Toy Story Threesome: Polyamory, Prison Rape and Plastics

06/18/2010 12:58 PM |

Toy Story 3

Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart put down their playthings to find out during which sort of movies regular people all over the country are eating 3D popcorn. This week they cry all the way from daycare to the dump during Lee Unkrich’s Toy Story 3.

HENRY:
So, Ben, there’s always a way to make more money, don’t you think? And I don’t mean by churning out sequels; ain’t nothing (inherently) wrong with that. You could easily argue that Toy Story 2 was better than the original, though you’d be hard-pressed to convince me that this wasn’t the weakest of the trilogy. Anyway, what I mean, Ben, is that Pixar seems to have started branching out, as far as disposable-incomers they’re trying to reach. Its core audience, since 1995’s Toy Story, has always been kids and their parents. But there are other groups with money, too, right? Like, grandparents? So Pixar made Up, which could attract three whole generations to the theater to pay premium 3D ticket prices! Cha-ching!

Well, now that you’ve snagged gramps, who’s left? Um, how about young adults? They don’t (usually) accompany small children to animated movies, right? That demographic, anyway, is to whom Toy Story 3 seems pegged, after the usual kids-n’-parents. As such, we see a lot more of Andy in this franchise entry, the owner of our band of toys, who’s now roughly the age of Toy Story’s original fans: if you were 3 when part one came out, you’re, like Andy, 18 now, and getting ready for college. (Even if, say, you’re 10 years older, it’s close enough.) For those at home: here, Andy’s mom tells him he has to divide the things in his room into those bound for the attic and those going to the curb. All the remaining toys (save Woody) are slotted for the attic, but through a mix-up almost end up thrown away. Affronted, the toys save themselves and scheme to be donated to a local daycare center, an ostensible Eden that soon reveals itself as…the opposite of Eden.

So, as you noted after the screening, the movie is split into conspicuous chapters, and each has its own themes; it’s hard to spot a grand, coherent allegory running through the whole film, one that could tie it all together, but there are lots of little ones introduced throughout that we can play with. (Ben, metaphors are our toys!) At first, the toys are like a tiny forest of Giving Trees, grappling with their obligations to the grown child they helped raise. Woody, in the role of the loving parent, encourages all the toys to serve Andy in whatever capacity the boy deems necessary, without a thought to their own needs. If he just needs you to stay in the attic waiting for him to visit on holidays, that’s what you do.

But the toys also represent childhood itself, and by getting rid of his toys Andy is saying “so long!” to his salad days—which the audience, which grew up with the Toy Story franchise, is doing as well. A clever trick, that. Goddamn, Ben, if by the end my eyes weren’t so wet with tears that the image on screen was as blurry as if I’d removed my 3D glasses. But there’s a lot more to this thematically herky-jerky movie than an ode to selfless parents and a bittersweet sendoff to juvenescence, right Ben? (Don’t take Woody to college so he can watch you have dorm room sex, Andy!) What’d you make of the foray into swingerhood? Or that terrifying trip to the landfill?

BEN:
Well, Henry, I was going to counter your reading of Woody as the foolishly loyal leader by arguing that Toy Story 3 is in fact The Searchers, its tongue-in-cheek Great Train Robbery opening leading into a depressing story about an incontinent old cowboy (call him “John Woody”) obstinately trying to reconstitute a besieged family unit that has become fundamentally fractured, struggling to bring straying members back to the homestead despite their objections. But I guess we can talk about sex instead, although you must have noticed that Andy, for all his ostensible adolescence, still behaves like a prepubescent kid. This was especially egregious in that early scene when his mother leaves him with the attic-or-out ultimatum and he sits alone in his bedroom at his computer not looking at internet porn. Who is this kid? Sure, the toys often express their sexualities in cleverly coded terms decipherable for adults and unrecognizable to kids, but this franchise’s agile writers really seem to struggle with giving their human characters interesting dialog and emotions. The toys make you cry; the humans just make you roll your eyes. The final, torch-passing scene, for all Woody’s very effective tear-jerking, went awful long and overboard with all Andy’s franchise-recap speechifying. I frankly don’t understand how you see him appealing to a young adult audience, or anyone other than Woody really for that matter.

