Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The World of Robots By Zack Kaufen (

I have just been to see Toy Story 3. While impressively leaping forward thematically from the first two films, it still left the biggest questions unanswered. Like an episode of Lost it concentrates on character relationships and themes of good and evil, whilst still tantalisingly avoiding answering the real questions that viewers have been asking since the first film. I don’t know if any other films in the series are planned, but to leave so much up in the air at this point would be criminal.

Toy Story, for the minority of uninitiated, posits a world where any kind of toy is actually a sentient being, imbued with thoughts, feelings and a voice. The twist is that whenever humans are near the toys deliberately revert to a still catatonic state so the humans simply treat them as playthings, unaware of their secret. While the story is set in a generic American suburb, the implication is that every toy worldwide shares this power to come to life. Toys have traits so close to humans that they speak our language and form strong friendships and relationships.

Intriguingly (and no doubt deliberately on the part of the writers) the films never once give reference to where this power to turn plastic into life comes from. Not one hint is given. Of course, internet theories about the cause are plentiful, ranging from a Beauty-and-the-Beast-esque witch (this is Disney after all!) to lost spirits of dead humans inhabiting the toys to live again. A more realistic school of thought is that the toys are highly advanced robots in the future, and perhaps everything we see is simply a test for their functionality. There is also the standard ‘it’s all a dream’ theory; very hard to prove or disprove. Fact is, the answer is either something being reserved for a future film, or just being deliberately left ambiguous by the knowing writers, who are probably smiling at their well kept secret that fans of the series are begging to know.

Many other questions and mysteries surround the enigmatic films. Where does the fanatical servitude of the toys come from? In Toy Story 3 the toys have been serving their owner, a seventeen year old called Andy, for many years, to the point where he no longer has any use for them. Without this purpose they become directionless and confused. The main character, a toy named Woody, remains unable to let go, following Andy without regard for the reality of the situation. The toys fear being thrown away, but it seems they are just as scared about Andy’s shunning of them as they are of their own deaths. This is most likely an allegory of religion; following a built in idea without hesitation or faltering of belief. Completely devoted when Andy wants them, completely hopeless when he doesn’t.

Another question is what specifically constitutes a toy? In the first film an etch-a-sketch walked around showing off his artistic prowess, yet lamps, drawing boards et al. are totally inanimate. You may think it is easy to define what is a toy and what isn’t, but Dr. Goldberg of Frankfurt (an old friend of my father’s) postulated: “A tennis ball is a piece of sports equipment. Draw a face on it and give it to a child and it becomes a toy .. does doing this bring it to life?” Definitely food for thought. In factories pieces of plastic are turned into toys. At which point during this long process are they born into existence as a being in their own right? Given that they don’t instantly jump off the factory line and celebrate their existence are they therefore born with the ingrained notion that they must never move while humans are watching? A surely poor celebration of life; to one second be plastic, the next have your own soul; yet unable to move, and completely obedient and subservient to their creators.

Given their lack of aging, it seems odd that the toys don’t think of better ways to be useful to the humans they adore. They could perform all kinds of manual labour without being fed or needing sleep. Yet they carefully hide from humans. The only instance where they revealed themselves was when faced with that or certain death in the first film – a handful of toys rebelled against their tormenting captor, attacking him physically in order to escape. Tellingly, Woody described this as “break(ing) the rules”. Whose rules? Anyone’s guess.

The films, complicated as they are, have gained a surprising audience amongst young children, unaware at the metaphysical conundrum at the heart of the story.

As for whether future films will answer the questions posed; only time will tell. I for one look forward to the next chapter.

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