While I continue working on those few pieces that it seems like I’ve been consciously avoiding for all these long, long months, I thought that – just in time for Christmas – I’d republish an intriguing series of articles centered around Pixar’s milieu and the apparent threads of hopelessness and misanthropy that run dormant underneath their superficial candy-colored surfaces, found on the /tv/ board of that eponymous, anonymous nerve-center, 4chan.
The series of articles begins with 1995’s Toy Story, and proceeds pretty erratically through the course of their filmography – whether or not I necessarily agree with the substance of the pieces to follow (and, I don’t think anyone on Match Cut has been more critical than I of people overstating the thematic importance of Pixar’s films) is, I think, not as relevant as how interesting an experiment it might put toward the validity of the slogan I’ve branded my homey little blog with, just up ahead. Give me your thoughts, readers. I feed on them.
What’s Toy Story really about, if not childhood joy? You might have missed it, if you’re one of those “young-at-heart” geeks who hate when parents gush over their larvae, who avoid kids like they’re ticks with Lyme disease, and/or who inexplicably complain about sharing a Pixar screening with its target audience. The fact is, Toy Story movies are about parental angst. Full stop. That’s what drives them – moms and dads fretting that Junior doesn’t think they’re cool anymore. The first film put reasonable effort toward embedding the theme inside its whimsical premise. The second film pretty much dick-slapped us with a middle-age identity crisis. With Toy Story 3, Pixar gave us an empty-nest Dirty Sanchez and then held out its ring so we could kiss it. (And you did, too. Don’t even pretend you didn’t.) Fine, that’s obvious to the rest of us. What people often miss, though, are the specific thematic statements that the movies make. We’re talking about the original Toy Story here, so let’s dive in and examine Pixar 1995’s view on parental issues.
Pop quiz: What’s missing in Andy’s life? Answer: a father. That’s because Woody is the father figure, the coolest guy in the child’s whole world. (It’s also because father issues are every screenwriter’s security blanket, but that’s a snark for another day.) The story is about a father whose son no longer thinks he’s the niftiest bloke on the block. He’s old and worn, the interloper is new and glamorous, they clash, blah blah blah. Okay, that’s a workable setup. Though perhaps it bears observing that during their rivalry, neither of these self-absorbed goobs really cares about what Andy thinks. In fact, despite all Woody’s lip service, they both literally clam up and stop talking if he so much as enters the room. Emotional distance is a required element in daddy dramas, you see. But I’m not going to dwell on the kid.
I’m more interested in Mom.
There’s some freaky subtext going on here. What sort of father is Woody supposed to represent? Is he still metaphorically married to Mom? If so, does that mean Buzz is horning in on Dad’s turf? Is Mom’s eye wandering toward a younger man? She’s the one who pulls Buzz out of the closet, after all, and presents him to her son. And then Buzz usurps Woody’s “spot on the bed.” Oh dear. No, Mother, you’ll wreck the family! Or maybe Woody represents a father who’s divorced and living in a different house (hence never interacting with Mom). Does that make Buzz Mom’s new beau? And Woody is trying to get rid of his son’s potential stepfather? Either way it’s a pretty ugly scenario. I keep picturing Mom as a dolled-up cougar seducing some young turk prettyboy. He’s brimming with good looks and gadgets and he makes her feel young, but his clue tank sits on Empty. I’m also guessing her wine humidor is well-stocked of late, and why not; her new lover’s a space cadet and Andy’s father is a controlling, vindictive jerkoff who can’t stand the thought of another man actually mattering to the boy. That’s not even getting into the subtext of Mom replacing Woody, with his floppy physique and empty holster, with battery-powered Buzz. I’m not going there. I do have some pride, packed away in a box someplace. So the two father figures compete like selfish idiots through the first half of the movie. Eventually they get sucked into one of Buzz’s immature fantasies, which lands them at Sid’s house. Let’s examine Sid’s house, shall we?
Sid’s an intelligent, imaginative boy several years older than Andy. His little sister is several years older than Andy’s little sister. There’s a mother we never see. And there’s a dad. The setup is pretty clear – this is Andy’s life a couple of years later, after Buzz’s childish fantasy worldview wins out. (There’s even an adult dog to match the puppy Andy gets at the end of the film.) But something’s gone horribly wrong. Andy’s now a sadistic, probably neglected little bastard. Dad (Buzz) is a lazy slob watching kids’ TV and sleeping in the middle of the day. This is not a happy-fantasy household. This is the point at which Buzz realizes how naive he’s been all along, and even more humiliating, when he tries to fly back to his Space Ranger delusion, he winds up domesticated and emasculated as “Mrs. Nesbit.” Dang, that’s some grim pickin’s for a kid movie. Who am I supposed to root for here? Buzz, who’s destined to ruin Andy’s life, or Woody, whose selfish insecurity started the whole mess? Lasseter solves the dilemma when both men renounce their psychological weaknesses and work together to escape this terrible fate. Or rather Woody works to escape it, because Buzz can’t. He’s duct-taped to his destiny. And it’s going to kill him. Man, let’s just call it: Buzz Lightyear is one pathetic character.