The toys, meanwhile, in their capacity as symbolic childhood that you very rightly pinpointed, are less constrained by socialized boundaries. They stand for a kind of libidinous id thriving in the human ego’s literal blind spots. When you look at them, they go limp, their uncanny powers mysteriously concealed. All they want is to be played with, and when Rex crankily, desperately complains early on that Andy hasn’t played with them in months, the film’s play-sex analogy is made pretty explicit. Still, toy sex ain’t always liberating. We get a couple of anal sex/rape jokes: after the first round of toddler abuse in the daycare’s symbolic prison, Hamm, the piggy bank, comes to with an assortment of strange objects shoved up his hole; later, in happier times, a trio of plush peas roll out of Mr. Potato Head’s butt like G-rated anal beads.

Basically, as we discussed briefly outside the theater amidst swirling currents of screeching kids apparently unfazed by the racy subtext, Woody advocates for proprietary (gay) monogamy by insisting that he belongs to Andy, the boy whose name he has scrawled on his boot like a lover’s name tattooed on his arm, while his cohorts seek a polyamorous arrangement with the dozens of kids at the Sunnyside Daycare center. (The military stiff Buzz gets his own little sexual revolution when he, or rather his love interest Jessie, discovers the hilariously liberating possibilities of “Spanish Mode.”) The toys’ collective dream of multiple partners in a loving, uninhibited, pleasure-maximizing environment—I’m thinking of those orgy scenes from Shortbus in the titular sex club—turn into a terrifying nightmare of Oz-like subjugation, exploitation and abuse. The ending tries to make room for both the monogamous core cast and the poly playthings, but the former lifestyle definitely comes off better than the latter, don’t you think? How do Ken and Barbie fit into this scheme, or do they? Andy’s apparently been raised by a single mother; how does that complicate this family-vs-sexual funhouse reading? And what about that landfill sequence? Is Toy Story 3’s environmental agenda any clearer than its muddled sexual politics?

HENRY:
I think I’ll keep off the sexuality for now, Ben, except to say I thought the toys’ repeatedly voiced need to be “played with” was perhaps the film’s funniest joke—and I’m not even sure the film’s 27 four writers meant it to be funny! But I would like to jump in on the environmental politics at play here. So, near the end, the toys wind up at a landfill by accident/narrative necessity, and it’s horrifying: assaults from all sides by bulldozers (like being in the ocean, battered by waves from all directions) leading to a trip down an inexorable conveyor belt that brings them into the dump’s heart: a straight-up inferno, whose raging fires burn off the tr- from trash (and serendipitously evoke the Lost finale!)

Stepping back from the literal, I was thinking that, for the toys, their owner is the godhead, and so his absence/rejection results, for them, in hell. But on a literal plain it’s another Pixar-led indictment of a culture of waste, a reminder for kids (and, for fuck’s sake, adults) that garbage doesn’t miraculously disappear once the kindly sanitation worker lifts it from your curb—it goes to a horrible, horrible place (Staten Island?) that no toy or man should ever want to visit.

It’d be easy to attack Pixar again, as commentators did with Wall-E, for criticizing a garbagey culture while being responsible for so much of that trash just in its production of toys alone. But I think the defense of Wall-E that I mustered at the time works again here: that Pixar draws a line between two different kinds of manufactured objects; it has a deep affection for artifact—no company or film franchise has ever made tangible items seem so important, particularly in this virtual era in which corporations want to put an end to books, for fuck’s sake—just like that adorable little robot simultaneously swept up human detritus and maintained a veritable museum of curios in his bunker. There’s garbage, and then there are the plastic things we imbue with emotional value. We should cut back on the former, prize the latter. That is, people concerned about waste should become more materialistic, not less, because the problem with American culture is that we have no respect for the things we produce: it’s all disposable, landfill-bound junk. (Like the Buzz-emblazoned soda-cups surely available at McDonald’s? Maybe this doesn’t hold up so well after all, Ben…)

Anyway, you know what I didn’t love about TS3? Its really long middle. Here I am, investing all this energy into allegory-unraveling and all this emotion into plastic-mobobs when the toys get holed up as prisoners at the daycare center. I’m scribbling in my notebook things like “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “Guantanamo iconography” but really it’s just a prison break send-up that’s, uh, fun I guess, sometimes clever and exciting, but at the same time kind of empty. Though it does return Woody to his primal role, that of a Western-movies hero, spearheading the heroic rescue. Hey Ben, maybe there’s something to your Searchers parallel after all.

