Tuesday, 13 October 2009

TOY STORY: Utopias and Dystopias for Toys of All Ages

"Toy Story"

John Lasseter, 1995, USA


The thing about "Toy Story" is this: surely a part of you is rooting for Sid. Andy, the good kid, is sweet enough, but Sid positively runs on surrealist creativity and black humour. His collection of cannibalised, violently mix-and-matched toys are, well, simply more thrilling than anything Andy has - they're guilty pleasures. Thankfully, the Pixar script (eight people) involved with the story and script) animators and John Lasseter's direction are all wise and, taking the opening play-time credits sequence as example, we can see that Andy - although a good kid and therefore potentially likable but bland - is just as violent and creative with his toys and play as Sid is. The difference goes something like this: Andy loves his toys and Sid does not, Sid being a disfunctional, autocratic and malevolent artist. At base, "Toy Story" is wonderfully benign, albeit with a sly streak of malice, and manages this without lapsing into saccharine Disney agenda or especially dark narrative turns.

It is easy to forget how "Toy Story" came as a fair revelation to the animation business and audiences when it first appeared. The biggest offerings, for a long time, as a generalisation, had been either Disney or cultish Manga, with little in-between. Nickelodeon had been producing high quality, sensible and appealing cartoons for a long time, but had very limited crossover potential. "Toy Story" arrived with the novelty of being the first ever wholly computer generated feature film. But it was so much more than that and its crossover appeal immense because not only did it look great, but also it had a zappy, clever, creative script. Since its release, a steady flow of post-modern, funny, warm-hearted animations have followed, playing as once-half Disney, one half Meta-film and wise-ass gag-fest. "Antz", "A Bug’s Life", "Shrek", "Monster’s Inc.", "Aliens vs. Monsters", and so on. There is no sign of stopping them and little sign of falling standards. Pixar are still busy raising the bar too. "Toy Story" has to be thanked greatly for this particular growth in family-orientated animation. The sign that is a genuine classic is that it still holds its own against the others.


Andy’s bedroom is a Toy Utopia, headed by everycowboy Woody, an old-fashioned kinda toy and Andy’s favourite. That is until Andy’s birthday and the arrival of the new Buzz Lightyear, a flashy, self-appointed hero who wants to save the universe - and oblivious to the fact that he himself is a toy. All round good guy Buzz usurps Woody’s status and, in a bout of irrepressible jealously and revenge, Woody accidentally sends Buzz out of the window and a rescue mission ensues. If Woody does not bring Buzz back, the other toys will never accept him again or forgive him. Meanness is not tolerated. Inevitably, an odd-couple friendship develops from necessity between the playthings as they are pitted against the giant-sized outside world and the nightmare of toy-torturer Sid’s hospitality.

Of course, although Andy’s room is a day-glo, pastel-hued heaven of democracy and privileged opulence, the lacuna is the very technology that creates the world we are watching: not a gamesystem or P.C. to be seen; not even a retro gameboy or "Pong". It is likely that Woody and Buzz would have immense competition against such a formidable opponent as a games consul, but it does give the film an almost winningly old-fashioned basis, when toys were toys that could be thrown around and taken to bed, torn apart and fixed. They were close to pets. The idea that Buzz’s flashing light laser is the height of technological sophistication surely has to be patronised rather than believed. "Toy Story" takes place in a pre-games revolution era; pre-"Tron", pre-"The Last Starfighter". A period drama, then? But that does not feel right either: on the one side there seems to be Andy the baby-boomer kid, and on the other Sid who feels much more '90s proto-punk. An alternate modernity, then. But remarkably, this lack of technologically-originated domestic toys ("Etch-A-Sketch" has a walk-on part!) does not weaken the credibility or interest (it transcends datedness): rather, the very form and visual aesthetics of this computer-generated film satisfies those needs, and somehow makes redundant any call for a gamesystem cameo. And it certainly is a work of "Hyper-realism, glossy textures … dazzling use of perspective and movement" that makes outmoded most of what went before. [Halliwell’s Film & Video Guide, ed. John walker. (HarperCollins, London, 17th edition 2002, pg. 855)]
When the "Toy Story" characters get to the entertainment emporium, because we have been centred on hands-on toys, the arcade games are indeed a bright intrusion on the scenario, and significantly never lingered upon (wait... so we are actually post-"Tron" here?). The Alien-grab machine can surely not be considered the height of mechanised entertainment. Rather, it is Sid’s mad scientist approach to his toys - "Meccanno" legs with baby heads; hand-jack-in-box; mutant-Barbie-dolls, etc. - that signify the onset of technology. It is also up to Sid to give the truth to such play as war and space travel: whereas Buzz Lightyear projects and lives the space-age dream of the "Star Wars" programme of the Cold War and before (and, of course, "Star Wars", "Flash Gordon" and other old fashioned colonialist adventures), it is Sid who is sending missions into space knowing full well they will explode. Every Utopia needs a Dystopia, and Andy and Sid are set as opposites and, not without poignancy, they are neighbours - where Andy’s bedroom is all democratic joshing and light and Sid’s room is all fearful, silenced populace and hints of horror. When this horror is turned on the dictator, it is a wonderful moment that surely strikes at the core of any vengeful, bullied child in its wish-fulfillment.

