Last weekend, the pay cable channel Starz ran the three “Toy Story” films back-to-back. Watching them one after the other provided roughly the same experience as when you're forced to sit through an hours-long corporate meeting at which a compelling, entertaining, but ultimately hollow speaker hectors you about how much more you could be doing to help the corporation succeed. And then telling you that, for your efforts, you should expect nothing more than the personal satisfaction of knowing you’d helped the CEO make an extra $20 million. Oh, and you're supposed to find the entire proceeding poignant.
The “Toy Story” trilogy is a perfect encapsulation of anxiety in the post-modern world. Corporate anxiety. The films promote groupthink, and the acceptance of the purveyors of mass entertainment and consumables as benevolent entities never to be questioned. In a world in which new technology is giving consumers more control over how they consume their entertainment, the big corporations want you to remember who it was who gave you your Woody.
In the first “Toy Story” film, we’re introduced to the characters and the concept. Your toys come to life when you’re not around. The assembly-line produced hunks of plastic and fabric that were created by the thousands in factories are not simply tools of promotion – they are in fact sentient beings, imbued with personalities by the artisans who created them to make money for the corporations for which they work.
In other words, the entertainment conglomerates give life.
And we all have a responsibility to that life. The consumers who purchase the toys that were created as marketing devices to make money are to use those marketing tools in the manner in which the artisans and corporate executives intended.
The toys themselves have some awareness of their place in the world. Early in the film, Woody lays out the lot of the sentient toy: “It doesn’t matter how much we’re played with… What matters is that we’re here for Andy when he needs us; that’s what we’re made for, right?” This mantra is repeated throughout the series in one way or another, enough that its importance is clear. Accept your lot unquestioningly. What remains in doubt is exactly to whom Woody’s loyalties truly lie – that will not be made clear until the end of the third film.
The neurotic toys to which you, as an “owner” owe so much responsibility, worry over Andy’s birthday party. In particular, will he receive as a gift a new toy that will send one of the old toys to the next garage sale? As it turns out, Andy gets a Buzz Lightyear, and when he is introduced to the other toys, the following exchange occurs:
Hamm: Where are you from? Singapore? Hong Kong?
Mr. Potato Head: I’m from Playskool.
Rex: I’m from Mattel… I’m actually from a smaller company that was purchased by Mattel in a leveraged buyout.
The film is making an overt reference to the mass produced nature of these products for which we’re supposed to have a rooting emotional interest. Factory made hunks of plastic, as Lotso will say in the third film. Moreover, they are created by corporations that purchase other, smaller companies in “leveraged buyouts" -- the corporation gets even bigger by swallowing up a smaller company. As we’ll see as the trilogy moves along, there is no subtext to these films – they are an overt paean to the influence of large corporations on our lives. (And, as it turns out, late in the first film we learn that Buzz was “Made in Taiwan.”)
“Toy Story” also features a touching allegory about the ways in which corporations can cooperate with each other to influence consumers. When Woody and Buzz first meet, Woody is jealous that Andy might favor Buzz over him, and admonishes Buzz, “You stay away from Andy. He’s mine, and no one is taking him away from me.” Over the course of the film, Woody and Buzz come to realize that there’s room in Andy’s life for more than one corporate source of influence. After all, Entertainment Weekly is owned by Time-Warner, but that doesn’t mean that a Disney/Pixar production like “Toy Story” can’t be featured on the cover.
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