Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Love Stories of Toy Story

In the Toy Story films, the primary personal relationship on display is friendship. The films are many things, but they are not romances. And yet, there are more realistic representations of romantic love threaded through the three movies than you’ll find in a multiplex full of romantic comedies.

Here are some examples of love in the Toy Story trilogy:

Fidelity Counts: When Toy Story ends, Woody is in a relationship with Bo Peep. When Toy Story 2 starts, he’s still in the same relationship. That’s not the way it happens in a typical sequel. Usually, the guy gets the girl at the end of the movie and they live happily ever after… until the next movie where he starts the process all over again with a new girl. The love the hero has for any of the women he’s paired off with is trivialized when the producers care more about the “story arc” of him pursuing and winning her than they do about him being with her.

People Are Not Prizes to Be Won: In Toy Story 2, Woody meets another western-themed toy. A girl toy. And yet, he doesn’t ever look at her as a romantic rival to Bo Peep. And Jessie doesn’t look at him that way, either. Movies instinctively want to pair people up. People are presented as being incomplete unless they find love at the end of the story even if their character’s quest has nothing to do with finding love. When a romance is tacked onto the end of the movie, it always feels to me like it cheapens love. (“Good job defeating the alien invasion force, Lieutenant. Here’s a medal of honor and a pretty girl to kiss.”) Despite what you learned in When Harry Met Sally, men and women can be friends.

Girls Can Ogle Too: Okay, yes… in the coda to Toy Story 2 Jessie does go after Buzz. But it doesn’t bother me here for three reasons. First, it’s a good matching of personalities. Second, Buzz isn’t treated as a prize. He’s a fully drawn character who by that point has already starred in two movies. Typically, the person being grabbed up was written for the sole purpose of giving the other character a romantic interest. Here both parties are fully realized characters. Finally, this time around, it’s the girl who’s in charge. And she doesn't futz around neurotically. She sees Buzz, she knows what she wants, and she knows she's got him wrapped around her finger. That’s not the way it happens in movies (particularly in ones where the romance is tacked on at the end.)

There’s A Difference Between Infatuation and Love: In Toy Story 3, it’s love at first sight when Ken and Barbie meet. They were, after all, made for each other. But that’s not true love. It’s infatuation. Or, if it’s love, it’s young love. It’s not built on anything solid. But watch what happens toward the end of the movie. They’ve come to know each other better. They know that the other person isn't always nice. They know that the other person doesn't always talk in sickly-sweet tones. Ken learns that his love is sincere. He doesn’t want some other Barbie… he wants THIS Barbie. And he earns Barbie’s respect. That’s a stronger foundation than they had when they started. They’ve got something more to go on other than their inherent need to love somebody.

Love Isn’t Obligatory: Some of the characters make it through the trilogy without ever finding a love interest. The implication of most movies that true love is inevitable tends to diminishes the fact that love is special. It’s something that you’re lucky to find. It’s not a guarantee. Yes, it’s sad that the Hamms and Slinky Dogs of the world have no partners, but it’s refreshing that the movies don’t pity them. The characters seem to be happy on their own.

But perhaps that’s just because they don’t know what they’re missing. Speaking of which…

Sometimes The People You Love Are Taken Away: There’s so much happening in Toy Story 3 that you may forget that Woody tells us that Bo Peep is… gone. But even though Woody doesn’t speak of it again, you can tell from his face that he won't ever forget what happened.

Bo Peep was never a fully developed character in the trilogy, so you probably don’t feel any sense of loss. But she was real to Woody in the life they had off screen.

There are plenty of romantic comedies that start by introducing you to a widower. (Cute kids are optional.) These rom-coms are never really about exploring grief—they’re just using it as a manipulative plot device. They’re telling the viewer that the man is already worthy of love. (All he needs is the right woman to teach him that he can love again!) It’s a shameful use of cinematic shorthand.

Toy Story 3 doesn’t do that. Bo Peep was probably taken away many years ago, but Woody isn’t looking for a replacement. The filmmakers aren’t giving him one, either. There are female toys in his world, but there’s nothing to suggest that Dolly will ever be anything other than a new friend. Pixar respects their characters too much to make them go through obligatory plot points. Other filmmakers would say that a love interest for the hero would make the ending happier. Pixar isn’t other filmmakers.

