Perhaps I like to make things up. Nevertheless, I’ve seen Toy Story 3 three times now, and each successive viewing further convinces me that this Pixar film can be construed as an American political allegory. First to be discussed are the characters and their representations. Then, I will attempt to synthesize these representations.
Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen the movie and intend to see it, don’t read further.
Andy’s Toys: Our Protagonists
Andy’s toys each represent a specific facet of America:
- Woody represents the unbridled American spirit. Leading by sheer gumption, our cowboy gets our protagonists through many a barrel of monkeys.
- Buzz, being a space ranger, represents our scientific and technological innovations. We have put a man on the moon and an instrument of science into deep space.
- Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head represent our adaptability.
- Likewise, Slinky represents our resilience, our ability to Stretch beyond our normal capabilities.
- Rex, despite being a “fearsome” dinosaur, is actually quite kind. Therefore, he represents our kindness. No other individual country I can think of gives as much foreign aid and humanitarian assistance in real terms to other countries.
- Jessie represents our passion. This is related to but different from our spirit; passion possesses emotional overtones.
- Sarge and the other toy soldiers are quite capable and get the job done. Therefore they represent our military strength.
- Hamm‘s representation is easy: our money.
- It could be debated that Barbie, although not Andy’s toy per se, represents cleverness/intelligence. She clearly has some knowledge of Western thought (“Consent of the governed!” she proclaims to Lotso.) Also, she demonstrates her cleverness in getting the manual for Buzz by the way she manipulates Ken. How fitting is it, then, that her disguise when getting the manual is an astronaut suit, a symbol of one of our greatest intellectual achievements (See #2).
- The Aliens believe in “The Claw.” According to a previous Toy Story film, The Claw will take one alien to “a better place.” Since this appears to be some semblance of religion, the squeaky Aliens represent spirituality/morality. I think what is sometimes lost in current political discourse is that America was founded in part by the desire for freedom of religion. Just as absent from some political talk is that freedom of religion also enables freedom from religion, if one should desire it.
The Sunnydale Cadre: Our Antagonists
Naturally, the antagonists of Andy’s toys in this film represent antagonists to America:
- At first, I figured Lotso would be be an easy metaphor for Russia, our traditional Cold War foe. The animal symbol for Russia has historically been a bear. Furthermore, he smells of strawberries, which are red. Red = Communism. The fact that he smells of strawberries suggests a disconnect here: smelling like red strawberries only suggests redness; it is not obvious.
—I felt like I was onto something. But soon, a better idea came to me. Lotso represents not Russia, but China. Suddenly, everything started to click. The same reasoning as before applies. China is not purely a communistic society at the moment; it is an idiosyncratic hybrid between communism and capitalism. Thus, it is not completely Red. Pink, like Lotso. The same strawberry conjecture I applied above also applies here.
- Thus, the toys at Sunnyside represent certain facets of China. Ken, for example, represents a loyal party member, never questioning Lotso’s authority.
- Stretch (that squishy octopus thing) represents China’s reach and expanding influence.
- The Chatter Telephone represents a dissident. He has to hide in order to survive.
- Big Baby, being Lotso’s enforcer, represents military power. Like the Chinese military, he is large and young.
- The Cymbal Monkey, always on the watch for dissent, represents the ever-vigilant eye of Chinese censorship. It is an integral part of Lotso’s power.
- Chunk, Twitch, and Sparks are beefy toys that represent the police.
In the beginning of the film, our protagonists are undergoing a period of change. They face an uncertain future, as Andy is going off to college.
Eventually, they arrive at Sunnydale. Lotso is the head of a cadre at the daycare center in which power is centralized around himself. An elite class retains all the benefits of the butterfly room while the rest of the toy population is kept under control, sometimes through malignant methods. Our protagonists learn this the hard way as they are abused in the caterpillar room.
To rectify the situation, Buzz (remember, our science and technology) makes an attempt to speak with Lotso. Along the way, he witnesses some of the cadre gambling, which can be construed as an illegal activity. After getting caught, he refuses to join Lotso’s crowd. Buzz is subsequently brainwashed and watches over his friends at the service of Lotso.
Meanwhile, Woody (spirit) is in an unfamiliar place, Bonnie’s home. After learning of his friends’ troubles, he resolves to go back and save them. After returning to the police state, he learns from The Chatter Telephone, a dissident, about an escape route. It takes all of our protagonists (and consequently, the American attributes) to contain the renegade Buzz and return him to normal. However, he isn’t quite the same; Spanish Buzz represents a fundamental shift of America in favor of increasing diversity.
The escape plan necessitates the disabling of the Cymbal Monkey and the conversion of Ken and Big Baby to the side of our protagonists. However, Lotso manages to force our protagonists down a path of darkness and danger to the dump.
Let’s consider something here. Woody and Jessie (spirit and passion) are rare Western toys, vestiges of a long-gone Americana. Thus, it is likely that they were made in America. However, the same may not be said of all the other protagonists; Buzz and the others were probably made in…China. (In fact, wasn’t a “Made in China” reference made by Rex in previous Toy Story movie?) This is a problem, isn’t it? When our money, science, adaptability, etc are no longer completely ours, and instead they have been shanghaied (pardon the pun) by another entity? Notice, also, the absence of Sarge and the soldiers in this movie. Thus, the struggle in this allegory is not a conflict of power and might, but of the subversion of attributes previously considered to be part of the American bailiwick.
Now, let us continue with the synthesis. Woody saves Lotso from getting shredded. However, Lotso fails to reciprocate the favor and leaves our protagonists to face a fiery future, one of certain annihilation. As they slowly ride a writhing, undulating wave of popular and cultural trash down to doom, can spirit and passion alone save our heroes, especially when everything else that was ours is no longer? What can save them – us?
The following is certainly debatable; everything I have written here is. Our heroes are saved by The Aliens. Deus ex, one might say (pardon the pun). Nevertheless, in this allegory, our heroes escape doom because of spirituality/morality. Take from that what you will.
Saved (pardon the pun), our heroes eventually leave their former home and enter a new era at the place where Woody found himself previously. I believe it true that many aspects of the 2010 cultural zeitgeist are based on an “indie” aesthetic that incorporates certain principles of postmodernism, but that is for another post. Whether this aesthetic continues into the future remains to be seen, but it is certainly present now.
In Bonnie’s home, creativity is espoused; life is lived artfully. In addition, life is lived according to nature, as her parents are working in the garden when our protagonists arrive. Thus, Andy’s toys and therefore Andy’s stories become Bonnie’s toys and Bonnie’s stories – this is synthesis on a new scale. Could Bonnie’s home represent a new era, one in which postmodernism replaces modernism?
Of course, there is always a chance that I really don’t know what I’m talking about, and that this film is far simpler than I have made it to be.