Toy Story

June 20, 2010

In honor of the release of Toy Story 3, here are some thoughts on the theology of the original Toy Story movie.

You’re probably anticipating that I’m trying to be overly clever here, about to read deep meaning into a kids’ movie as some kind of ironic joke. But I’m not. The meaning is obvious, if you just have the plot summary and strip away the jokes.

Toy Story is the story of a toy, Buzz Lightyear, who believes himself to be a space ranger, on a mission from Star Command to save the universe. His faith in his own identity is so certain that throughout the first half of the movie, he ignores the plain evidence about who he truly is. It certainly seems like Buzz is in a child’s bedroom and not some uncharted planet, but that simply can’t  be the case. After all, what would a space ranger be doing hanging out in a child’s bedroom with a bunch of talking toys? Buzz is willing to twist the facts to an absurd extent so that they comport with his most basic belief, his knowledge of his own identity. Meanwhile, desperately trying to get Buzz to understand the truth is Woody, who disdains and mocks Buzz’s naive belief in Star Command.

The situation comes to a head when Buzz and Woody find themselves at the house of Sid, a vicious kid who uses toys to serve his own sadistic purposes. While at Sid’s, Buzz sees a television commercial advertising “Buzz Lightyear action figures,” and is forced to accept the truth about himself. Woody, still desperate to get back home, tries to convince a now disheartened Buzz to help with the escape plan. But now it is Buzz, having lost the support of Star Command, who is disdainful of Woody’s naive views. His response is simple: “Sid’s house, Andy’s house. What’s the difference?”

Suddenly, it’s Woody’s turn to play the evangelist and explain to Buzz why it does still matter whether they choose to serve Sid or Andy, even though there is no Star Command. Woody’s argument isn’t entirely satisfying, but it’s hard to imagine how it could be, now that Buzz has lost the moral anchor represented by Star Command. In the absence of Star Command, Woody says, you have to make your own decisions about the meaning of your life. Buzz isn’t a space ranger. He’s a toy. But, Woody points out, he’s a really cool toy. He has the potential to do good in the world as it actually is, by getting away from Sid and returning to Andy. In this world, it doesn’t quite make sense to say that going back to Andy is the “right” thing to do, but honestly, why would someone choose to side with Sid when he could be with Andy? Buzz decides to go back.

The philosophy in Toy Story is not a subtle theme that I picked out to be clever. It’s the whole plot of the movie. I don’t have a lot of commentary to add, but here’s what I see as the lesson to take away from the film: if your reaction to a myth or a legend or a story or a religious belief is to wonder, “Is it true?”, then you are likely missing the point. And that includes, most particularly, the question “Does Star Command exist?” because the important question is Buzz’s: “Sid’s house, Andy’s house. What’s the difference?”


6 Responses to “Toy Story”

  1. Rrrobert! Says:

    Well put, though I think your argument presumes that Star Command doesn’t exist. In the absence of Star Command, we get to choose our destiny in an existentialist kind of way, and Buzz’s question is important. If Star Command does exist, however, the important question is “What is the nature of Star Command, and what do they want, and what should I do about that?”

    I agree that myths and beliefs are ultimately about more than literal truth, but don’t oversimplify them. One of the reasons we resort to metaphor and myth in the first place is to express things we find it difficult to articulate.

  2. I think your argument presumes that Star Command doesn’t exist

    Yes, for sure. All of this is basically directed at atheists or anyone else who is prone to commit (what I believe are) “genetic fallacy” sorts of errors when it comes to religion. Religion is more than people who share a common factual position on the question of God’s existence. But yes, this may be nothing new from what I wrote last year.

    I would like to be able to say something about theists as well, but I can’t currently think of any major or minor insights I have about theism.

  3. Dan Billings Says:

    As token argumentative atheist, I feel I must respond.

    Assuming your genetic fallacy argument is correct, it applies to the other end of the belief spectrum equally. Fervent theists get caught up in believing their doctrine’s tenets as literal truths, without considering they may be allegories.

    In fact, I would settle for that as worldwide consensus. The supernatural claims of religion may or may not be true, but basically they’re just trying to teach people to avoid being a douchebag.

  4. Assuming your genetic fallacy argument is correct, it applies to the other end of the belief spectrum equally.

    Exactly, which is why I sometimes try to emphasize that one thing atheists and theists have in common is that they think this question is really, really important. What I have a harder time understanding is why atheists feel this way. At least theists believe that when you die, it really is going to matter whether you believe that God exists or not.

    Atheists can’t seem to come up similar scenarios where belief in God matters for its own sake. To me it seems like most arguments take the form, “Well, if you believe in God, then you believe in things without evidence, and if you believe in things without evidence, then you can’t believe in science, and if you don’t believe in science, then we’re all going to live in caves and starve to death!” It’s conceivable that principles are as important as that, but not too likely.

    The supernatural claims of religion may or may not be true, but basically they’re just trying to teach people to avoid being a douchebag.

    I agree with that, too. Sometimes I like to say that when you are running an illogical OS on crappy hardware, you just have to tolerate less-than-perfect software if it gets results. Now, religion is such a pervasive and integrated part of people’s lives that it’s hard to identify the results it achieves. But to the extent that religion is harmful, I don’t think that that harm has much to do with belief in God. People can be douchebags with or without religions, and there seem to be enough arguments from within religion itself that advise people to behave in ways that atheists would see as virtuous. Emphasis on meta-questions about God seems to be misdirected firepower.

  5. Rayn Says:

    You missed the best part. Immediately following Buzz’a realization that he is a toy, he tries to commit suicide. The movie covers the scene with the idea that Buzz is trying to fly, but what do we think when we jump from a building? The implication from Woody’s apologetic speech, and the further two movies, is that while toys suffer in a terrible, immortal existence, the years that they are loved by a child are the best. The movies address the first years of the toys life. To me, the thought of tiny, feeling, loving, dreaming, suffering creatures that live forever while spending the majority of that time in an existentially nihilistic state, consider Jessie’s terror at the thought of storage in TS2, is the most terrifying form of existence that could be thought up. The TS movies are precursors to a very real trip through a naturally occurring hell. I pity all the toys.

  6. […] the original Toy Story, as previously discussed on this blog, the question that confronts the characters is the meaning of life in a universe in […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: