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Toy Stories for Humanists?

The original Toy Story, released in 1995 by Disney/Pixar, has impressed critic Leonard Maltin as a "grown-up story masquerading as a kid's film," while Toy Story 2, released this past holiday season, contains a philosophy that is "kind of profound," according to Roger Ebert. As the sequel is now the second-highest-grossing film in Disney history (after The Lion King), this seems a good time to take a close look at both films to see if we can discover just what these critics might be talking about. What sort of philosophy has been so cleverly hidden beneath what appears to be the straightforward buddy picture of the first movie and the simple rescue mission of the second?

I believe that within both films there is a depiction of a deep and moving humanism. Not just within the simple plots; certainly there are the obvious humanist virtues of loyalty, friendship, courage, cooperation, and honor aplenty. No, I believe that within each movie can be found what appears to be a carefully thought-out and detailed humanist message. I would be dishonest if I claimed that this interpretation is what the writers actually intended. But not only do I think this interpretation works, after having come up with it I find it hard to see the stories in any other way.

Toy Story 1: As It Appears to Be

Woody the cowboy doll, Andy's favorite toy, finds himself usurped from that position by the arrival of Buzz Lightyear, Space Ranger. Buzz's whooshing space helmet, micro-chip voice, "aluminum carbide" wings, "laser" light, communicator, and "karate-chop action" make Woody's pullstring and tired "There's a snake in my boot!" seem decidedly low-tech and low-quality. An intense rivalry develops between the two--rivalry that turns into frank mockery on Woody's part when he realizes that Buzz believes he is the actual Buzz Lightyear from Star Command and not a toy at all.

The depth of Buzz's delusion is clearly shown when he closes his eyes and "flies" around the room in a series of plausible accidents that Woody correctly interprets as "falling with style." And the depth of Woody's frustration is shown when, in an attempt to prevent Andy from choosing Buzz instead of him to go on an outing, Woody attempts to knock Buzz down behind a bureau.

The attempt goes too far, however, and Buzz is knocked out the window. Woody is taken on the outing but Buzz, furious, follows and catches up with him. The ensuing fight leaves them both lost and alone--Woody terrified by the fact that he is a "lost toy" and Buzz, still deluded, upset that he has been prevented from successfully completing his mission against the "evil Emperor Zurg." This infuriates Woody, who tries yet again to explain to Buzz, "You are a toy! You are a child's plaything!" so he can get Buzz to help him figure out a way to get back to Andy. Buzz's comment is, "You are a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity."

Eventually they manage to find Andy but are prevented from rejoining him by Sid, Andy's next-door neighbor, who takes the two toys home to "play." A ghastly child, Sid delights in torturing his toys. His room is filled with horribly mutilated playthings that roam about in silent, furtive groups. Both Woody and Buzz are desperate to escape. They find a fortunate opportunity when Sid's usually locked door is left open. But they get separated, and Buzz ends up in a den with the television blaring.

"Buzz Lightyear, this is Star Command! Come in, Buzz Lightyear!" says the TV, and Buzz, excited and relieved to hear from Star Command at last, eagerly opens his communicator to answer. But the television blithely continues on with the commercial, completely ignoring Buzz. Buzz watches in horror as an exact replica of himself is shown, in excruciating detail, to be nothing but a toy--and not even a flying toy at that. His rival Woody has been right all along.

Buzz leaves the room in despair, all the meaning in his universe turned upside down. "Years of academy training wasted!" he laments. Now that he realizes he is a toy, he feels valueless, worthless, unable to save Woody, unable even to save himself. Woody has to explain to him that he has value exactly because he is a toy and not a real space ranger. "Look at you," Woody tells him, "You are a really cool toy."

It takes a long night of hard thinking before Buzz comes to accept that Woody is right. So, with the aid of Sid's maimed but gentle toys, which know all too well what it is to be hurt and how important it is to help, Buzz and Woody manage to escape Sid's clutches and are reunited with Andy.

Humanism Under the Surface

In order to see what is hidden here in plain sight, we need to realize that the world these characters inhabit is a toy version of the real world. The toys are metaphorical human beings, the problems they face are metaphorical versions of human problems, their hopes and feelings and desires are human ones: In and of themselves the events in the toy story have no particular validity; they merely motivate these metaphors to act and show their true nature.

Seen as such an allegory, Toy Story becomes a carefully wrought description of two opposing world views: naturalism and supernaturalism. Woody and the other toys in the playroom represent the naturalistic world view. They are mechanisms--material objects that have a material source, a real-world history and origin (Mattel or Playskool or such), and no function other than to be just what they are. Woody embodies basic American Pragmatism. He's a toy, a mechanism, a material being; he knows it and is content with it.