Sometimes Loves Just Works: Mr. Potato Head is kind of a cranky jerk who would rather make a zinger than express his feelings. Mrs. Potato Head is a nag. They’re both sort of grating, and yet their relationship works that way. They may have a caustic tone, but the love is still real. We all know real people like that.

Love Stays With You Through Thick and Thin: I have a pet peeve about the standard Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl plot line. The Boy Loses Girl part always feels so forced. Either he makes an implausible mistake, or else there’s an implausible misunderstanding. What’s wrong with just letting boy and girl get each other and then having them go off to face the world together as a team? That’s the way real love goes.

And that’s the way it works in Toy Story 3. The Jessie/Buzz relationship has a roadblock when Buzz gets reprogrammed in the middle of the movie. But it’s not a misunderstanding.  At the end of the movie, he doesn’t have to explain to her that it wasn’t his fault. Jessie knows what’s going on the whole time. She can’t be romantic with the demo-mode version of Buzz, but she doesn’t turn her back on him, either. She fights with her friends to get the real Buzz back.

People don’t get reprogrammed like toys. But they do go through hardships. They do get sick—sometimes to the point of losing their old personality and identity. In the face of all of that, real love doesn’t leave.


  1. I am so glad that someone had the galls and the eyes to see what i thought only i could see. i really respect you for that. thanx for speaking up.

  2. Outstanding look at relationships.

  3. You've used "looses" when you meant "loses".

  4. Great entertaining article, but in your final point? Looses/Loses.

  5. Excellently put. Yet another reason to love the series.

  6. Great 14 yo daughter and I rediscovered "Hart to Hart" from the 80's and I told her that I love that show because they really Love each other, and act like it! it is so rare on TV or in the movies these days to find a couple portrayed who genuinely love and respect eachother

  7. An insightful bit of film theory. Well done!

  8. Very good points!

  9. This is very insightful, and a testament to the talent and hard work of the guys at Pixar!

    I was never sure about the importance of the Woody/Bo Peep thing. She was never a motivating factor for him. In the first movie Woody's drive was never "I have to get back to Bo!". And in the second movie, for a while in the second act he was ready to go to Japan with Jessie and the others, and didn't seem to give Bo a second thought. She was just another one of his friends. So I got the sense that their romance never really got past the fledgling stages.

    Still, excellent post!

  10. Awesome article. You make some great points. BTW found this via IMDB. Good job!

  11. Brilliant article, and so very true. One of the reasons I love Pixar over most other writers and companies is the reality they give all of their films. It doesn't matter if it's toys, cars or a bleeping robota, they all have very human aspects that often come across as mroe human than their non-CGI counterparts.

  12. Fantastic insight! I really felt the pain when Woody remembers losing Bo Peep.

    I will watch the Toy Story trilogy with new eyes now. Thanks!

  13. Thank you so much for your insightful post. I think the wonderful thing about ALL Pixar films is that they have a child's sense of wonderment backed up by adult sentiment. They truly are films for all. I was 9 when the first Toy Story film came I'm 24 and I love them just as much as I did them....if not more so! Thanks again!

  14. Amazing article. Just going through a breakup and this is spot on.

    Nitpicky point: Love at first "site?" carries a rather different meaning than love at first "sight."

  15. Wow, what a great post. I had never really thought of the films from that perspective. Just shows that the people at Pixar are, probably, the best writers in Hollywood.

  16. Yet another reason why Pixar movies are great. Thanks for the close look at these relationships!

  17. "What’s wrong with just letting boy and girl get each other and then having them go off to face the world together as a team? That’s the way real love goes."

    I would love to see this happen more often in films. It boggles me sometimes that moviemakers on the whole seem to have no grasp of what real romance is, what it does, and how it develops and progresses. Even worse, they seem to have the twisted idea that "contented" means "boring" or, even worse, "imperceptive." This misses the truth of it as much as "happily-ever-after" does, if not more so.

