Toy Stories for Humanists?

By Hall, Lucia K. B. | The Humanist, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Toy Stories for Humanists?

Hall, Lucia K. B., The Humanist

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. …

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