The Real Meaning of Toy Story


Released in 1995, this film quickly garnered critical and popular acclaim, going on to inspire two sequels and a television series.
Released in 1995, this film quickly garnered critical and popular acclaim, going on to inspire two sequels and a television series. | Source

"Sad Strange Little Men": Toy Story and Pixar Animators

If we accept the messages and core values of most Pixar films, we will usually come up with a moral commonplace. Typically, these commonplaces are directly applicable to the lives of the viewers. With A Bug’s Life or Finding Nemo, these commonplaces might be “always tell the truth” or “talk things over with your family." Even though both films are about lower life forms, the values and mores reinforced by the films are consistent with those of the typical family viewers. However, this is not the case with the Toy Story films. They may be made for children, but they are most certainly not about children, or their parents for that matter. Rather, the Toy Story “Trilogy” is a veiled commentary on life in the capitalistic and corporate world of a Pixar employee. The films track the lives of adults working at their jobs, seeking retirement, and finally facing death. This makes the films interesting viewing for adults, but limits their value for children beyond entertainment.

The “toys” in the Toy Story films confront issues more applicable to the life of an adult worker than a child. While the films present numerous instances where the animators could have drawn connections between the problems faced by children and the problems faced by the toys, the films consistently fail to draw such connections.

The relationships the toys in the films share with their owners and with one another resemble nothing so much as relationships within the corporate world. Andy is neither a doting parent nor a loving friend; he is a mildly affectionate boss. He and the other children in the films are distant from the toys and the viewers. This relationship is demonstrated throughout the film series.

Andy and other children in the Toy Story films are not as fully developed as the toys, demonstrating the films’ lack of interest in children. Sid Philips exists in the story purely as a memento mori for Woody, not as a developed character. “Sid's motivation is of little or no interest in Toy Story; he is a figure for terror and destruction” (Ackerman 897). If Toy Story were truly interested in the issues children face, the film might have offered a more plausible explanation for Sid’s bad behavior than his bad looks. Instead the movie accepts Sid’s “motiveless malice” and moves on. Andy is similarly one-dimensional. Indeed, all the humans in the films “occupy a reality far less vivid than the toys themselves, objects that continually and explicitly question their own reality” (Ackerman 902). This existential crisis felt by toys is partly driven by their ties to their owners.

As material possessions, the “lives” of the toys are defined by their utility. Andy’s emotions toward his toys are based on the how useful the toys are to him. He loves the toys because of what they represent (childhood, imagination, and fun) but is able to lay them aside when he no longer needs or wants to play with them. Examples of this abound. In Toy Story 2, Andy is “upset” when Wheezy’s squeaker is broken but does not seem too upset when the toy never reappears (Toy Story 2). Andy also leaves Woody behind after ripping his arm, apparently disappointed not in himself but in Woody. “You’re broken. I don’t wanna play with you anymore” Andy observes in Woody’s nightmare (Toy Story 2).

True this is Woody’s dream, but it is disturbingly close to the truth. True Andy does play with Woody again, but this occurs only after Woody’s arm has been fixed.

As material possessions, the toys have a place in the market economy. “Toys represent money, and money represents toys” (Ackerman 908). “In Toy Story 2 Woody is stolen from Andy's home by a new villain, not the sadistic next-door neighbour Sid but a fat capitalist, Al of Al's Toy Barn” (Ackerman 905). To a child, Al and Andy might seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum, but they are actually quite similar, and the similarities demonstrate just how close the plight of toys is to an adult in the corporate world of entertainment.

Andy and Al share many qualities. First, their names, both monosyllabic, both beginning with the letter a, and both abbreviated versions of more serious sounding names represent their fundamental similarities. Both of them love toys. Children may be encouraged to see Al as a villain, but apart from his initial theft of Woody, Al proves no more sinister than Andy. Al collects vintage toys and wants to put together Woody and his “old gang” to sell as a museum exhibit. He and Andy both feel sentimental about their toys but they also view them as ordinary material possessions, to be used and passed along.

Both Andy and Al fit the corporate model perfectly. While a boss may feel affection for those working under him, they are not his real “family.” If one fails to perform his functions, he will be dismissed. This is the fear that haunts all the toys in the films.

The fear of dismissal, for toys and animators, is not merely a practical one, it is an existential one. What can a toy be except a plaything? What can an animator be except an entertainer? The identity and usefulness of both are dependent on their belonging to an entity that uses them (a child and a movie company respectively).