  18. Plus, Spanish Buzz was less restrained in professing his love for Jessie, which couldn't have hurt their relationship.

  19. I wish my sister-in law would have lived out your last point. She left my brother because he had a stroke that changed his personality. It is sad when people won't live out their marriage vows "for better or worse"; I guess she really didn't mean it.

  20. Insightful analysis! I think Bo's love for Woody was pretty well realized. She was staunch in her belief that Woody wouldn't kill Buzz or turn evil, even though she was astonished to see him holding up Buzz's arm in Sid's house. I admit, though, that I was hoping Andy's mom had donated Bo Peep to the same pre-school or the same little girl as the rest of the toys when Molly outgrew her. I wanted Woody to be happy, too. But I still adored the ending and thought it was perfect. Great blog post!

  21. Why are people always praising Pixar movies? I found the Toy Story films, Toy Story 3 in particular, to be extremely mediocre and preposterously overrated. How people are even taking time to learn these characters’ names is beyond me.

    First off, the characters in the Toy Story films are not being treated with respect by the writers and directors. Their only function in the movie is to be funny, and thus they are constantly seen doing stupid things and most of them spend more time being chewed on by drooling babies than demonstrating any character development, whatsoever. (And if there are still people stupid enough to claim that Pixar loves children it should be more than apparent how very stupid that is when you look at how children are actually being portrayed in this movie)

    The lack of character development or complex personalities in this film becomes even more conspicuous when you analyze some of the main characters.

    Let’s focus on Woody and Buzz Lightyear as they are no doubt the two most notable characters. In fact, they are the two only characters that are worth noticing at all seeing as the rest of the many toys only function as some kind of stupid mass of insignificant side-characters with about one stereotypical personality treat each. And like any mass, they just agree with whoever spoke last, or in this movie, Buzz Lightyear, not because it makes sense at the time but because its required for the plot to move on.

    But okay let’s focus on Woody. Woody is the same whiny, sensitive doll he was in the other two movies. Basically the story of Toy Story 3 is as following. The toys are worried about Andy not wanting them anymore, you know, like in the other fucking two movies! And *again* Woody is the only who believes in Andy and *again* he fails to convince the other toys with buzz l in the lead that Andy still loves them. How very familiar! If Pixar was ever once praised for always coming up with original stories for their sequels or in this case their sequels sequel then surely this should prove that – I don’t even have to finish that sentence.

    Nonetheless, this character doesn’t develop because the plot requires him to stay the same. How about Buzz Lightyer? Well, Buzz Lightyers only actual character development is not more complex than the switching of the button on his back. Literally. And I think the fact that he spends half of the movie as some kind of Spanish stereotype speaks volumes about the writer’s complete disregard for personalities.
    But what I hate the most about this movie, and most Pixar movies, is how they always have bad guy. They rely on evil antagonists in much the same way James Cameron relies on extra effects. They are always there to push the plot forward. But the last thing we wanna teach kids that all the evil attributes can just be subscribed to one person who can consequently be blamed for all problems. That the kind of simplistic, unrealistic view of the world modern media is trying to move away from!

    Lets focus on some by far more sophisticated but comparably underrated movies. In Bolt the only actual antagonist is Hollywood and the shallow entertainment industry it represents. As such, Bolt is about the importance of being yourself rather than a character to be consumed through media. In How To Train Your Dragon, the enemy is prejudgment and prejudice. Against the animal kingdom. There is a very important message here about understanding and trying to coexist peacefully with nature.

    Shame on you Pixar. You have fallen behind by almost every standard. No, I tell you. To find good movies you will have to look beyond the mainstream critics and their subjective reviews. Is there some kind of Pro-Pixar law that says that everything the self-righteous company shits out has to be glorified renaissance paintings.

  22. Very good comments!! But you forgot the most important love relationship present in the three movies!! It's not the love between male - female, but anyway is a love relationship, and is incredibly well developed in the movies, deep and inspiring!! The love between Woody and Andy!!

  23. Sounds like carlminez is upset. :)

    If you don't like it then GTFO.