And anyway, this is a boy thing. Sid’s sister is feisty but beaten-down walk-on part. She is there to propose ‘girl’s play’ as something, well, pink and as tortuous as anything brother Sid has to offer: dolls engaged in a different kind of living death. Child’s games are often exercises in cruelty, of course, and hers is no exception. But this is set predominantly in a male’s domain and the lack of female dolls is simply a matter of fact (Unless "Etch-a-Sketch" is feminine?). Which makes the presence of Bo-peep even more curious. Charlotte O’Sullivan writes of the gender and sexual subtexts of Andy's room, of the "lusty Bo-Peep table lamp to confirm Woody’s red-blooded tastes (a grown male fighting to keep his spot in a boy’s bed? There’s certainly room for discussion.)" [Charlotte O’Sullivan "Immortality and Beyond," The Independent on Sunday: the Sunday Review 20th April 2003, pg. 35] But this is probably a little strong, if not unfair: rather, "Toy Story" is so successfully benevolent, is so filtered through the boy-child’s imaginings of his toys’ independent existence when he is out of the room, of their love for him as he loves them, that sexual subtext is mostly lacking in influence upon the adventures, even if gendered play is not. It is, after all, an odd-couple buddy movie, about making pals, falling out, helping out, and then being buddies all over again. The toys are all child-like - except, significantly, maternal Bo-peep. And this is exactly what a child, boy or girl, uses toys to practice, to examine and come to terms with personal character traits - e.g., good-natured arrogance as expressed by Buzz Lightyear or uncharacteristic envy via Woody’s, for example. Then there is Sid, with his braces and dog t-shirt sub-punk look, his bullying ways - surely there is a tale to tell there, even expressed in the meekness of his sister? Just as all we see of Andy’s mother is a caring, generous, inexplicably economically independent single mom, in Sid’s house there is only a sleeping, monster-ish father figure, slumped asleep in a chair in front of the TV, whom even the brutish dog avoids. It is as if the film has reached a strange conclusion that the feminine house is all positive love, and the masculine house all neglect and cruelty. It’s an uneasy dichotomy, unresolved because the parents and kids are never fully investigated. Does Andy have to move because of the parent’s divorce, or his father’s death? Well, he certainly seems a happy chap... But it would be interesting to see what kind of step-Cain and Abel tale could be told if Andy’s mom had started dating Sid’s dad.

But what does "Toy Story" say about child behaviour? Maybe this: You are your toys. This is as old as "Winnie the Pooh", "Calvin and Hobbes" and countless others, and holds substantial psychological, emotional validity. In this way, we know Sid is deeply troubled and introverted though brash; quietly terrorised and self-destructive. And Andy is about as well adjusted as a fatherless kid can be. This also makes Sid’s sister’s family tea party both horrific and heroic: horrific because it is comprised of casualties from male violence and symbolises domestic troubles; heroic because (despite issues of gender stereotypes a girl’s tea party warrants) she is determined to have her happy play no matter what her environment and resources. This bringing to life of toys taps in to the deeply animist world-view children have. Again: the film is a child’s fantasy of what his beloved toys get up to when he isn’t around. Sid’s problem is simply that he cannot imagine his toys with independent life, which allows his cruelty of them and his eventual comeuppance. His empathy is damaged. One cannot imagine Andy being quite so surprised if his toys actually spoke to him. But then, they would probably only tell him how much they loved him. In all aspects, for good and bad, the film seems to adore the child’s state and universe of play. But you won’t find any "Sid’s Room" at the official website.


Although produced by Disney, "Toy Story" was a Pixar creation: and it is hard not to attribute the success of "Toy Story" to the playfulness of Pixar’s animators, for they have taken the Disney’s formula and shown it for the somewhat patronising and vacuous agenda it is, no matter how pretty. From archetypal Disney basics, screenwriters Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Coen and Alec Sokolow conjured a witty mini-tour through genre types and moments: the Western rivalry; the science-fiction dream; horror-film under-the-bed terrors (look for homages to Kubrick‘s "The Shining"); the odd-couple comedy; the great rescue and quest; the kids fantasy; the chase film, etc. The level of invention, both in script and visuals, gags and otherwise, is greatly rewarding and perpetually riveting. Always, the filmmakers seem to have set their sights on all levels, on as much detail as possible, so whereas Buzz’s self-appointed heroism is fun for all, Potato Head’s priceless Picasso impersonation and film homages are for the adults. As O’Sullivan points out, perhaps "Toy Story’s" fascination with military manoeuvres is its most troubling aspect, and yet somehow completely in accord with the gendered play of boys. Anyhow, Sid is always at hand to prove the lie to Andy’s toy Eden: if Andy is the filmmakers’ delight at creating this artificial world with a soft, childish sentiment, then Sid is the glee that they also take in subversion. One could say that if Andy ever grew up to be a film director, he would make "Toy Story" - and Sid would make "Small Soldiers" perhaps. Or even "The Toy Maker" or a legions of Charles Band toy and puppet b-horrors. No matter what, "Toy Story" can largely be credited with reviving the children’s film with wit, invention and mass cross-over appeal. And we can all be grateful for that. [end]

Note: Well okay, I cannot sat that I realised that there were Sid toys out there, but look how cutified Babyface is here! If I have seen any Toy Story merchandise, it has been mainly Andy's toys. For the record, I would have been into Sid's Toys and Buzz Lightyear equally.

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