“All of the toys are literally inscribed with Andy's name on the soles of their feet; that is the source of their identity, as we see when the 'real' Buzz distinguishes himself from the Buzz who tackled him in the toy store” (Ackerman 908). Of course, the final happiness of the toys is not contingent on a particular owner any more than the happiness of a worker is not usually contingent on working for a particular company. “There seems to be relatively little grieving about the loss of Andy's affections; he did, after all, sentence them to a toy box for years, and toys by nature are self-centered and want to be played with” (Ebert). Like employees, the toys need an employer. While emotion is important, what ultimately matters is that they have a place. It is this fact that makes the end of Toy Story 3, in which the toys become the possessions of another child, a “happy” ending.

Toy Story 3, perhaps, cements the tie between the toys and adult professionals more strongly than any of the films that came before. As Andy prepares to leave for college, his mother donates the toys to a local preschool. The toys’ expectations for this new life resemble the rhetoric of retirees. They want to relax while keeping active.

The hopes of the toys are dashed as they, like many adult workers, find themselves in a world that now seems too rough for them. Lotso, the “boss” of the preschool, forces them to become the playthings for the toddlers. Never, even in Sid Philips’s attic, did the toys experience such horror. They are bashed, battered, chewed, and in some cases dismantled by wild three-year-olds. Their plight represents older employees buffeted by the fast-paced corporate world and surrounded by new employees who seem to have the speed and aggressiveness of small children. Faced with such an aggressive atmosphere, the toys must find an alternative. This alternative turns out to be the home of a young girl who treats her toys more gently than even Andy ever did.

The toys’ new home with Bonnie represents an ideal state of semi-retirement. The quiet colors and calm atmosphere of her bedroom give the impression the toys’ will indeed get more rest than they did with Andy (or the preschool). The film also creates more links between the toys and entertainers. Bonnie’s room resembles a community theater or amateur entertainment group. “We do a lot of improv here” one of the toys tells Woody, while another asks him if he has had “Classical training” (Toy Story 3).

The toys’ fears in the three films track the emotional challenges facing a corporate employee throughout his career. The first film deals with young professionals moving up the corporate ladder, the second with middle-aged professionals fearing alienation and purposelessness, and the third with aging professionals contemplating retirement in an increasingly fast-paced corporate atmosphere.

Perhaps more important than the continued clash of corporate and domestic spheres is the emphasis in the films of values that are central to corporate workers in general, and Pixar animators in particular. The central lesson of Toy Story is one of cooperation: the cardinal virtue in any work environment. “Woody and Buzz, as rivals-cum-allies, discover the necessary truths about their masculine strength only as they how much they need one another” (Gillam and Wooden 6). These two are forced to recognize that their differences have to be reconciled. Both are heroic and special in their own ways.

Just as Woody and Buzz must work together, Pixar has to use old-fashioned story telling with new-age computer technology. The narrative frame of each Toy Story film is as old as Homer, but the technology is extremely new (and growing more so with each film).

“The mantra for which Pixar has attributed its success is 'that story is King'” (Seton 94). This emphasis on both innovative visuals and careful story-telling is a marriage that remains important to Pixar animators.

Pixar stresses many skills that are dramatized in the Toy Story films in the daily management of its company. “As many of Pixar's staff testify, the valuing of embodiment, improvisation and collaboration is integral to innovative expression and creative problem-solving” (Seton 94). Each film stresses the importance of these skills for the toys (and indirectly the workers they represent). Lacking the physical strength of humans, the toys must invariably resort to clever strategy to get what they want. In Toy Story, they must devise a complex plan to escape Sid’s house and teach the boy a lesson in the process. This theme is revisited in Toy Story 3 when the toys must escape Lotso’s clutches. The heroes of these films are heroic because they demonstrate the problem-solving skills and people skills valued in the corporate world. “There is nothing Pixar is doing at the heart of character animation that Walt Disney Studios hasn't done for decades” (Porter and Susman 26). The same principles apply, for “infinity and beyond” (Toy Story 2). These values endure. However, the films’ focus on these values limits their ability to relate to their younger audience members. The “meaning” of the films is rooted squarely in the adult world. The fears of the toys are the fears of adult workers.

In Toy Story, the toys struggle with fears they will not be good enough to exist in their “workplace.” In a covert operation on par with the activities of any secret service, they carefully observe the presents at Andy’s birthday as they are opened, on the lookout for potential rivals.

