A Religion for Toys

Posted by on July 6th, 2010 at 9:57 PM

The Toys' Entry Into the Underworld (Anonymous Icon)

I went into Toy Story 3 primed to play the skeptic, but honestly once it picked up a head of steam I was too busy feeling to do much thinking, and it would be churlish to pretend otherwise.  The first thought to mind once reason was restored was, what kind of a 17-year-old still hangs onto his baby toys?  In life as we live it our toy inventories exist in geological strata, and are periodically subject to complete renovation.  The toys we associate with one stage of our childhood will be purged utterly when we perceive we’ve entered another.  It is conceivable, and I mean just conceivable, that a kid might hang onto his favorite toy from preadolescence sentimentally, ironically or as a kind of mascot.  However, a kid that would do that would be either a little more fey or a little more butch (in the sense of having the front to maintain such an affectation in the face of ridicule by peers) than is Andy as portrayed here.  What eventually dawned on me was that Toy Story 3 is the scripture for the religion these anthropomorphic toys would have created for themselves.

Obviously this was no one’s intention.  Rather, it’s the byproduct of doling out just enough of the reality of what happens to abandoned toys to create a melancholy atmosphere without invoking so much as to make all the children in the audience bawl their eyes out.  In effect you have a rationale for these toys to believe that their existence as playthings will continue beyond its natural end.  As in the rationales we construct to believe that our creator will preserve our consciousnesses beyond our natural deaths, there is a certain element of wishful thinking involved.  There is an element of bargaining.  It is acknowledged that some of Andy’s toys have passed on through yard sales or other means, and this acknowledgment comes with genuine sadness.  For instance, the Bo Peep lamp who flirted with Woody is passed on, and Woody feels the loss, but we forget it quickly.  However, the number of toys that have survived the attrition in a decent state of repair is unnatural.  The only way all the little pieces of a Mr. Potato Head could survive the years is through divine intervention.

In the theology of Toy Story, Andy is God and Woody is his prophet.  He is more Moses than Jesus.  For one thing, he is orthodox.  In the theology of toys, the ideal is to be owned and to be played with.  Of these two, it is more important to be owned, and to be owned by one God only.  Andy’s room is heaven, and it is the dearest wish of all toys to dwell there with the Lord forever, though in the back of their minds they know this can’t be.  If one cannot be both owned and played with, it is better to be put in the purgatory of the attic than to be passed on into the unknown, even if that means being played with.  If one cannot be owned by the one true God, it is better to be played with.  It is totally within God’s discretion whether one is to be played with or to be kept, and the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether (though there can be false or unworthy Gods, see Toy Story primus).  Andy is the God of Gods, the ideal owner, who takes care of his toys, preserves their every accessory and plays with them as they should be played.  As prophet it is for Woody to explain the ways of Andy to toys.  Where others have doubts based on God’s apparent works, Woody’s belief is based entirely on faith.  If Andy ever seems to fail his toys, Woody knows it can only be through error or mischance, and that the loving designs of Andy will manifest themselves if the toys serve faithfully.  The central tenet of the Woody’s faith is, “Andy needs us.”

We can imagine that Toy Story 3 is a prophetic work, conceived at the time that toys have started to disappear.  The hours of playtime with Andy are dwindling, and the saving remnant tries to conceive of how their ideal toy existence might continue.  The scripture prophesies a time when Andy is about to leave for college, heaven is to be dismantled and the toys’ ultimate fate to be determined.  All are to be consigned to the attic except for Woody, who will accompany Andy to his new room.  However, when the other toys are mistakenly consigned to the curb and the garbage man, Woody leaves his safe berth in Andy’s luggage to rescue them.

