The Trouble With Toys: Walter Benjamin, Pixar and the Search For Redemption (Part II)

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
July 27, 2010


The more Benjamin one reads, the more clear it becomes that his work demands a redefinition of novelty. Consumer society promotes an insidious demagoguery, making people believe that progress can only be achieved by denying the past. In good times, this leads to the desire to purchase new products long before the old ones are worn out. But in times of crisis this conviction can have grave political consequences, inspiring movements that promote ritual purification. Rather than resisting consumerism, fascism bears witness to its transcendence, the moment when political choices are presented like items in a shop window.

Although rooted in religion, the desire to be “born again” crosses over into the secular realm. By constantly seeking to replenish their world with novelties, consumers demonstrate the depth of their investment in what has yet to be sullied by experience. Paradoxically, they strive to return to a state of innocence through shopping. That’s why sober-minded advice to reign in spending so often falls on deaf ears. Buying new things doesn’t seem like a luxury to consumers under this spell, but the only way to feel clean again.

Children internalize this conviction at a very young age, so easily that it can seem like human nature. But the truth is that they learn this behavior because of the way the grown-ups in their lives treat them. Parents, relatives, friends of the family give them toys as a way of reinforcing social bonds.

In a review of a book on the history of toys, Benjamin draws attention to the more troubling aspects of this exchange. “The perceptual world of the child is influenced at every point by traces of the older generation, and has to take issue with them.” Trying to figure out how children act in the absence of adults is a pointless endeavor. It is impossible to reconstruct children’s play activities “as dwelling in a fantasy realm, a fairy-tale of pure childhood or pure art. Even when they are not simply imitations of the tools of adults, toys are a site of conflict, less of the child with the adult than of the adult with the child. For who gives the child his toys if not adults?”

“And who takes his toys away?”, he might have added. It’s the rare child indeed who decides to discard toys voluntarily. In recalling their childhood, grown-ups lament again and again how they lost the playthings that mattered most to them because their parents or guardians either gave or threw them away. From this perspective, the social function of toys isn’t simply to help children mimic grown-up activities, but also to remind them of the bondage in which grown-ups hold them.

The Toy Story films dramatize this fraught relationship in a variety of ways, but most forcefully in their depiction of Andy’s mom. While it would be harsh to call her a villain, she certainly plays the role of antagonist from a narrative standpoint. In Toy Story, she gives her son Buzz Lightyear, whose arrival throws the complex social hierarchy of Andy’s toys into disarray. In Toy Story 2, her eagerness to reduce clutter sets in motion a series of events that nearly lead to Woody being sent to a museum in Japan. And in Toy Story 3 her insistence that her now college-bound son should either donate his toys or consign them to the purgatory of the attic has similarly dramatic consequences. The parent-child conflict in Toy Story 3 is particularly interesting, since it highlights the limits on the freedom that Andy will exercise while away in college. He is obviously reluctant to part ways with the toys that facilitated his childhood fantasies, but is under pressure to start a new life. In a sense, his mother’s insistence that he clear away his old things is a demand for ritual purification. But the future he imagines for himself is not – or at least not yet – one in which denial of the past is a requirement.

There is nothing to indicate that the actions of Andy’s mom are consciously sadistic. She is simply playing the role of a typical suburban mother, the sort who serves as her children’s primary authority figure in the domestic arena, whatever her standing in the wider world. Indeed, her character is so skeletal that it’s hard to ascribe any personal traits to her.

But there is one way in which the Toy Story films gesture towards a history that precedes Andy. In Toy Story 2, we learn that the Woody doll derives from a television program that aired in the 1950s. Given the fact that the technology we see in Toy Story 3 places the college-bound Andy in a more-or-less contemporary setting and that the original film depicts a world consistent with its mid-1990s release date, we can conclude that Andy was probably born sometime during the first Bush Presidency. At the very least, we know that he is far too young to have grown up watching that 1950s television show. Thus, while the films do not provide an origin story for Andy’s Woody doll, it seems likely that he was either a hand-me-down from his parents’ generation or a replacement for a doll that someone of that generation treasured.

In other words, the historical associations conjured by Woody, not to mention that of toys like Mr. Potato Head and Barbie, subtly remind us that Andy has entered a world of toys that precedes him. Even before he has a clear conception of history, he is surrounded by artifacts that do not belong to his generation. This is significant in light of his mother’s demands, because the past he is asked to suppress extends beyond his own lifespan into the “pre-history” in which she was a child just like him. Although we never gets the sense that Andy is estranged from the historical legacy embodied in his playthings, there is something unsettling about the way the Toy Story films collapse different eras.

Writing about children’s books, Benjamin makes an interesting point. “You’ve all heard people say, ‘Lord! In my childhood, we weren’t so well off! We were all afraid of getting poor marks. We weren’t even allowed to walk on the beach barefoot!’ But have you ever heard anyone say, ‘Lord! When I was young, we didn’t have such nice games to play!’ Or, ‘When I was little, there weren’t such wonderful story books!’ No.” When it comes to childhood playthings, progress is beside the point.

