I think about Toy Story a lot. Possibly more than the people at Pixar who worked on the films. Why? Well, I have a two-year-old who is obsessed with all things Woody, Buzz and Jessie. As such, I’ve seen the trilogy roughly 74 million times, often one right after the other.
If you’re unfamiliar with the movies, the basic concept revolves around the fact that toys are actually alive. While humans are around, they act like inanimate objects as we know them, but when the human leaves, the toys display human characteristics. They even worry about their fates, abandonment and other more complicated human concerns.
As an absorber of fiction, I found myself walking away from these showings with a good deal of questions much like I did after seeing Doc McStuffins for the first time. I think the three Toy Story movies are great films built around a fun concept that gets explored more and more as they progress. But, I still have some questions about the mythology presented in therein. So, here’s the ten big questions that have popped into my head about this world of talking toys.
This is the big question of the series because it’s the basic departure from reality that fuels the films. It’s also the kind of question that will never get answered in relation to continuity. The simple answer is basically, “That’s the story we wanted to tell.” But, since we’re talking about the rules of the universe, you might think there’s some reason that toys come to life. Even though I’m curious about the why of it all, I don’t need to see some kind of complicated origin story that shows the first radioactive toy gaining consciousness or whatever.
Why do some inanimate objects come to life and others don’t?
This isn’t something I thought about until the ninth or tenth time I saw the trilogy, but it’s an interesting one. The series shows us that most playthings come to life. But they’re not the only things coming to life. Technically, Hamm is a bank and Bo Peep and her sheep are part of a lamp. On the other hand, Andy’s desk lamp doesn’t come to life, so who or what decides what gains sentience and what doesn’t? You can’t say that something needs to be played with for it to become conscious because we see the Buzz Ligthtyears in Al’s Toy Barn come to life as well as Prospector Pete who has a long memory. So, is it the INTENT to be played with that creates this consciousness? That implies some kind of higher power or agency at work and something of a flexibility to their rules.
This is basically the previous question, but from a different angle. One of the interesting things about the Toy Story world is that not EVERY toy is alive. In the first film we see that electronic and game toys like the Speak & Spell and Etch A Sketch interact with the others. But what about Tinker Toys, alphabet blocks and the track that the Buzz travels down in the famous “Falling with style” scene? Technically those are all playthings, but we don’t see all of them move or talk. Of course, it’s possible they just didn’t move in that one scene, but it makes me wonder if there’s a hierarchy of toy life kept in the shadows.
The world of Toy Story features inanimate objects coming to life when people aren’t around. But why? Sure, some toys like Woody see being a good play thing as their duty, but not all toys can be that altruistic, right? Especially if some take on the qualities of the charters they are based on like Buzz in what I call Buzz Lightyear Syndrome, see below. I’m thinking of villain characters here. If there’s a Cobra Commander or Shredder figure who thinks he’s a real villain, why wouldn’t he try and attack kids or their parents? We saw in the first film that toys CAN move and talk around humans, but they choose not to.
It makes me think that there’s either some kind of innate toy programming or possibly some kind of authority out there that monitors such things. The latter is a leap without any on-screen evidence, but you have to wonder why millions of toys don’t just be alive the whole time? It’s telling that a toy will follow this “don’t reveal” programming to the point that it will allow itself to be potentially destroyed. That lack of self preservation is interesting and might explain why the main characters at the end of Toy Story 3 resigned themselves to the inferno.
So, toys are conscious. We don’t know how or why, but that’s the way this world works. But, when they come alive is another questions altogether? Is it immediately after production is complete? Are certain parts alive before they even come together? Are they alive, imprisoned in the packaging, put into crates and shipped across the world as thinking creatures? We know from Toy Story 2 that some of the Buzz Lightyears were awake while waiting in Big Al’s Toy Barn. Have they just been sitting there, waiting for all those years?
Prospector Pete hints that the answer might be yes because he talked about sitting on a dime store shelf for all those years. Was he the rule or the exception though? If it’s the rule, you’d think there would be hundreds of thousands of toys losing their minds as they go from peg warmers to Big Lots passovers to landfill. This loops back around to the question of why they hide the sentience, especially if they’re not able to do the one thing they’re supposedly made for: entertaining children.
