloth, not plastic, Williams fears that the ecological consequences of accumulation will be contamination, not permanency. When the little boy who owns the velveteen rabbit contracts scarlet fever, all of his toys must be burned. In Toy Story 3, the toys’ near-incineration in the landfill hearkens back to this traumatic tale.

Toy Story 3, however, expresses an additional anxiety about toys, class, and consumerism. If the toys are not destroyed, what happens to our personal narratives of attachment to our belongings? How can we simply give them away? Toy Story 3 follows Andy’s toys to a day care donation box. The filmmakers take pains to make the day care center appealing. “Woody, it’s nice! See, the door has a rainbow on it!” a T-Rex voiced by Wallace Shawn exults, while this viewer waited for him to add a Princess-Bride-esque “Inconceivable!” (Day care can’t be an inferno or even a purgatory, it seems, without targeting the parents who make up a solid half of the audience for this film.) Nonetheless, the movie denigrates donation. Individual ownership no longer gives Andy’s toys meaning; at Sunnyside Day Care, toddlers chew on them and toss them aside willy-nilly.

Ultimately, the culture of consumerism insists on the specialness of the unique consumer, in spite of (and perhaps even more vehemently because of) the ubiquity of toy type and brand. “Donation,” while abiding by the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle,” undoes that specialness of the individual consumer. It seems the psychological equivalent of tossing the toys into the landfill, even when the children who attend the day care center do not seem to be conventionally needy. (Imagine the horror had Woody and his friends found his way into a Goodwill bin!)

Though I love the Toy Story movies, I find this last ideological move troubling—that giving toys away to just any child might result in them belonging to the wrong child. A lot of contemporary conservative rhetoric warns us of unearned rewards wending their way to the undeserving. You can’t just give your toys to anyone, Toy Story 3 implies; make sure it’s a little girl with a collection of toys of her own because she will know how to be “really good with toys.” As Andy puts it: “These are mine, but I’m going away now, so I need someone really special to play with them.” Ultimately, it is the logic of ownership that redeems the culture of waste in this film, not a rethinking of the cult of individualism that justifies consumer rapacity and overlooks commodity obsolescence. For our ecological and cultural futures, this is a toy story that demands reimagining.

–Catherine Keyser: watches TV with her toddler

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  1. How wonderful! Thanks, Theresa! Further evidence of the preoccupation with fossil fuels, not only in Toy Story, but in our culture at large. It sounds like Sinclair Oil’s dino-themed World’s Fair displays were precursors to Disney World’s “Energy Adventure” exhibit.


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