Toy Story 3 and Consumer Dehumanization

Lee Unkrich
Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton

I wasn’t expecting much from Toy Story 3—these are not my favorite line of Pixar films, and for the most part I’d rather see an original film than a sequel. So imagine my shock to find myself not only enthralled with the typical Pixar attributes—it’s clever, it’s hilarious, it’s ingenious, it’s beautifully-animated, it’s rich, etc.—but really moved emotionally and left intellectually reeling by just how complicated and dark the themes are. Here I wax a bit philosophical about the darkness of its content and how it relates to our lives as American consumers.

For a summary of the plot of the movie, you might want to read the review.

The Danger of Becoming Human Garbage

The big threat the toys face in the film is that of being thrown in the garbage. Now that Andy is going to college, he has to choose between putting the toys in the attic, or throwing them out. There are a lot of fairly shocking images, such as all of our protagonists, lifeless in a pile at the bottom of a garbage bag, which brings to mind Holocaust imagery. There are two sequences of garbage trucks roaring down the street, presented as giant roaring machines, and at one point we see the crushing machinery of one of the trucks and the danger it represents. The film ends as the toys face the ultimate annihilation, being processed as junk at a landfill, and facing doom in an incinerating flame presented as a literal entrance to hell.

Okay, so is this all just abstract, with little real resonance to human life? Well, consider the widespread dehumanization of contemporary American society. Schools, hospitals, insurance companies, credit card companies, retailers, all turn people into numbers or profiles and process them through. You have little chance of getting any individual attention, let alone any human attention, and as such, you are seen as less of a human being, and more of an abstract case or statistic.

Now consider the dehumanization resulting from the global news media. We see people in Haiti or China reeling from an earthquake, and it’s just these figures on a screen, dismissed as soon as it’s off the screen, if not before, especially if they are from a developing, non-glamorous place like Haiti. There have just been a few articles about it being the one-year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake and that basically the people are still living in a disaster zone, but world interest—and help—have fallen off the radar. In this country, it’s hard to avoid the realization that the government is avoiding dealing with global climate change and the vast impact it will have in individual’s lives because the priority is in keeping money flowing so the economy doesn’t collapse. There are 84,000 chemicals currently in use in household products, many of which may be harmful, but the US allows companies NOT to disclose the harm they could cause if they think it might hurt profits. The US is far behind other countries in education, causing blame to be heaped on the one element we can control—the teachers—while no one is going to try to check the flow of money cycled through the economy by learning’s competitors: pop music, television, movies and video games. Everywhere you turn is another example of how, outside of your own family or circle of friends, you are just an infinitesimal part of a percentage, and ultimately do not matter at all. At this point in American society we are, in many ways, just so much human trash.

Now let’s consider this a bit more personally. Studies are now starting to emerge about the dehumanizing, depersonalizing aspects of online media and the Internet. It’s difficult to maintain the mentally-healthy illusion that you are unique or talented when you need merely do a simple Google search to find someone more talented or successful than you. Magazines exclusively cover those who have “made it;” often these post-human pod people with impossibly perfect bodies and blindingly white teeth, delivering the message that if you haven’t “made it,” whatever that is, you are a loser. Or, more likely, just another among the faceless chaff of humanity. Nothing special about you. The human garbage. I personally see this as going hand in hand with the increased focus on celebrity and obsession with becoming a celebrity in some way, ANY way: It is a reaction against culture-wide depersonalization, and an attempt to prove, to yourself and others, that you are special.

Now let's narrow to focus specifically on social media. On Facebook, or any other social or dating site, you have a short window to make an impression on anyone that might look at you. Thus you have to post the best pictures of yourself, and tailor your likes and personal info to create the best perception of yourself, to convey a persona--which may or may not be accurate--that will make you appealing to people shopping for friends or dates. In short, you are packaging and selling yourself like a product. You choose the most flattering picture of yourself, and you distill your "features" down into chunks that can be quickly scanned by browsers. Together, users of social sites make up a vast online catalog of people as products, that can be browsed, engaged with, or dismissed. Success is determined by many as the amount of people you can get to friend or follow you. But there is always the very real prospect that if you don’t remain “fun,” those people could tire of you, and you, through your online self, could be literally thrown in the trash.

With all this lingering in the background, the situation the toys find themselves in, obsolete products whose owners have tired of them and who now face being tossed out with the trash, becomes charged with very real present-day human anxieties.

Do Our Consumer Products Love Us?

One of the accomplishments of the Toy Story films is to center our empathy on inanimate consumer products. In these films, the toys are where our sympathies lie, and we see the world through their eyes. To the humans in the story they are just lifeless pieces of plastic, meant to either be played with or junked. As far as the humans are concerned, the only consciousness the toys have is that which is projected onto them. But we see the toys as fully-formed conscious beings with feelings and fears, which will be explored over the course of the film.

What this does, in a larger way, is ask us to imagine what if all the consumer products in our lives were conscious, and think how they might feel about being used for a short time, maybe imbued with qualities while they are in use [for example, it is common to think of cars and ships as faithful women, dolls and teddy bears and cell phones and organizers as friends], then, when their usefulness is over, we retract all that affection, put them in storage or dump them in the trash. By extension, this invites us to imagine our dumps and landfills as areas of heartbroken objects, loved for a short time, then ditched [this idea became the entire basis of Kubrick/Spielberg’s A.I.]. To these objects, as discussed above, the ultimate horror is that of having all that affection suddenly removed, finding out that you now mean nothing to your owner [who is oblivious to all of your own affection and attachment], and being thrown in the garbage.