Buzz, on the other hand, is an other-worldly being whose aims, purpose, and reason for existence come from outside this toy reality. Just as Christian believers in our world think they truly are embodied, immaterial souls guided by God and charged with the duty of defeating Satan, Buzz believes he truly is a space ranger directed by Star Command and charged with the duty of defeating the evil Emperor Zurg. He is "real" (that is, not just a toy) even if he is forced to follow the rules of being a toy (such as freezing still in the presence of humans)--just as religious believers are "spiritual" even though they are forced to take into account the facts of this material, physical world like the rest of us.

Buzz, supremely confident in his delusion, firmly believes himself to be "something more" than all the other "sad, strange little men" around him--just as religious believers do. After all, he can fly (perform or receive occasional miracles) even if foolish Woody, the humanist in the corner, thinks that all he can actually do is "fall with style" (live within the real constraints of the laws of physics).

Not until he is shown, point by excruciating point Coy the television--the voice of the modern world, of science, of technology) that he is in fact a mechanism, in a way that even he can't deny, does Buzz realize that his rival Woody has been telling him the truth all this time. Even then he can't believe it and tries, one more time, to embrace the wonderful story of his cosmic purpose as it was revealed to him on the box he came in (his bible). But when an effort to fly fails, even Buzz must admit he is a mechanism, a material object, a toy.

Having believed he had "infinity and beyond" in his grasp ("all this and heaven, too!"), he now feels he is nothing, absolutely worthless, and of no help to anyone. If he can't be a space ranger he can't be anything meaningful In his despair he gives up completely: "Andy's house, Sid's house, what's the difference?" he asks. If the atheists are right, what difference does it make in what material circumstance the believer finds himself? If it has to do with the material world, it is all vanity--worthless, purposeless, valueless. Without heaven and God, life is meaningless. What does it matter where you end up?

Even as a toy, however, Buzz in fact has worth and meaning--just as human beings have worth and meaning even if they are "nothing but" material objects. Saving the poor tortured toys in Sid's room has meaning, just as working to make the material world a better place has meaning. Going back to Andy--to the democracy of the playroom--has meaning and value, even if there isn't a heaven or a Star Command. "Falling with style" has meaning, even if it isn't flying. Loyalty has meaning. Understanding has meaning. Honesty has meaning.

And so Buzz courageously accepts his lot and even makes good use of his life, saving the day within the terms of the material, scientific, and humanistic universe in which he now realizes he has been all along.

Toy Story 2: As It Appears to Be

Woody is accidentally damaged by Andy during play and put up on a high shelf while Andy goes off to Cowboy Camp. Woody is horrified, as this is tantamount to death for a toy--as is ominously shown the following morning when a pathetic penguin sharing the shelf with him is summarily dragged off to a garage sale. Woody vows to rescue the penguin and does so with the help of Andy's dog Buster. But he himself is accidentally left behind and falls into the clutches of Al of Al's Toy Barn, who has been looking for a Woody doll for a long time.

When Woody is taken to Al's penthouse apartment, he discovers he is not "just" a toy but a "valuable collectible," part of the famous 1950s TV show Woody's Roundup. His Roundup companions--the cowgirl Jessie, the horse Bullseye, and the prospector Stinky Pete (who has never been removed from his box)--all greet him with enormous enthusiasm. Woody wonders why, and Jessie explains that with Woody there they form a complete set and can be sold for a large amount of money to the Koneshi Toy Museum in Tokyo.

Woody, though deeply impressed and flattered by their attention and his unexpected importance, demurs, declaring that he has to go back to Andy. This disappoints the other Roundup toys, particularly Jessie, who loathes the idea of being put back into storage. The tender-hearted Woody then finds himself pinned on the horns of a moral dilemma: should he go back to Andy's room and rejoin his old friends, or remain and help his TV companions? Woody wants to return home but "How long will Andy's love last, Woody?" Stinky Pete asks. He warns Woody that, as a toy, he is certain to be abandoned --as Jessie was. Jessie tells her sad story and Woody realizes that, in time, Andy will abandon him as well. Surely the toy museum is a better choice.

In the meantime, Woody's old friends at Andy's house, having identified Al from the TV advertisements, vow to rescue Woody. A group of them leave Andy's room for a nineteen-block journey to Al's Toy Barn. Once there, they set off in different directions looking for Woody. In the process, Buzz discovers an entire aisle full of copies of himself.

Except they aren't quite copies. They're a slightly newer version of Buzz --one with a utility belt. Buzz realizes the belt might be useful and tries to sneak one off of a display model. He almost succeeds but the display model catches him. Every bit as deluded as Buzz once was, the display model says that Buzz has broken Star Command rules by coming out of hypersleep too soon and forces him into an empty box.