BEN:
Henry, I appreciate your attempt to salvage my searching Searchers reading from the trash-heap of poorly assembled, disposable interpretations, but I think The Great Escape probably makes more sense for the chapter to which you’re referring. Because by this middle section TS3 becomes less about Woody’s stick-in-the-mud allegiance to Andy and more about the group getting back to their ensemble camaraderie against common foes. The band of baddie daycare-prison wardens (including memory-erased Buzz), in cahoots with incarcerated gang-members, of course, turn out to be more similar than different, a hodge-podge of symbolic entities (the giant baby, the snitching rotary phone, etc.) who were simply mislead by a single-minded leader with a huge chip on his shoulder. It’s a Disney movie after all, and the pure evil characters, however plush, pink and strawberry-scented, must be identified and reprimanded accordingly.

And speaking of redeemed bad guys, since you didn’t mention Ken and Barbie I guess I’ll get into how TS3’s two-faced anti-consumerism, pro-stuff, monogamous, pro-play stances are all manifested in the relationship between the Adam and Eve of the toy universe—“We were made for each other” indeed! Ken (a cannily voice-cast Michael Keaton) is pretty much coded-gay in the most stereotypical manner possible—he’s into interior decoration, he has a whole bedroom just for trying on clothes, he wears pink, neckerchiefs, and, at one point, a pink neckerchief. Except of course he’s predestined for his badass Barbie counterpart, a proto-feminist plastic babe who subverts the blonde stereotype by fighting for her liberation from one of the most fundamentally patriarchal forms of control, the penal (hehe) system. Ken’s two-story plastic colonial stands as a kind of absurd version of the suburbs that fill in the backdrops of Sunnyside (Queens?) in the exterior sequences, a narcissist’s palatial tribute to himself where he dances for Barbie in increasingly ridiculous and shiny costumes during one of those more tiresome prison-break sequences. Ken’s over-determined not-quite-queerness made me a little queasy, as if his implied bisexuality was intended as an analogy for his flip-flopping morality. He finally does good by Barbie, though, confirming his metrosexual straightness and moral goodness in one courageous act of defiance.

But then, as you rightly pointed out, and as we’ve noted in previous discussions of such perfectly pre-packaged event entertainment, it pays to play to all political consistencies, whether conservative and consumerist, or queer and crafty. Like, did you notice that the daycare had its own toy-run repair shop? That place was like a straight-up fucking rad hippie commune until it turned out to be a mob-run butt-raping prison. See Henry, a little something for everyone in the audience—and Lots-O dough for Disney/Pixar/plastic toy manufacturers.

3 Comment

  • Henry, I just realized that we never touched on the 3D in Toy Story 3. Though we made passing allusions to recent films that made terrific use of the medium’s immersive, textural possibilities (Avatar, Up), the 3D in TS3 seemed rather superfluous. Sure, there were no projectiles obnoxiously thrown at the camera as in so many sub-par 3D movies, but the effect also did little or nothing to accentuate the depth or dimensions of the environments. It was invisible, but not in a good way, don’t you think?

  • by the way: “Young adults, typically not a big audience for animated films, also played an important role. Disney said ‘Toy Story 3′ drew 40 percent of its nonfamily audience from people ages 17 to 24: the group that grew up with Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the other characters from the franchise.”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/21/movies/2…

    Cha-ching!

    Anyway, Ben, I agree with you that the 3D was invisible, though I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say “in a bad way”.

    As for normal movie goer, I found your comment a much bigger waste of time and space than our post. Thanks for reading!

  • Also for normal movie goer: if objectivity is what you look for in movie reviews, you should only be reading IMDb synopses.

    I’m glad to hear that we’re succeeding at being “over the top” in our analyses and analogies, though, since that’s been one of our goals main from the start.