Toy Story (1995)

toy story falling with style

Pixar’s Philosophy of Toys

When I present the idea for my new book manuscript, people are generally receptive to the content, an application of the children’s books of Dr. Seuss to the films of Pixar Animation Studios. However, when it comes to my central argument, that the Pixar films do not degrade but further the radical project of trickster-based children’s culture, for which Dr. Seuss stands as the twentieth-century apotheosis, the reception turns a bit more hostile. But, I recently stumbled upon an 1853 essay by Charles Baudelaire called “The Philosophy of Toys” that might clarify matters. For all practical purposes, the radical French libertine poet outlined the Pixar vision of children a full century before the birth of Steve Jobs.

Baudelaire begins his short essay by telling the story of a woman who took him when he was a child to her massive toy room so that he could choose a plaything to take home, and thus remember her by. The story is remarkable because this generous woman is not the normative adult. Baudelaire argues children are “set apart from degenerate man.” In arguing for the child’s inherent wisdom over the adult’s corruption, Baudelaire continues the argument of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who famously argues for the debilitating effects of adulthood on the natural purity of children.

The remarkable marginalization of adults in our children’s media is one direct consequence of this aspect of Western philosophy. Baudelaire’s framework allows French scholarship to speak to contemporary American children’s media, from Charles Schultz’ Peanuts to Toy Story. But even beyond children’s media, a number of filmmakers have aggressively engaged this Romantic understanding the superiority of childhood. Rousseau’s approach undergirds the aesthetic of Stan Brakhage, whose films attempt to invent an avant-garde mode of cinematic seeing to purify our eyes from the damage corporate Hollywood cinema has done to them. Metaphors of childhood vision abound in his films, from the birth of babies in Window Water Baby Moving (1959) to the images of children’s faces layered into the Abstract Expressionist imagery of Dog Star Man (1962), his triumphant feature film.

The legacy of Brahkage can be found in a different sort of filmmaker entirely, Steven Spielberg, a popular artist akin to the Pixar crowd. Also a great defender of child-like wonder (although Robin Wood alternatively positions him as childish), Spielberg’s films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) link the creativity of childhood to liberation. The scary adults—governmental stooges, mostly—in these films want to scientifically dissect the aliens; meanwhile Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) playfully sculpts his mashed potatoes as his family watches Pinocchio (Walt Disney, 1940) on the television behind him, while Elliott (Henry Thomas) forges a wordless, emotional bond that turns the transports of childhood, bicycles, into flying objects which propel our spirits toward the Moon, and beyond.

The Pixar films synthesize this radical history of childhood. Baudrillard argues, “The toy is the child’s earliest initiation into art… and when maturity intervenes, the most rarefied example will not satisfy his mind with the same enthusiasm.” The Pixar artists continue their childhoods in the terrain of animated film, making Baudrillard’s project, the unearthing of the secret life of toys, also their foundational mission, from the early short, Knick Knack to the three Toy Story films. Baudrillard virtually synopsizes the Pixar films when he observes, “[C]hildren in general act upon their toys [but]… the toy can sometimes act upon the child.”

Even Pixar films not generally about childhood per se exist in the consequence of Baudrillard’s ideas: “Between those symbolic bars of iron, the poor child was showing his toy to the rich child, who was examining it greedily, as a rare and unknown object. And this toy, which the little brat was tormenting and shaking up and down in its makeshift cage, was a live rat. His parents, to save money, had drawn a toy from life itself.” The bond between the apprentice chef, Alfredo Linguini and the rat, Remy (Patton Oswalt) in Rataouille transforms Baudrillard’s anecdote about the ability of toys to overcome class oppression into the stuff of a feature film.

But it is the sequence of Toy Story films that best typify Baudrillard’s philosophy of toys. The French poet worries about children who “must instantly break any toy that is placed in their hands, almost without inspecting it.” Baudrillard here invokes the behavior of the villain of Toy Story, Sid, the next door neighbor whose sole occupation is to destroy his toys by ripping them apart, blowing them up, and otherwise abandoning them. This contrasts directly to Andy, the owner of Woody and Buzz, who invents an entire narrative universe with these cloth and plastic figures, playing with them endlessly, and non-destructively, in the solitude of his bedroom.

Finally, Baudrillard saves special scorn for adults who treat toys as material possessions: “[N]o sooner has the family friend deposited his offering on the infant lap, than the fierce and parsimonious mother swoops it up and away into a cupboard, saying: ‘It is far too lovely for a child of your age; you can play with it when you are bigger!’” These adults are Rousseau’s corrupters, training children themselves to protect their toys from the natural ravages of play: “[T]hey do not make use of their toys, but save them up, range them in order, make libraries and museums of them. Only rarely do they show them to their little friends, all the while imploring them not to touch. I would instinctively be on my guard against these men-children” (5). Such describes the villainy of Al McWhiggin, the owner of Al’s Toy Barn in Toy Story 2 who steals Woody from a garage sale in Andy’s front yard, to restore him to mint condition and sell him to a toy museum on Tokyo. Baudrillard laments the loss of the soul at the hands of such adulthood: “This moment marks the beginning of stupor and melancholy,” an outcome which Pixar films, despite their emergence from within the capitalist juggernaut of the Walt Disney Corporation, fight against to their last, dying image.