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Toy Story 3 - The Ex-Communicator

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July 25th, 2010

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09:14 am - Toy Story 3
Yesterday I went with my daughter to see Toy Story 3. It will be no surprise to anyone that it is an excellent film: the characterisation, the plotting, the visual design and the incidental jokes are all first class. It really shows up the mediocre quality of so many other films. Abigail commented on Inception that it is plotted as a heist movie, and the heist just isn't very well handled. The equivalent in Toy Story is a breakout from a maximum security playgroup (this is in reviews so not too much of a spoiler) and it is exemplary: each role is crucial, and they are interlocked in a complex but logical pattern, there is a balance between planned and improvised actions, the pacing of peril is just right. Could not be better written.

Four writers are credited on imdb, though to me it almost seemed like this was the work of a much larger creative team, as with the Simpsons, because of the generosity of jokes, as if the whole surface was embroidered. The voice acting is also really excellent.

However, half way through I was sitting there thinking, OMG, this is going to be the most unpopular opinion ever, but I think this film is irredeemably flawed. And then, what do you know, the flaws were to some extent overcome in later scenes.

The premise of the Toy Story series is that these creatures look like People, but they are Objects: immortal infinitely abusable slaves whose only redemption rests in submitting to the whims of those they love, and who have total power over them, but do not know they are sentient. Now, that is a horrific premise, which can literally only end in degradation. Kant wrote about this two hundred years ago - a sentient being is an end in itself not an object. The only relief is effected by submission and happy coincidences. It is to the credit of the series that this premise is not flinched from.

So you can't help but think 'what happens to toys when their owners outgrow them?' Three choices - landfill (does consciousness endure as the plastic is crushed?) - the limbo of storage - and being passed on to new children. The third seems the most satisfactory all round, but is treated very problematically, and the plot seems to lurch into crude propertarian propaganda. The Owner can dispose of them in any way he sees fit, and it is a sin for property to rebel, even in a harmless way. And when the toys are owned in common, they are treated even worse: it's like the tragedy of the commons at preschool. I know people might not agree but I think this sequence in the film is explicitly right wing propaganda: 'you must not seek communal solutions'. It doesn't help that Woody's bland plastic face, as he urges them to submit to being thrown in the trash because it is what the Owner wants, looks like certain politicians whom I shall not name.

Anyway the message is softened in later developments (the problem isn't common ownership, it's that the toys aren't age-appropriate... this is like a Guardian-reader wrestling the script out of the hands of a libertarian... now I'm imagining them fighting in the writers' room, each one pushing the other away from the single laptop, typing a few lines before the other one rugby-tackles them).

Oh, yeah, and there is some stuff about religion in there too: the evil baddy crowing 'Toys are just plastic, we're all just trash waiting to be thrown away'... 'Where is your god kid now?' - see what you think, but I think this is meant to signify 'atheist', and not in a good way.

But, you know, I am writing about this because it is interesting, and this is definitely a top quality film. It raises philosophical issues, at a more sophisticated level than Inception, while being more fun too.

(5 comments | Leave a comment)


Date:July 25th, 2010 05:28 pm (UTC)
There probably isn't a Pixar film that doesn't make some deeply uncomfortable statements - the latent fascism of The Incredibles, the scorn heaped on negative criticism in Ratatouille, the romantic triumph of stalking in Wall-E. I think what saves them all is that they're just too meaty to be summed up by these readings. You could read the toy's self-abnegation before Andy as an argument in favor of slavery, but you could also read it as a metaphor for parenthood (and I think that the scene at the end of the film, in which Andy's mother breaks down because his room is empty, is a clear indication that we're meant to draw this parallel). And you could read Andy giving his toys to Bonnie as the benign master passing his slaves along, or you could read it as his coming of age, and his realization that as an adult, he has a responsibility to the people and things that have helped him mature. I'm not saying that these positive readings negate the negative ones (though more troubling to me are the issues of consumerism that underly the entire series), but to my mind they do counteract them and help make the film a richer and more thought-provoking experience.
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Date:July 25th, 2010 06:49 pm (UTC)
This may be why I get the impression of multiple writers, bringing multiple views to the subject. Because sometimes I feel the Toy Story series is a cool unpicking of a painful subject - obviously a good thing for art to do - and sometimes it seems to veer into political didactics, which I am unsympathetic to. Obviously I'm not saying that's forbidden or anything, but it makes the films worse (for me at least).

I know a few reviewers have seen it as very much a parent-allegory. That didn't strike so much of a chord, ironically, although in a few weeks both my children actually are leaving to go to college, just like in the film. I see it on screen, but it doesn't remind me strongly of any emotion I am feeling.

I think consumerism is an aspect of the propertarianism that seems to be a strand in the film: goods hoarded by individuals - lots of toys passed on to a single, already-affluent kid, who already has lots of toys.

Edited at 2010-07-25 06:50 pm (UTC)
Date:July 25th, 2010 07:15 pm (UTC)
From what I've read, Pixar fosters the polar opposite of auteur culture. Most of their films are communal works, on the level of writing, directing, and of course animation. You'd think that would be a recipe for over-egged stories-by-committee but somehow the sublimation of individual voices has resulted in one of the most distinctive line of films in the last 20 years.
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Date:July 26th, 2010 09:43 am (UTC)
I think Pixar and The Simpsons show how powerful collaborative creation can be. It reminds me of the premise of New Model Army.
Date:July 27th, 2010 04:34 pm (UTC)
The Simpsons, though, is fairly typical of televised comedies (and some dramas) - most of them work with a writing room who all bring different elements to table to create the whole. That's not so common in filmmaking.

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