Do all toys suffer from Bizz Lightyear Syndrome when they’re made?
“What’s Buzz Lightyear Syndrome?” you ask. Why, that’s the occasion of a toy thinking it’s the character he or she is made to resemble. In all three films we see Buzz or a version of Buzz who thinks he is a space ranger. Is this common for all new toys? We don’t really see any other characters come right out of the box, so that remains unclear.
However, it is interesting that Woody has no recollection of his own past. If it’s an uncommon trait in toys, what separates the Buzz Lightyear toys from every other toy? Is it an evolution/de-evolution thing?
How do toys learn about their character’s history?
Having Buzz Lightyear Syndrome and knowing everything about the characters are two very different things as far as I’m concerned. Buzz doesn’t just know the text on the back of his box, he’s mired in the mythos of the Buzz Lightyear character up to a certain point. All that knowledge must come from somewhere. Is it part of the potential programming mentioned above? On a similar note, does a toy without a characters-based backstory like Mr. Potato Head or Rex suffer some kind of identity confusion?
This one’s pretty straight-forward and bugs me a bit more every time I watch Toy Story. Buzz is very upfront with the toys, but doesn’t say a word to Andy. It seems like he would just come out and communicate with him in an effort to find a way back to his mission. Is it possible that the programming that makes toys not want to be sentient around humans overrides their character programming?
Right off the bat I’m going to apologize for the assumptive nature of this question. Just because Woody doesn’t ever talk about his life before Andy doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t remember it, but it’s not a huge leap to make. Andy’s mom says that Woody is a family heirloom in Toy Story 2 and we discover that to be true since he’s so old. He later learns about the character he’s based on, which all seems to be a surprise to him (and also implies that Buzz Lightyear Syndrome isn’t universal). It’s possible he could forget, but Pete’s presence implies that old toys can have a very long memory.
I read a really interesting theory on this thanks to Jon Negroni who deftly recognized that Andy’s mom is very likely Jessie’s original owner. Negroni also posits that Woody was actually Andy’s dad’s toy. His assumption is that pops left (not died, which is also possible) and Woody doesn’t want to talk about it, which doesn’t make much sense to me because it’s not like he’s talking around Andy who would feel bad. Still, it’s an interesting idea.
This is a big one. If they’re just plastic and pieces that can be interchanged — as we saw in Sid’s room — can a toy really die? These patchwork creations imply that there’s some kind of soul or consciousness involved in these beings, possibly connected to a particular piece. The figures in the backyard got even more mangled and seem perfectly able to rise up and scare the poo out of their tormentor. The only toy we see get close to what we know as death is the Combat Carl that gets exploded by Sid towards the end of the first film. But, we don’t know how that shakes out for him in the long run because Buzz and Woody take off not long after and we never see said yard again.
Is it possible that toys continue existing in some form or another beyond physical termination? On a related note, can a toy die of old age? It would seem like the answer is no considering Woody is pretty darn old and yet shows no signs of aging in the way we think of it.
In the case of Sid’s composite toys, which consciousness takes over the body? When two different toys are dissessmbled, does one consciousness win out? What if the toy is broken up into more than two pieces, could that consciousness spread to all three new toys? We see in Toy Story 2 that Woody can’t use his arm when it starts to tear at the shoulder which would imply some kind of connection to their physical forms. Buzz couldn’t use his arm when it popped off in the first film, but Mrs. Potato Head could use her eye when it was detached in Toy Story 3. Maybe that’s action-feature based, ie Mr. and Mrs. P were designed to come apart, but the others aren’t. Form must be important to some extent. At the end of the day, we saw these characters worry about termination at the end of Toy Story 3, but also kind of accept it. But what if they weren’t really accepting death but some kind of new life where they were all one hunk of plastic?
Thanks for reading my ramblings. I had fun putting this together and hope you had a similar experience while reading. If you have some potential answers, please leave them in the comments. I’m curious to see how other people interpret what I’ve taken away from these movies.