Luckily Woody understands how this father thing works. He accepts and dignifies the horrible creations of his son’s immature imagination. This allows them to escape a miserable life – the horrible creation of Buzz’s immature imagination. Because dreams are for kids, you see. Adults only ruin things by dreaming. I can’t wrap up my commentary on Toy Story without mentioning the famous enduring question: What exactly are the rules about toys interacting with humans? The movie would have us believe that toys voluntarily stop animating when people are around. That’s why Woody and the mutants were able to chase off Sid, right, because they chose to break the rules? But I don’t buy it. For one thing Buzz doesn’t know he’s a toy, yet he still collapses on cue. More compellingly, even imminent death is not enough to motivate a toy to break character. This is borne out several times during the film. Based on the evidence, I’m convinced it’s an entirely involuntary phenomenon.
So how do we explain the scene where animated toys scare away Sid? That’s an interesting question. Look at it from the toys’ perspective. Any time a human can see them, they lose all bodily control. They have no choice; it’s biological. Now put yourself in Woody’s position as Buzz awaits his gruesome execution. Woody blames himself, but there’s not a damn thing he can do to stop it. He’ll never give up though, even when he’s already failed. His mind races so fast that the wheels come off. He concocts a plan that hinges on something flat-out impossible – animating in the presence of a human. As he thinks it through, he realizes it will only work if escaping the house, a goal so unattainable moments before, suddenly becomes quick work. But none of that matters now. If the only plan left is utterly insane, why he’ll just go insane. So he does.
Yes, the end of the movie is “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge.” It’s Brazil performed by plastic toys. It’s Woody’s mad refusal to accept the inevitable. Remember that the next time you see the final scene, with Woody and Buzz and the gang gathered on that idyllic Christmas morning. When Andy yells “A puppy!” on the baby monitor, maybe it’s a David Lynch-style reconnection to the awful real world. Maybe Woody and Buzz’s sheepish grins are the final crack in the merciful delusion. Maybe it’s a gift that we cut to black right then, and not two seconds later when reality snaps back into place with a *bang*.
Now, let’s have some more from Toy Story 2.
Now things get interesting. Toy Story 2 was the Pixar movie that first grabbed the audience by its throat, pinned it to the sidewalk and growled “This ain’t your daddy’s half-ass cartoon shop!” in a Christian Bale Batman voice. Or maybe it was a Sarah McLachlan voice. (They’re both so sincere.) The movie starts with a giant middle finger to video games, in a Buzz Lightyear 3D platformer with graphics the industry would still murder kittens for, eleven years later. Maybe Pixar was trying to sell some real-time version of RenderMan? If so, judging by modern games, it didn’t work out.
Anyway following from the lessons of the first movie, Buzz is now a sane, well-adjusted toy. Woody is… well, maybe Woody’s mindset has changed, but there’s no way to know. He’s back to being Andy’s favorite and with no new challengers, he’s essentially identical to who he was at the start of the original. When the old Buzz proved to be a Galaxy-class loser, I guess the urgency wasn’t there. (In fact as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that he’s every bit as selfish and insecure as he was when Buzz first arrived. Does he even remember anything that happened in the other film? That question may not be as snarky as you might think.) This time around Andy’s going off to “cowboy camp” (where all the hip kids spend their summer, I’m sure). After ripping Woody’s arm, he leaves his floppy pal behind. So begins Parental Angst II: Angst Reloaded as Woody can’t keep up with his child-figure and stares his hand-stitched, polyvinyl mortality in the face. Meanwhile Andy’s mom has decided to sell a bunch of Andy’s toys while he’s gone, because Fuck that kid, I’m getting mine. Which leads to Woody being stolen by a sensitively-portrayed overweight person who collects valuable toys.
In the miscreant’s high-rise apartment, we learn that Woody is actually a rare and extremely valuable doll from the halcyon, pre-Space Age era of cowboy popularity. He’s the final piece in a collection of merchandising for an old TV show, joining a cowgirl and a tail-wagging horse and shoot, hold on a second, did I write that correctly? Pre-Space Age? Seriously? Something’s really not adding up here. Let’s review Woody’s origin. His TV series was canceled after the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Given the show’s popularity (it made the covers of Time and Life) let’s be generous and say Sheriff Woody toys might have been released as late as 1960. Toy Story 2 take place in 1994. Come on, math wizards, how old does that make Al’s collection? Holy assless chaps! Those toys are at least 34 years old!