Buzz eventually escapes to rejoin the rescue team, which reaches Woody a short time later. The rescue fails, however, when Woody refuses to return, declaring, "Who am I to break up the Roundup gang?" The rescuers leave disappointed but not before Buzz upbraids Woody for his cowardice and for valuing Andy's love so little.

After thinking it over, Woody realizes Buzz is right and decides to go back to Andy after all--except that Stinky Pete, "forced to take desperate measures," prevents him from leaving. Sick of being unwanted and unbought but terrified of facing the dangers of being played with by a child, Stinky Pete prevents the others from rescuing Woody.

Soon Al returns and packs the toys for their trip to Japan. So the rescue team follows Al to the airport. Cliff-hanging rescue effort follows cliff-hanging rescue effort until Buzz, riding Bullseye, saves the day. The toys then return home on a stolen baggage-handling truck--all except Stinky Pete, who has been added to a little girl's backpack along with a Barbie doll. He is mortified and becomes even more so when he sees that the girl has painted pretty designs on Barbie's face and realizes that, whatever fate awaits him, he will definitely not remain in mint condition!

More Humanism Under the Surface

Finding meaning in Toy Story 2 comes from realizing that the metaphor behind the surface story tries to answer a very important question: once you've released yourself from belief in the immaterial, how are you going to live your material life? Are you going to live it courageously, willing to love others deeply enough to risk the pain of loss and rejection, the inevitability of growing old and finally dying? Or are you going to take the safer path of avoiding love and change so you can fool yourself into believing you can somehow last forever?

Woody begins the movie facing the uncomfortable realization of his own mortality--the realization that change in a material world inevitably leads to death and dissolution. Once he discovers the other members of Woody's Roundup, however, he finds out he is famous, important, and even marketable --provided he is willing to never change again and, more importantly, to give up Andy's love, a love that seems less valuable once he realizes it will ultimately come to an end. What is being offered looks like a practical, material heaven without the risk of mortality, ugliness, or abandonment. All he has to do is give up Andy's limited love and replace it with the endless, though distant, affection of strangers. It sounds too good to be true.

And surely it seems the best possible choice once he hears Jessie's story. Jessie has known real love, as has Woody, but, like a jilted lover, she is so full of pain she believes that not only will she never be loved again but that being loved in the first place wasn't worth her current agony. She's more than willing to accept the prospector's route of the sterile, distant approval that comes with a changeless, frozen fame rather than risk such pain again.

Stinky Pete has convinced her of this lie. And who can blame him? Kept in a box all his life, brought up, if you will, without any love at all, he is a kind of sociopath, convinced that his loveless condition is natural and proper not only for himself but for everyone else as well --so much so that he refuses to accept Woody's offer to come back with him to Andy's room and be a loved toy. In a single moment of carefully calculated tenderness he encourages Jessie to tell her sad story because he knows it will convince Woody of the transience of Andy's love. Stinky Pete can then be sold at last and never have to risk getting damaged or broken. He wants this eternal, changeless living death of being a toy in a museum because he is, in fact, terrified of real life. He will literally do anything to achieve his ends, even if it means ruining the chances of the rest of the Roundup gang for happiness with Andy. As Woody says, "You really are stinky, Pete."

But it is the truly enlightened Buzz who points out the folly of this hopeless desire for changelessness in the real world--a Buzz who has had to fight being forced back into the cookie-cutter world of the hordes of his religious brethren, a Buzz who has deeply taken to heart Woody's own message that toys are meant to be played with, even broken, because that's the price you pay for the privilege of being alive and loved.

Human beings, however much we might wish otherwise, are mortal, fallible, and subject to wear and tear, no matter how many face-lifts we have in an attempt to restore lost youth, no matter how many cryogenic heavens we might try to enter. Loving and being loved are what, make life worthwhile. And even though death is inevitable, as Woody says, life will be "fun while it lasts."

Coming from Disney, the home of the fantasyland philosophy of "wish upon a star," it's refreshing to see two movies expressing adult and grounded values that we can all readily embrace. For even though our whole existence is confined to this little planetary toyroom, even though we must face a life of limited length in which we risk both physical and emotional injury, that life is still rewarding and worth cherishing. Life has meaning when we are fully engaged in it. We don't need instructions from a supernatural Star Command, nor the permanence of either a heavenly or an earthly toy museum to find that meaning. Toys or people, our humanist purpose is best found in those we love.

Lucia K. B. Hall, a former biochemist, is the owner/artist of Planetary Dragon-works, writes both fiction and nonfiction, is the editor of the San Diego Humanist, and is the current president of the Humanist Association of San Diego. Her e-mail address is
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Author:Hall, Lucia K.B.
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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