Part of the achievement of the film is to turn this fantastical situation into one with great existential resonance. The toys exist to be played with, and nothing else. Therefore, if no one plays with them, do they exist? Do they have any purpose at all? Furthermore, they only spring to life when no human is looking, so you have all these characters who constantly pop in and out of consciousness, and are helpless to communicate their feelings. The movie makes great use of long takes showing a human looking at their lifeless, immobile faces, while we know what is going on in their heads that they cannot express. These toys are completely at the mercy of the humans, and their existence depends on that human “seeing something” in them.

Now consider that we, in our friendships and relationships, are dependent on another person seeing something in us. And even if they do, there is a danger of that being taken away, leaving us bereft. I once had a ‘friend with benefits’ who was very interested and would talk to me about a novel I was writing, and really engage in its ideas and help me with what I was trying to do. When I entered a relationship, and the ‘benefits’ to this friend ceased, I found that this person’s interest in my novel dropped precipitously. So I discovered that this person was projecting all this interest in my thoughts and ideas onto me, which I took for genuine engagement, but once the physical aspect ended, buh-bye interest in me as a person. Like the situation the toys face, this person essentially stopped finding something interesting in me, and despite my feeling for them, I was dropped. I know many of have faced similar situations, which only highlight how dependent we are on OTHERS’ perceptions and investments of feeling in us to define who we are. Also, like the toys, we are often helpless to express our attachment to someone, through distance, fear, or merely being inarticulate, and are thrown helpless on the baseless hope that they will see something in us.

There is a small element in the film that seemed very moving to me: We have a flashback that explains why Lots-O Huggin’ bear became so bitter. He and other toys were beloved of this little girl, who fell asleep and accidentally left them behind. Lots-O follows the girl back to her home and peers in the window, only to see that the girl now has an IDENTICAL REPLACEMENT, which she is playing with as though she doesn’t see the difference. And she doesn’t… her relationship with this bear exists only in her projections of feeling onto it, so as far as she’s concerned, this new bear IS exactly the same as her old friend. Again, this brings to mind how dependent all of us are in others’ seeing something unique in us, which can quickly vanish if they simply stop seeing it. This particular scenario also brought to mind the common case of the woman left by her husband, only to discover that her replacement looks almost exactly like she did, 20 years ago.

Consumerism, Technology, and the Future

We’ve mentioned how the conceit of these films is that of considering the inner life of consumer products. On this topic, the film includes a great deal of social commentary. The first among these is the fact that the kind of imagination-based toys featured in this film are being rapidly replaced by technology toys that have done all the imagining for you.

After the opening action sequence, we join our heroes in a toy box, where they try to lure Andy's attention by stealing his cell phone and calling him. It's significant that they need to use a technological device to lure him back to his quaint old toys. Soon after, we see Andy putting off dealing with his toys by spending time on his laptop, and when his younger sister comes in the room, she has white iPod earphones in, showing that the kids have moved on to gadgets from actual toys. The toys discuss that they have tried several methods to attract Andy's attention, none of them have worked, and the adventure of the movie kicks off by them facing the fact that Andy doesn't want them anymore.

The other underlying idea is that these consumer products will ultimately end up in the trash. Here the film climaxes with the toys facing their ultimate destination, the landfill. In its emphasis on trash, this film has a thematic connection with WALL-E, in which the Earth has been destroyed by consumerism, where our discarded products have piled up to the point that they have smothered the Earth and made it uninhabitable. In a way, these two films make excellent bookends, as here we see objects outliving their usefulness and being discarded, and in WALL-E we see a long-term projection of what all that unsustainable consumerism leads to.

Did the writers and directors at Pixar intend any or all of this? Maybe, maybe not, but that is irrelevant to what the audience does or doesn’t get out of it. Like the toys it depicts, the film itself is a consumer product in which we can see [or refuse to see] these qualities, divorced from the intentions of its makers. But I would bet on at least some consciousness of these issues. If you look quickly during Toy Story 3, you will notice that Buzz Lightyear’s batteries are from Buy N’ Large, the Costco-like superstore portrayed as a cause of the trash apocalypse in WALL-E. Then, in the distant future of WALL-E, both the piggy bank and dinosaur characters show up among the garbage collected in the truck where Wall-E lives. So here we see the toys narrowly escaping [or merely putting off] a fate in the landfill, and in WALL-E we see that in the long run, they end up there anyway, part of the overwhelming tide of garbage that has ruined the world.

To me, it was all these resonant ideas that make Toy Story 3 stand apart not just from the Despicable Me’s of the world, but even from Pixar’s earlier efforts. I sat there of course enthralled by the story and its telling, but was also blown away by how dark and terrifying it was, and at the sheer amount of emotional and existential resonance it had—which I have tried in part to express above. It is this depth of feeling and ability to inspire thoughts and ideas that make this not just a fun entertainment for kids, but a real artistic statement those who wish to can really feast their brains on.