Andy’s toys find themselves in the Sunnyside Daycare Center, a seeming Worker’s Paradise that turns out to be toy hell.  I have no doubt that the right wing commentariat will be having a field day with this, if it hasn’t started already.  Really, it’s natural David Brooks meat.  Sunnyside is presided over by the Satan (or Lenin) figure Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, a renegade toy who turned atheist.  The Bear has lost his faith turned against the creed of ownership due to a seeming abandonment by his owner.  He presents Sunnyside as a collectivist utopia of eternal play at the hands of a constantly replenished supply of children, with no toy belonging to any particular one.  Andy’s toys, their own faith shaken by their own seeming abandonment, are ready to renounce their allegiance to Andy.  Only Woody’s faith remains unshaken, as he tries to awaken his comrades to their duty.  Failing that, Woody escapes to try to find Andy and arrange a rescue.  The toys of little faith soon find that Sunnyside is a ruthless totalitarian regime run for the self-serving interests of its Central Committee, ruled with an iron fist by the Bear, and kept in control by a police state apparatus of constant surveillance.  The agenda of the rulers is not play and belonging but self-preservation, and have become so degenerate that they will play among themselves, having set up a casino in a snack machine.  A primary survival tactic is to sacrifice all newly arriving toys to the rough play of the toddlers, and this is to be the fate of Andy’s toys.  (There’s a definite flavor of Pinocchio‘s Pleasure Island sequence here.)

It must be said that if you are an anthropomorphic toy (as so many of us are these days) there is a certain Tragedy of the Commons aspect to the life of the day care center.  There is little incentive for the day care child to take care of the day care toy.  Far from forming an individual connection to any particular toy, the child is strongly admonished not to, but rather to share at all times.  However, before conservatives start salivating over this bit of mass culture affirmation they ought to consider some of the advantages.  Unlike the privately owned toy, the day care toy is less likely to be discarded when it becomes broken, worn out or unfashionable.  Indeed, the day care toy will usually be unfashionable the minute it appears, and will nevertheless be kept until it disintegrates.  While the privately owned toy will be better cared for and more cherished, it must constantly compete for the owner’s affections with newer toys.  No product in consumerism has an obsolescence so ruthlessly planned as a children’s toy.  In most households it must face the onslaught of at least two major toy acquisition holidays per year and the dynamic changes in a child’s tastes as he grows.  (You will recall this was the theme of Toy Story in the first place.)  The modern day conservative would also have be taken back a bit by the ethic of sacrifice of individual interests.  Really, nowhere outside of samurai movies do you see such devotion of the vassal to the daimyo.  Then again, I suppose a certain kind of conservative can see the toy owner as a kind of John Galt figure, without whom the lives of the toys are meaningless and worthless.  In any event the true worker’s paradise is ultimately established in Sunnyside when the Bear is deposed an replaced by the constitutional monarchy of Barbie and Ken.  This would mean a lot more if you happened to be a toy yourself, but then subtexts that have little applicability outside the premise of the movie have become a bit of a trademark of Pixar.

It must be said that the ending of Toy Story 3 carries a higher thrill factor than your average sacred text.  Animated features have a sort of a war movie feel this year.  Where the year’s now second best animated feature adopted the style of a World War I dogfight movie, Toy Story 3 heads into the Escape from Colditz genre.  (The final animated feature pecking order will naturally have to wait until Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist comes out.)  It takes a nicely ecumenical turn when Andy’s toys are rescued from certain doom through the divine intercession of The Claw, deity of the Squeeze Toy Aliens.  In the course of his odyssey Woody encounters another perfect owner in the person of a little girl named Bonnie (I get this kitchen logic notion that she’s supposed to be the kid from Monsters, Inc.), and sees what must be done.  Once the toys find their way back into Andy’s hands, Woody invokes a messiah’s privilege and petitions the Lord with a Post-It note.  Being a loving God, Andy sees that Woody’s way is the only way, and with all due ritual transubstantiates His toys into Bonnie’s toys.  They will thus have another entire childhood in a new earthly paradise, which sort of takes the religion of toys into pagan territory.  I mock and deride, but really this unintended religious dimension gives Toy Story 3 an undeniable emotional charge.  It allows you to imagine entering into an afterlife and knowing it’s for real, even if it’s just for one more go round.  Toy Story 3 is a thing unheard of these days, a children’s movie with a tragic sense.

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