The toys are “more or less permanently neurotic, constantly anxious that they are no longer equal to their function as objects of play, therefore no longer worthy of Andy’s affection and attention” (Schaffer 77). This fear resembles the anxieties of people in the workplace, afraid that newer and more efficient employees will take their jobs.

Woody demonstrates the fear of being outdated best of all. Woody is the empowered professional, at the top of his game, afraid someone new might usurp his place. Within his house, Woody is “middle management.” He is the go-between for Andy and the other toys (although it is important to note that like all “good” middlemen, Woody never presumes to tell his boss anything). Woody certainly shows affection for Andy but he also clearly enjoys his position as “Andy’s favorite” (Toy Story). He proudly tells Buzz “the bed here is my spot” with the same matter-of-fact tone a manager might use in referring to a reserved parking space or a corner office (Toy Story).

Woody’s relationship with Andy elevates Woody but it still does not put him on equal terms with Andy, however much he might want it to. Woody cannot really be Andy’s friend because they cannot communicate, just as a stereotypical worker cannot really in theory be his boss’s friend, because he must always be subservient to the other. At the end of the third film, Woody says “So long partner” as Andy drives away (Toy Story 3). This statement underlines not only Woody’s vain attempt to put himself and Andy on equal footing. However, the events of the film leave us in no doubt that Andy is the boss. Andy’s decision to leave Woody with Bonnie is made without any input from Woody and the fact that his actions coincide with Woody’s wishes is coincidence and nothing more. Like a worker being transferred, Woody has no say in the matter. Even as the “employee of the month,” Woody is completely at the mercy of his “boss.”

Woody and Buzz compete for Andy’s affection and for the ability “to possess the admiration of and authority over the other toys in the playroom. Woody is a natural leader, and his position represents both paternalistic care and patriarchal dominance” (Gillam and Wooden 4). Woody’s authority (or Buzz’s authority for that matter) comes from on high. If Andy gives a “promotion,” the other toys respect that and fall in line.

The links between the toys and corporate professionals can also be seen in narrative arc of each film. In Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3, some or all of the characters must journey from a domestic to an urban space, then back again. In the first film, Woody and Buzz must navigate the dangers of “Pizza Planet,” a gaudy fast-food restaurant. In the second film, Buzz must lead a search for Woody “not in the dreamy suburbs (Disney's pastoral ideal or world of 'Nature') but in the decadent city” (Ackerman 905). Finally, in the third film, the toys must brave a preschool, a dump truck, and finally a garbage incinerator that would not have looked out of place in Dante’s Inferno. In each case, the film concludes on a reassuring note, as the toys return to a home in the suburbs. This odyssey mirrors an adult’s working life. The “average” worker must travel from a home in the suburbs (which represent peace and domesticity) to the city (which represents all the ills of the corporate world). True, the toys also “work” at home, but the real danger and issues they confront are manifested by often outside forces.

It is the pull of the world outside Andy’s home that causes the stresses within. In each film, threats from beyond the domestic sphere threaten the peace and security of the toys. Andy’s desire to go to “Pizza Planet,” “Cowboy Camp,” and finally college, touches off a chain of events in each film that forces the toys to grapple with a series of problems.

Similarly, the pressures of the outside world (be they social, economic, or personal) force professionals to seek work beyond the domestic sphere. Mothers and fathers must leave the home to provide for their families, just as the toys must leave their home in order to keep it safe.

Apart from fears of replacement, the plasticized protagonists grapple with their own mortality. In the first film, Woody’s memento mori comes “in the form of an eight-year-old neighbour named Sid who wears a black T-shirt with a skull printed on it that disturbingly resembles his own face” (Ackerman 896). Hamlet has his Yorick, and Woody has his Sid Philips. Such grim reminders of death are common in high tragedy, but mortality is an unusual topic for a children’s comedy and the films never show Sid (or Andy for that matter) pondering such matters.

Although the presence of death and replacement haunts Toy Story, the themes come to maturity (along with the toys themselves) in Toy Story 2. Here the film’s conclusion “involves the acquiescence of Woody in his own mortality, which he relates fundamentally to the growing up of Andy” (Ackerman 903). Woody realizes one day Andy will grow up and leave him behind, just as the Pixar animator must realize that technology and entertainment will grow, change, and leave him behind. Like middle-aged professionals, Woody and the other toys begin to realize they will one day die. This “death,” however, is not the violent death represented by the perfidious Sid, but a slow and quiet one. Like old soldiers, these toys will simply fade away.