  24. I still want to cry when I remember the beginning of Toy Story 3 and they are recounting those they lost. I like to pretend that they sent her to the same daycare, and she's just lost in storage... I like to pretend that someday, maybe when Woody's new owner grows up and puts him in storage, Bo Peep will magically be there waiting.

    But she probably won't, and that's part of what makes these movies so real. Breaks my heart, though!

  25. Very well-thought insight into the relationships. I came here from Lee Unkrich's Twitter, so the makers certainly appreciated. I always respected the fact that Pixar didn't treat relationships as mere plot points. They show love as understated and understood, none of the maudlin posturing seen in quite a few media pitched to young girls (& boys too).

    As for Mr. Carlminez, I normally detest comments made as a response to another, less happy, comment, but I think I'll make an exception.

    Who spit in your bean curd?
    There is a fundamental difference between an overdone story and a timeless story. There is a fundamental difference between flat characters and archetypal characters. They may not have all the moral ambiguity & post-modern identity crises of Bolt or Dragon, but they are real, and in an epic that has no time for the type of layers to which you've alluded. Notice I didn't say -quantity-. They HAVE layers.

    I'm trying to think of a flat moment in all three movies with Buzz or Woody, & it's just not coming up. You say 'whiny', but he has the air of an old guard that remembers the glory days & has faith they will come back. He's conflicted between his own safety, his responsibility to the others, & his unfailing love for Andy. The fact that Buzz gets 'reset' each film attributes to how many different directions one distinct personality can go. Look at 'demo mode' Buzz from 3 & compare him to the original deluded Buzz. He's darker, more hardened, but 's STILL Buzz.

    The main way this is all gleaned is by being willing to go along with the characters & giving oneself to the story. I would say that you Sir do not sound like the person to stop looking at a story like some philosophical/social statement, but that would be making assumptions about your character. That is a bad way to form an argument. Pixar films are to be viewed with wonder and openness first, then with the harsher, critical, adult eye.

    As for villains, I will not get into the philosophical debate about the compulsion to personify evil in stories & how that relates to humanity's basic mental/spiritual needs. I'll leave that to Tim Keller. I will say, that while Pixar's villains are all tangible characters, they are not the Dastardly Whiplash one-notes. As C.S. Lewis puts it, 'there is no bad for badness' sake'. Each character from Sid to Munch, AUTO, and Lotso, operates out of a plausible mindset, and -to them- they are doing what is right. Sid- have fun & be creative. Munch- get back lost respect. AUTO- follow orders. Lotso is almost a textbook Nihilist. How many people do we know in real life that start with the best ideals/motives only for them to be warped & become corrupted shadows of past selves while still believing they are in the right?

    What is interesting is how the classical heroes deal with the villain made of corrupted ideals. Woody & Buzz save Lotso, without a thought. (THAT should say miles about their character.) He then uses their altruism against them, not just to mustache twirl, but because that was the most logical thing for him to do from his worldview.

    But the viewer needed to step inside that world honestly for it to take effect. Guess you had to be there.

  26. "Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back."

    THANK YOU. This twist in films always irritated me. I could never understand why movies couples just couldn't face external conflict together rather than breaking apart and getting miraculously fixed before the end of the movie.

  27. I noticed Tbelle's comment as im subscribed to the comments board. I'm not in the habit of replying in other people's journals because im not such the author wants to host drama, but Tbelle obviously spent a lot of time with her post so I saw it only fit to at least confirm that i've seen her reply and that I don't understand anything of it.

    Seems like your main argument is that I shouldn't analyze a movie from a deeper, "philosophical" perspective and should instead, just enjoy the ride. Considering the unyielding glorification of TS3, I think I have every reason to criticize this movie on whatever bases I find suitable.

    Besides, that argument could be made about any movie!

    1. Yikes, someone needs an anal surgery.

  28. So much hatred and anger, Carlminez? You need help. I have no idea what experience you had in your life that makes you hate Pixar so much.

    You don't mind Disney films, but you hate Pixar's so much? Are you, by any chance, related to Jeffrey Katzenberg or something?

    While you are entitled to your opinions, that is no way to let the world know about them. There's this other way: it's called by being polite and not a jerk.