The Perfectly Weird Toy Story 3
“It’s pretty much a perfect film,” was my friend’s judgment after we saw Toy Story 3. I’m inclined to agree. The crazy thing about her statement? Nobody is the least bit surprised.
After 15 years and 11 films, Pixar has established such an exceptional standard of excellence that anything less than perfection is disappointing. In every aspect—animation, story construction, dialogue, character development, emotional depth, unobtrusive 3D effects—Toy Story 3 is unimpeachable. Toy Story 3 is a demonstration of what can happen when a gifted, driven group of people is as motivated by aesthetic excellence as it is by making money. Imagine what other Hollywood blockbusters would be like if their producers had even a quarter of Pixar’s perfectionism.
But you probably know all that. What I’d like to explore instead are the somewhat odd character psychologies and psychosexual dynamics of Toy Story 3. Take these characters out of the playpen and put them in a live-action film, and you wouldn’t find an odder collection of emotionally tilted, sexually ambiguous characters this side of Pedro Almodovar.
Chief among the oddballs is Andy. In the original Toy Story, Andy was a 6-year-old obsessed with his toys. In Toy Story 2, Andy was a 7-year-old obsessed with his toys. In Toy Story 3, Andy is a 17-year-old no longer obsessed with his toys, but he still shows a remarkable level of interest in them. He keeps them in a trunk in his room and plans on taking one of them (Woody) with him to college. Now, I loved toys when I was a kid. I had an army of G.I. Joe characters and vehicles and I could easily pack Castle Greyskull to the turrets with various Masters of the Universe. But I barely gave a thought to them after age 11 (indeed, a friend and I set fire to a bunch of them during a half-day in high school. But we didn’t come here to talk about my mental issues.). That Andy would still feel enough attachment to his toys at 17 that he insists on storing them in the attic makes Andy a little bit, well, weird. What about friends? A girlfriend? A boyfriend? There’s not the vaguest suggestion that any of these exist in his life (if they did, he probably wouldn’t still keep a trunk full of toys in his room). Perhaps his attachment to his toys has something to do with his cute but obsessively spring-cleaning mother who demands that his entire room be emptied before he leaves for college. She seems loving, but it’s a cold parent who neither desires nor allows her child to keep any accoutrements of his upbringing in his childhood room. Perhaps his excessive attachment to his toys is part of his process of differentiation from his excessively unattached mother. Or perhaps his retreats into a highly masculinized fantasy world (beautifully depicted in the film’s opening sequence, where Woody and Buzz square off with Mr. Potatohead and Hamm the Piggy Bank in an epic sci-fi/Western showdown) are indicative of his longing for a father-figure. I don’t believe any of the Toy Stories address Andy’s missing dad, a laudable absence given the kind of half-baked Freudianism that permeates so many children’s films (especially since Spielberg came along).
But to engage in some partial baking myself, I would like to suggest that Woody sees himself as Andy’s surrogate father. By the time of Toy Story 3, he is the wise elder of the toys, perpetually making plans to reignite Andy’s fading interest in them. While the other toys have begun to realize that Tony no longer cares about them, Woody is in denial. He suffers from empty-nest syndrome, refusing to believe that “his” Andy has grown up and moved on. He assumes responsibility for the other toys’ psychic well-being, offering B.S.-filled speeches about Andy’s imminent return to immaturity.
The only toy with whom Woody lets down his guard is Buzz Lightyear, his old rival. After 12 years together, Woody and Buzz act like something between Patton and Bradley and a married couple. While they do their best to keep the spirits of the other toys up, in private they discuss their anxieties about what’s really happening with Andy. Too much money is involved for Pixar to be subversive enough to suggest that the pair are life-partners (even though they clearly are); perhaps that’s why this film makes such a to-do about Buzz’s infatuation with Jessie, especially in his hyper-masculine Latin lover mode. Pixar’s avoidance of abnormal sexuality even extends to the most transparently closeted toy in history, Ken. While he is a clothes-adoring fop, he’s metrosexual rather than homosexual in Toy Story 3—he and Barbie fall for each other on first sight. “I love your leg warmers,” Ken says. “I love your ascot,” Barbie replies.
But as in his script for Little Miss Sunshine, screenwriter Michael Arndt knows what audience prejudices he’s toying with. A scene where Ken fabs out and displays his favorite costumes in a private fashion show for Barbie elicits probably the biggest laughs of the film. Its only competition, tellingly, is the aforementioned scene where Buzz’s language is accidentally reset to Spanish mode.
Part of what makes Pixar so brilliant is that it can flirt with Ken’s sexual ambiguity and depict Buzz’s hypersexuality without upsetting American parents’ ingrained sexual conservatism. Kids won’t get the allusions to homosexuality in Ken’s character; for them, he’s just a goofball who really likes to dress up in costumes, a desire not far from the heart of any kid who has even a passing interest in Halloween. And Buzz’s raging libido will be mostly lost on anyone who has difficulty reading subtitles. Without the translations from Spanish, Buzz is just dancing funny.
Much in the same way that South Park and The Simpsons can get away with satire they couldn’t attempt in other media, Pixar can get away with portraying psychologically abnormal characters because it makes animated “children’s” films. Animation’s sanctification as a “safe” entertainment for children gives it a greater degree of immunity from charges of subversiveness or poor taste than live-action film has. The irony is that the more domesticated the medium, the more potential there is for subversiveness. Which isn’t to say Toy Story 3 is subversive. Rather, it’s just kinda weird.