The news broke a few weeks back that the release of Toy Story 4 will be delayed. For many fans of the Pixar series of films this will come as a disappointment. For me personally, it is an act of mercy. Now I love the Toy Story movies, allow me to say that up front. The first one came out when I was 9, putting me right in Pixar’s crosshairs as a member of their target demographic. But because of these clearly fictional yet potently charming films I now have a messed-up relationship with real-world toys (a problem that I recognize is so first-world that it’s not even funny, but we all have our cross to bear). That’s right, the Toy Story franchise ruined my relationship with toys.
As mentioned previously, I was right in the demographic sweet spot for Toy Story. I’m sure I saw it a dozen times between the theater and when it was released on VHS. Of course, director John Lasseter and the merry band of story tellers over at Pixar nailed the all-too-real coming of age story of a boy outgrowing the “things” of his childhood without realizing that they were not just things. That film planted the seed that toys might, in fact, be sentient creatures. And not just sentient, but also naïve and blindingly loyal, characteristics that would make any kid a total monster for discarding, destroying, or even underappreciating their toys. So the concept of Toy Story and the execution of the film makers created a fantastic movie. But for me, a little boy with an overactive conscience, it made for a real fucking problem.
My mother, like many good Midwestern moms, was fighting an eternal and unwinnable battle to declutter her house in the face of three boys with varying hobbies and interests. A large plastic garbage bag would appear in our rooms almost monthly and instructions would come down to fill it with stuff for Goodwill. Some things were easy to get rid of, socks with holes and old school supplies were easy to toss. Toy Story never covered pencils, erasers, or clothing and these things generally seemed less likely to have feelings. But when it came time to address the decade of built up toys I had acquired I would become paralyzed. Rummaging through the collection I would find toys that I had not played with for several years. I would grab one, let’s say for the sake of example a plastic dinosaur, and I would hold it over the open mouth of the garbage bag willing my hand to open. But inevitably my mind would race to what that poor, completely inanimate, clearly stamped as a product of China, half-pound piece of plastic was feeling. Was I separating it from its friends? Would it be able to handle my rejection? What if it was never “adopted” by a new kid at Goodwill? These questions of morality were too powerful for my young conscience to tackle. And so, to be safe, the dinosaur and all the other toys would stay right where they were.
Unfortunately, my unhealthy relationship with toys was not restricted to my childhood. Toy Story 2 came and went and probably cemented some of my attitudes towards toys, but I don’t think it did any new damage. But then as I transitioned to full-fledged adulthood Toy Story 3 came along. I didn’t even want to see it. I felt like I was just started to look at toys through a more realistic lens at that point in my life. I didn’t need another visit from Woody, Buzz, and the gang to set me back. But everyone kept crowing about how good it was, so I caved. And dammit, it was good. Really good. Any chance I had of shedding my “toys have feelings” complex was dashed as I watched that fucking final scene where they all hold hands and prepare to face their doom. I’m sure there’s some fancy psychology word for a childhood complex being baked-in by an adult experience, whatever that is, it happened. I am now an adult that can’t throw out a plastic toy (without a considerable amount of guilt at least).
Naturally, a few years later I would become a parent, thrusting the issue to the forefront once more. Several Christmases and kids’ birthdays later and my world is once more filled with colorful plastic toys that I am convinced (not really, but sort of, yeah) have feelings. When I glance around the room I speculate about which celebrities would lend their voice to the different toys. Patrick Warburton seems like a good fit for that little fireman. The toy cow could either be Julie Bowen or Zooey Deschanel, they would both be great. My dream casting for the alphabet learning elephant would be Tom Hardy, but Chris Pratt might be the more marketable choice.
Looking at each of these toys coming out of their boxes, all shiny and new, does not bring me excitement, but instead leads to thoughts about their inevitable demise. How long will this toy’s time in the sun last before it falls out of favor? Which dark corner of the attic will this one collect dust in? What shinier, newer model replaces you? Will I be the one that has to act as toy executioner now that I’m in the parent role?
Maybe there’s a lesson here about commercialism. Maybe there’s a lesson about the disposable nature of our society. Shit, all this might even be about my own mortality. But for sure one of the lessons of my issue with toys is that the Toy Story movies are really damn good. Almost perfect really. Kudos to those involved in transcending their medium and through their work acting as saviors to all toys I have ever owned. Almost all of them are boxed up somewhere, surrounded by their friends and with their feelings fully intact.