The toys (and the animators they represent) must face reality but they also have a choice in how to deal with them. Both must first accept that they cannot go on as they are indefinitely. “When Andy's Mom puts Woody on a shelf, she utters one of the movie's key lines, 'Toys don't last forever.' The words hang in the air, as the human characters leave the screen” (Ackerman 908). Indeed, these lines echo throughout the film.

When Stinky Pete tries to convince Woody to join the old gang in their trip to the museum, he offers Woody the chance to “last forever” (Toy Story 2). Woody can only achieve immortality by rendering himself an art-object. Obliquely, this references the challenge facing an animator: how to “last forever.” Woody and the animators both make the same choice. They choose to create entertainment and achieve immortality by bringing enjoyment to successive generations. They cannot stop the march of time but they will make sure children have fun while they can. Sadly, like the toys, entertainment is the only thing Pixar tries to provide children with in these films.

The implications of the viewpoint assumed by each film, suggests a disconnect from children. By ignoring the concerns of their primary audience (children) and instead by projecting the problems of their creators, these films seem to imply “that audience members are imagined by Disney to be like… an infinite army of empty-headed homunculi, waiting to be overcome by a shaft of light” (Ackerman 899). The films do not seek to do much for children except entertain them. The real “meat” of Toy Story is reserved for adults only. “Disney imagines its own productions as the source of cognitive development, and perhaps also of purchasing power, of American toddlers” (Ackerman 901). However, it does not imagine itself as a source of mental stimulation for older children.

The films blatantly ignore issues facing children including one that intrudes on the film itself: isolation. “Each of these films is about being a man,” not about being a child (Gillam and Wooden 5). Children grow up while toys and adults grow old. Rather than explore what connections might exist between the two, the films separate them. Growing older never seems to ripple the stagnant pond that is Andy. Sid, while clearly suffering from one or more mental disorders, never expresses anything beyond a desire to damage toys. While children often confide their fears in their toys, both boys are curiously aloof.

Both are isolated from the world of adults and the world of toys (yet another indicator that these two worlds are one in the same). Neither Sid nor Andy confesses any fears of death, replacement, or irrelevance to their toys, although they might be justified in doing so. Sid clearly comes from an unhappy home and Andy has a single mother whose attention is often torn between him and his younger sister. However, neither boy expresses any concerns that might draw parallels between the problems faced by children and those faced by toys. They remain as distant as corporate executives are from their employees, indicating that the filmmakers’ interest lies in the adult, rather than the child world. Interestingly the only working adult with a significant role in the films, Al of Al’s Toy Barn, spends more time talking to toys than either child.

The concerns of the films mirror the concerns of a member of an adult worker. The fears of being replaced, undervalued, or passed (that worry so many professionals) plague the toys in these films. According to Pixar’s website the “the core conflict [of Toy Story 3] had always seemed inevitable” (“Feature Films: Toy Story 3”). This “core conflict” is the conflict of the adult worker: a fight for primacy in the workplace, a struggle for peace and security in old age, and finally a confrontation with death. The films, however, undervalue and underestimate the children that watch them.

Works Cited

Ackerman, Alan. "The Spirit of Toys: Resurrection and Redemption in ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Toy Story 2.’" University of Toronto Quarterly. 74.4. (2005): 895-912. Web. 16 Feb. 2013.

Ebert, Roger. “Toy Story 3.” Chicago Sun Times, 16 June, 2010. Web. 3 March 2013

“Feature Films: Toy Story 3.” Pixar. Pixar, 2012. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

Gillam, Ken and Wooden, Shannon R. "Post-Princess Models of Gender: The New Man in Disney/Pixar." Journal of Popular Film & Television. 36.1. (2008): 2-8. Web. 16 Feb. 2013.

Schaffer, William. "The Importance of Being Plastic: The Feel of Pixar." Animation Journal. 12. (2004): 72-95. Web. 16 Feb. 2013.

Seton, Mark. "Pixar Phenomenology: The Embodiment of Animation (Cover Story)." Metro. 157. (2008): 94-97. Web. 16 Feb. 2013.

Toy Story. Dir. John Lasseter. Perf. Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, and Wallace Shawn. Pixar Animation Studios, 1995. Film.

Toy Story 2. Dir. John Lasseter and Ash Brannon. Perf. Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Joan Cusack, and Kelsey Grammer. Pixar Animation Studios, 1999. Film.

Toy Story 3. Dir. Lee Unkrich. Perf. Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, and Michael Keaton. Pixar Animation Studios, 2010. Film.

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