Just how long was the Prospector’s “eternity on a dime store shelf?” And poor Jessie! She might have been “in the dark” for 25 years. No wonder she’s more unhinged than a rattlesnake’s jaw. But the interesting character is Woody. First of all, we’ve narrowed down the age of Andy’s metaphorical father. 34 sounds about right for an identity crisis. Evidently Andy got him in kindergarten, around five years old, and Andy’s maybe ten now, which puts the acquisition circa 1989. That’s at least thirty years after Woody’s Roundup was canceled. So tell me, where the hell was Woody for thirty freaking years?
Woody makes no mention of that time. At all. He doesn’t even remember the TV show, unlike the Prospector. What are we missing here? What’s different about Woody? Well, Woody has an owner. A super-special kid who makes him feel alive. But was Andy his first? If so, why would he be surprised by Jessie and the Prospector’s sad past? Doesn’t he remember his thirty ownerless years? Or if Andy wasn’t his first owner, why is he shocked that Jessie’s experience with Emily was comparable to his own? Surely he’s been around the track more than a few times. This doesn’t make sense. Woody’s no dummy. I see only one way this shakes out. Woody flat-out doesn’t remember his past. Something about having an owner, who impresses a godlike will on him year after year, overwhelms the mind of this little plastic-headed man and purges what’s come before. In fact, being Andy’s favorite, Woody’s endured a far larger dose of human psychic domination than the other toys. His concept of self has been wholly conquered by a grade school demigod. In his mind, he doesn’t exist beyond Andy.
Good Lord, no wonder he lost control of his sphincter when Buzz took over the small pond. It wasn’t just his ego – Buzz was stealing his soul. Think about that the next time you see a montage of Woody and Andy frolicking through the house. As Andy mindlessly bangs Woody around, he’s smashing Woody’s individuality to pieces. With each passing hour, Woody is strongarmed that much farther into psychic identity slavery. Andy is a goddamn unthinking mind-vampire. Even more chilling, who’s to say how often this has happened before? Did he have a previous owner who was just as super-special as Andy, but has been erased from his mind like shaking an Etch-A-Sketch? Maybe even four or five previous owners? Is he living in some twisted Playskool edition of Memento? Maybe he’ll cross paths with Barbie and think she’s crazy when she asks about someone named “Andy,” because Bonnie is now the slaveowner of his pathetic toy soul. Buzz and Slink and Potato Head, spared the magnitude of Woody’s psychic domination, can only sadly humor his latest delusion of bliss.
Once again, spitting through the holes in cartoonworld logic is entertaining and all, but the guts of a movie are its subtext. We’ve already examined the low places Toy Story went. Let’s see if the sequel can beat it in a game of allegory limbo. If you’re a parent, you know I wasn’t just waxing snide when I called Andy an “unthinking mind-vampire.” Children will tear down your psychic defenses and shred the person you thought you were. They’re Jeffrey Dahmer to a parent’s old identity. This total redefinition happened to Woody long ago, only he doesn’t realize it. The thirty-something father he represents has pegged a huge amount of self-worth on his position as the primary male role model for Andy. He’s the obsessive dad in tube socks who coaches too many little league sports. If he’s missing his cowboy hat, the world must stop until he finds it because that’s the way things are done.
But time is a mocking bastard. It makes children stronger and healthier while it robs grownups of the same. A father’s biggest worry is that his son will recognize this decay, because then he can’t pretend to be Michael-Jordan-meets-Wolverine anymore. Since his original identity is long since dissolved in an acid barrel, he’s left a miserable, gassy old cushion-cowboy. Stuck in testosterone oblivion. When Pixar had to visualize this anxiety in a single image, they chose a rip in Woody’s arm. The real-world equivalent is quite different. It affects a man’s extremity, but it has nothing to do with his arms and legs. You know it’s true. Woody’s popped seam represents losing the loop in his lariat. The rattle in his snake. The function in his junk-tion. You wouldn’t think sexual fitness would matter as a father, but the wound to his self-image is like a crack in a swimming pool: everything goes down a whole new drain. I mean crap, not only does Andy reject him from cowboy camp, but Mom sticks him on a shelf and leaves. Then he attempts a macho rescue while his arm flops around like a dead minnow. I don’t see how they can make it any clearer. Luckily a man shows up with a black doctor’s bag. Is he friend or foe?