“Whatever people read or played with in their childhood not only seems in memory to have been the most beautiful and best thing possible; it often, wrongly, seems unique. And it is very common to hear adults complaining about the disappearance of toys they used to be able to buy without difficulty in the nearest shop.” The transient nature of toys, their tendency to be replaced by new-and-improved items, makes them all the more memorable to the person who played with them as a child.

Lamenting the disappearance of a fondly remembered toy from shops is tangled up with a longing to return, in some capacity, to the simplicity of childhood. But that attachment to the past is distinct from the desire to be reborn. The person who misses a favorite toy does so because of the memories associated with it, the experiences that it would call more fluidly to mind if it were handled again.

Even Al, the money-driven retailer in Toy Story 2, who is portrayed as a clear-cut villain, seems conflicted in his attitude towards Woody and the three companion dolls based on that 1950s television program. When he first discovers Woody, accidentally included with the items that Andy’s mom is selling at a garage sale Andy’s mom is holding, his body language that of a child whose dreams are improbably coming true. He wants to make a profit, certainly, but also seems to fetishize the dolls and other paraphernalia from the show to a degree incompatible with the desire to maximize his financial gain. Indeed, the fact that he sequesters the dolls in his apartment, rather than storing them at his toy store across the street, reinforces the sense that they mean more to him than he is willing to admit.

Al’s quandary is that adulthood forces him to seek satisfaction for once-wholesome desires in a perverse manner. As a single man, he has no outlet for his fantasies. Instead of playing with toys, he has to play the roles of someone who sees them purely as a means of making money. But the self-deception that requires eats away at what’s left of his innocence.

With Andy’s mom, by contrast, the problem is that she is no longer able to see toys independently of her children. Toy Story 3 opens with Andy’s favorite toys engaged in a Hollywood blockbuster-style action sequence. Unlike the original Toy Story, which begins by showing Andy at play, performing the voices for the different characters he has assigned to toys like his piggy bank, Little Bo Peep and Woody, Toy Story 3 lets the audience indulge the fantasy that the toys have attained narrative autonomy.

As that opening sequence closes, however, the “camera” – this is all digitally rendered animation, after all – pulls back and the image loses resolution and saturation. We’re back in the real world, looking through the video camera that is being used to film Andy’s make-believe. Were we inside his head until now, experiencing the full richness of his fantasy play?

That’s certainly plausible. But the fact that it’s an adult perspective – the camera is pointed down at Andy, who is on floor – suggests another possibility. What if the fully realized vision of Toy Story 3’s opening sequence were meant to communicate, not how Andy sees his toys, but how his parents see him seeing his toys?

When parents document their children at play, they are trying to record states of innocence that will one day be outgrown. Yet it’s worth asking whether this activity isn’t also an attempt to indirectly access their own lost innocence. Such recording might not seem as perverted as Al’s actions in Toy Story 2, but decades of theorizing about photography provide ample evidence that even the most outwardly innocent moves to document everyday life arise from contradictory impulses. The person who wants to capture the present wants to make sure that the past will remain a captive after the chains of memory have rusted into oblivion.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Toy Story films, when watched in close proximity to each other, is how hard Pixar has worked to prevent the first two pictures from seeming out of date. Although the background details in Toy Story 3 are more numerous and the motion more fluid, it never feels out of step with its predecessors. And that, ultimately, is what makes the trilogy so interesting to ponder.

Given the anxieties about being replaced, lost and discarded that all three films mobilize, the fact that the studio has refused to present its early work as ancient history, valuable only when regarded as primitive, is extremely important. Those who were already grown-ups when the first Toy Story came out can take their children or grandchildren to see Toy Story 3 without being reminded of the generational differences separating them. On the contrary, the new picture’s narrative and references attach it so seamlessly to its predecessors that it imbues them with an aura of timelessness.

Considering how well the new film did and how much interest it has inspired in Toy Story and Toy Story 2, this insistence on continuity has proven both financially and aesthetically savvy. But it has also served to underscore the peculiar situation in which the film industry currently finds itself, with more and more of its revenue coming from the sort of features that deliberately blur the distinction between entertainment for children and entertainment for adults.

The most common manifestation of this trend are the action movies, often based on comic books, that take aim at the “tween” audience – from ten to fourteen, roughly – and hope that everyone else will come along for the ride. Pixar, by contrast, has chosen to make G-rated features that will appeal to the inner child while still giving the inner grown-up something to think about.

Whether this trend is salutary or not remains to be determined. What is clear, however, is that it signals a willingness to at least consider the possibility that growing up is a recursive process rather than a linear one. Given the appeal that novelty continues to hold over consumers, the sort of renewal Walter Benjamin championed still has a counter-cultural feel. But it exerts a lot more influence on mainstream society than was the case in the heyday of Fordist mass production. In the end, it is heartening that such popular and accessible films as the Toy Story trilogy want to make audiences rethink the way they consume.

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by