Toy Story 3: nightmare of emotional socialism

I took the girls to see Toy Story 3 on a hot and humid July 4 afternoon.

It’s incredibly clever and good.  I was fascinated by the way it seems to play out a conflict between what could be described as emotional capitalism and emotional socialism.  Andy is going off to college and is consigning his old toys to the attic — unless he’s persuaded by his mother to donate them to the local Sunnyside Daycare.   Although Woody is suspicious, the other toys view Sunnyside as a utopian solution to their dilemma.  For a toy attached to a single human child, obsolescence is all but guaranteed.  The child ages and casts the toys aside: if they’re lucky, to be saved for the child’s own children a generation later; more likely, tossed out.  It’s the old Velveteen Rabbit problem, exacerbated in an age of cheap Chinese plastic toys.  (That’s the most unrealistic part of the Toy Story films, that Woody & Buzz and friends would survive for 10-15 years.)

At Sunnyside, as the reigning, avuncular patriarch Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear (who “smells like strawberries”) explains, toys escape the remorseless cycle of child aging and emotional withdrawal from the world of play: as we can see from the class photos on the wall, when one group of children ages, another replaces them.  It’s presented as a kind of socialism of love and play: the toys enjoy no primary human bond, but are played with by a cycling collective of children.  Kind of a toy kibbutz.  Love is free, easily passed on from individual to individual.  (And the toys are always donated, not purchased.)  Woody seems like a stubborn, old-fashioned individualist capitalist holdout, insisting to his comrades that “we have an owner, his name is Andy, remember?”  But the other toys refuse to go back to Andy’s attic (to wait patiently and perhaps hopelessly for the possibility of Andy eventually passing them on to his own children).

It turns out that Sunnyside is actually no utopia but a prison-camp Gulag nightmare, and Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear not a wise and loving elder but “Lotso,” a cynical and cruel (and, as we learn, emotionally traumatized) despot.  At this point the movie turns into a creepy Manchurian Toy narrative filled with Cold War anti-communist tropes (overlapping with prison-movie conventions).

Perhaps the most chilling image is the initially adorable, ultimately frightening baby infant doll, who toddles around cooing as Lotso’s golem-like enforcer.  We eventually learn that the bear and doll were abandoned at a rest stop by their own first owner, Daisy.  Lotso was always Daisy’s most “special” toy; when they somehow make it back to Daisy’s house after an Incredible Journey-like odyssey, and Lotso sees through the window that he’s been replaced by another bear of the same model, he can’t accept his own displacement, and allows the experience to turn him into a brutal cynic who no longer believes in any primary human-toy affectual bond.

Part of what’s so powerful about the movie is the way it traffics in a primal fear of loss of love.  Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear, denied affection, transforms into the cruel prison boss Lotso.  The toys’ experience of displacement and denied love is given disturbing overtones of sexless, loveless marriages.  They gaze with longing at their child who no longer will look at them, love them, touch them.  The movie begins with the toys engaging in “one last plan” to somehow induce Andy to pick them up and play with them the way he once did: pathetically, the only way they can think to do this is to steal his cell phone, to which Andy has transferred all his attention.  All of the toys begin to seem like abandoned spouses, yearning for contact.  The (almost inevitable) nightmare of abandonment or loss of love is literalized in being treated as “trash” or junk (in a landfill), denied any personhood or value by the former partner/parent/love object.  (This part recalls Wall-E a bit, although the environmental themes aren’t emphasized; the trashing of toys always feel highly individualized and metaphorical, not really about the disposal of plastic.)

In this depressed, emotionally desperate state, the toys give in easily to the illusory promise of Sunnyside, a total institution promising escape from the transience of human emotions — but where in fact, real love and affection have been transformed into a noisy, frightening ritual of impersonal abuse.  Sunnyside feels a bit like a Soviet orphanage.  The movie can be read as shockingly prejudicial about institutional childcare.  It suggests that “real,” peaceful, quiet emotions can only be found in a single family and a private home, experienced with an individual child; in the institutional setting of Sunnyside, children sweep in and out of the playroom on a rigid clock schedule, descending into a howling mass of screaming tots who can only abuse and destroy their toys.  I found a bit disturbing the film’s implication that the individual child’s ownership of a toy can be the only model for authentic love; the toys are finally redeemed by being not “donated” to the daycare center but given (a transaction between individuals, involving no institution) to a single child.  (To be fair, the horror of the Sunnyside playroom is explained by the fact that Lotso has consigned the protagonists to the age-inappropriate three-year-old room.  Also, Sunnyside is redeemed in the end and transformed from a prison camp into a fun daycamp run by counselors Ken and Barbie, but this felt tacked-on to me, and none of the toy protagonists stay there.)

Anyway, it’s all brilliant and hilariously witty.  Perhaps my favorite routine involves Buzz the astronaut accidentally being thrown into “Spanish mode,” which involves a lot of hip-shaking flamenco dancing, smoldering glances at Cowgirl Jessie, and dual-cheek kisses of greeting.

The sexless marriage theme is given a comic echo is the Barbie and Ken relationship; they make a big romantic-lovebird show, but they’re obviously happiest when trying on outfits together (with changing room) and putting on big group dance parties.  The “well-groomed” Ken’s homosexuality is fairly subtly joked about, although the film pushes the envelope a bit (hilariously I thought) at the end when we realize that a very girly, heart- and curlicue-filled note in purple ink was actually written not by Barbie but Ken.

p.s.  The girls liked it too; Iris said her favorite part was the disco-dance scene at the end.  Celie dismissed my reading of the film as “facile cultural-studies-by-numbers” (just kidding…).

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3 Responses

  1. Excellent review, Ivan. I loved the movie, too – thanks for taking the time to process it all. Ed

  2. Astute review, Ivan.

    I just wanted to note that actually, Woody is over 50 years old–we learned in Toy Story 2 that he is a vintage Woody who predates Sputnik. What’s never discussed: who owned Woody before Andy? Andy’s mom tells Al (of the Toy Barn) that he’s an old family toy, so presumably there was an emotional connection with a previous owner (her?), but Woody never talks about it, even when other toys have anxiety about transferring to a new child.

  3. Good point, Gavin. Perhaps there’s some repression there, a history of trauma or at least dissatisfaction?

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