So Woody’s been waylaid from the tatters of his self-respect as a father, to a place where not only does he have a new identity – you couldn’t cram more identity into that room with a dozen Japanese subway workers – but he’s literally the star of the whole show. He’s got the traditional trappings of a midlife crisis: a new ride (Bullseye), new male friends (the Prospector) and a bipolar party girl (Jessie). And he’s got Al, who you thought was a villain all this time, but is actually the personification of Woody’s burgeoning new self-image. Al is Woody’s yen to be desirable (he’s worth a million bucks!) and successful (can you say penthouse apartment?). He’s having a blast with his resurrected youth, but there’s a problem. He still wants to go back to Andy. Uh-oh, that doesn’t sit well with his new pals. They bag on him for it and he gets defensive. So much for feeling desired. How does that affect his metaphorical manhood? His arm falls off completely. His poor dysfunctional six-shooter is withering under the icy glares. But wait, here comes his revived confidence, Al, with the answer! Remember kids, this movie was produced in 1998, the year a certain little blue pill hit the streets and kicked off a revolution in spam filtering technology. One masterful medical touch-up later and Woody’s back in action, ready to root and toot. He even waves his baby-maker in Jessie’s face. “Hello! Hi! Hell-ooo!”
The restoration of his self-respect is complete. He’s ready to return to his duties at home. But man oh man, it’s not that easy. He has to say goodbye to that sweet bouncy redhead in the window. The Prospector, the embodiment of being older and in perfect physical condition, is all like “Dude, tell me you’re not walking away from that raggedy action to go back to the vampire and the iceberg.” But he steels himself and tries to make the break. Here we come to the pivotal moment in the movie, the scene that hikes it and the entire Pixar studio up to the next level. Let’s face it, when you talk about how good Toy Story 2 is, you’re really saying how effective Jessie’s Song is. Everything else is a skillfully-constructed stage for this number to be performed. It’s not even that interesting of a song. Randy Newman probably dashed it off in an evening while putting whiskey in his water and tossing a few more Oscar nominations into his marble fireplace. But man, Sarah McLachlin sells it like a thousand-dollar call girl, doesn’t she?
It’s all about how wonderful it is to be loved by a child and how heartbreaking it is when it ends. Jessie was, metaphorically, a young mother whose daughter bailed when she came of age. Now Jessie pines terribly for those golden days. Every time I watch that scene, I want to run and hug my children so hard their endocrine systems burst and they never grow up. I want to bury myself in warm family love and comradery.
What’s Woody’s reaction? Fuck that kid. I’m getting mine.He bails on Andy. He puts Andy through exactly the misery Jessie is feeling. He punches his kid in the soul before his kid can do it to him. Jesus, Woody is a gold-standard asshole.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s Woody’s timing that’s egregious, and what it reveals about his fundamental egocentrism. Right after Jessie’s Song? That’s ten gallons of perverse. But given his circumstances, the temptation to stay is quite understandable – fame, power, security, heritage – plus he just got his Gatling gun firing again. Does he really want to take it home and polish it alone while his wife sleeps off her latest Bacardi Breezer coma? Or should he stick around and pop off a couple hundred rounds with this high-stepping rodeo rider? A few months of reverse Jessie would shave down a lot of guilt. Sure she just smacked him with an epic passive-aggressive haymaker, but her spunk screams totally worth it. So they start acting childish and ticklish and all the dance steps that will inevitably lead to fluffing their stuffing. But middle-age crazy doesn’t come that easy! Onto the scene crashes Buzz Lightyear with the Four Dwarves of the Middle-Class Apocalypse – Stingy, Whingy, Droopy and Blob – to interrupt their High Nooner. (If anything can take the Will out of your Rogers, it’s these guys.) They’ve come at great comedic peril to bring Woody home, because nobody escapes surburbia alive, but Woody gives them the plastic boot. He’s committed to his renewed youth and success. And really, in the long run, is it so bad for him to pursue genuine self-worth again?
You know Pixar’s answer to that question.
Before Buzz is gone, Woody glimpses a recording of his old TV show and sees Sheriff Woody, a marionette, singing happily on the end of a dozen puppet strings. And it’s a whack in the sack. There on the screen is the solution to everything, a key to happiness so simple he had lost it in all the hubbub: a puppet has no cares or worries. A puppet doesn’t feel the crush of guilt or doubt or inadequacy. A puppet goes where the strings pull him, free from the awful burden of his own identity. Woody had that blissful freedom in his old life, and he almost threw it away. With a rush of relief he tells Buzz he’s coming home, and invites Jessie to come with him, because, y’know, cowgirl.