Happy Anniversary: The Hellish Philosophical Wasteland That is Toy Story

Content Warning: Prepare to feel old.

Toy Story was first released in US theaters 22 years ago today. Are you okay? Take a minute to collect yourself after feeling a moment of your own mortality. Better? Good.

So yeah, 22 years. It quickly became a part of children’s classics. The characters were solid, the humor mostly timeless (see: not Shrek), and it tapped into enough nostalgia for childhood to bring any adult to their weeping knees. All of this is earned through direction that utilized space in animation in a way that had rarely been attempted. Toy Story was made at a crucial moment, when the technology had just been developed to achieve it on a technical level. The way they are crafted and assembled is sharp, and its incredible to see the films deal with the available technology, from the sheer effort made in rendering the first film to the amazing physics of the last installment. There are places where they clearly embrace the new abilities of hardware and software, but also places where they carefully turn away from cutting edge in order to retain their style. There’s a care through all of the movies that show just as much attention to creating a film as experimenting with software. Yet still I find the movies both horrific and terrifying.

This isn’t something that I have over-thought. Clarification: I have since over thought the series, but this visceral reaction struck me during the initial viewing of each of the three films. Toy Story was fine, but I noticed that everyone else seemed to love it while it never resonated with me. After finishing the second film, I was clearly not following the same emotional narrative everyone else was. While it opened up the universe of living toys, I was left pondering rather bizarre and disturbing implications of it all. Everyone else had their hearts warmed. When I left the theater after the third one I was no longer confused about the films. I knew exactly what they were, and the only thing that I was still confused about was everyone else’s acceptance of this nightmare of a world that people thought was okay to show children.

I’ll start with the world that the movies build. They are a philosophical nightmare. I don’t find it cute of comforting to imagine that toys have souls, and rest assured that in the Toy Story universe they do indeed have souls. No, it’s horrific and grotesque. One of the main criticisms against the claim of a soul existing is that the brain clearly is where whatever process makes a person a person resides. You can slowly peel away the limbs of a person and while each limb is no long an active part of them, the brain is. Modify the brain and you find that the abilities and personality traits of the subject have likewise been modified. The toys don’t follow this process and, as made most evident with Mr. Potato Head, the pieces of the toy continue to be pieces of him even when separated. The simplest way to think about this is that they have no brain and yet still have a mind and a self.

With that in mind, let’s look at Syd’s experiments. He slides and cuts away parts of toys, melding them with other scraps to create new items. We know he’s a villain because he’s ugly and cackles and is lit from below, but are his actions immoral? As far as he knows his toys are inanimate objects and he’s simply building with them. There’s little difference between this and playing with LEGO bricks, other than his demeanor.

And yet, it’s horrible. The things he makes appear to be monsters, and from the fact that they hide from him we can also assume that they are suffering to some degree. Taking his treatment a step back doesn’t even help. Let’s look at the average kid. They can be pretty rough with toys. In our world it’s a property issue, but in the world of Toy Story these kids are being abusive. And giving even more benefit to the hypothetical child, what of packing up toys and putting them in storage? Is this abandonment? Imprisonment? Eventually some toys wear out and are thrown out. We’ve seen that toys can be broken down to relatively small parts and still retain their sentience. So what of those toys buried in landfills, too damaged to be played with but still intact enough to retain awareness? I shudder to think.

It gets worse. Those are just a few obvious problems that arise when the basic mechanics of the Toy Story universe are looked at. The movies themselves create even more issues. While not quite as strict as the rules of Jim Henson’s The Christmas Toy1, it’s still a strong rule not to act alive in front of humans. Yet these toys view their owners as their best friends and bringing them joy is their purpose in life. This is a lie. The entirety of all toys’ friendships are founded on never actually communicating in any meaningful way with their “best friends”. Can a friendship predicated on explicitly never directly connecting, never telling each other the truth, really be a friendship? Is that even a relationship?

I mentioned Jim Henson’s The Christmas Toy as another world in which inanimate objects come to life. Toy Story is not unique in this conceit. What makes this the franchise which really gets to me is that every movie is based around specifically drawing attention to these issues and yet expects the audience to gloss over these ethical dilemmas. The first film positions Syd as the main villain, but it has nearly nothing to do with how he treats people and everything to do with how he treats toys. The audience is supposed to identify with the toys, empathize with them, and yet not empathize too much or you realize Syd and Andy have nearly the same amount of guilt to shoulder. The second film brings up issues of trafficking and slavery. Woody is being shipped by someone who collects self-aware toys and trades them to new owners for market gain. But again, we aren’t supposed to regard the toy collector as someone who has stolen a toy, but someone who’s kidnapped a friend and is shipping him far away. The third movie is perhaps the most twisted, as the villainous Lotso is the direct product of the split between how we’re supposed to view the toys and how humans are supposed to treat them. He’s reacting as if he’s the victim of abuse but we’re supposed to regard his previous owner as if she simply lost a toy. The movie can’t have it both ways. Are the toys people and should be regarded as such? Are they toys and should be relegated to simply property? Are they chattel, a class in the middle that we regard as intelligent and self-aware but do not grant rights to?

Other Pixar films could be dissected this way. Both Cars2 and Monsters Inc.3 have issues that are never addressed. But the difference is that these movies have them in the background. Toy Story not only raises them, but bases all of their plots and emotional investment on these points.


1 In that world, a toy caught moving by a human instantly falls inanimate.
2 Why are things built for human specifications when but used exclusively by non-humanoid beings?
3 Such as the ethics of energy source and responsibility. Also, if emotional outbursts can be harnessed, how were emotions other than fear never investigated? What sort of research does the energy company invest in? Ethics aside, on a free-market level laughter is just flat-out more economical.

About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who's sick of the white Christian male being America's "default" setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access are wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

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